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Classification of Arts and Early Modern Sciences

Early Modern Context

In many ways the early moderns were still in the grips of the Aristotelian worldview. René Descartes (1596–1650), like the Cartesians who followed him, assumed that knowledge is a mathematical mapping of the system or structure of nature. As humanity comes to grips with the order of nature and learns to sort it into kinds, it gains knowledge about nature.

Descartes and most of the early moderns preserve the traditional distinction between the arts and the sciences. Science is acquired by the mind; art is a bodily aptitude appropriate to craftsmen. Thus Descartes notes that oratory and poetry are "gifts of the mind" and hence not properly arts at all (Philosophical Writings, vol. 1, p. 114). It was not until the eighteenth century that a robust separation between the fine and useful arts emerged. Parallel with this core difference between conceptions of science and art, classification within each underwent an increasingly divergent development. This development occurred although one key characteristic of early modern theory of art is that art possesses an essentially intellectual character. Perhaps in response to Cartesian and medieval thinking, advocates sought to establish a place for the arts within the mental realm.

This new development generated some interesting thinking about classification. In both the arts and sciences, classification frequently depended on subject matter. Descartes did not like this method for the sciences, since it emphasized material particularity over mental universality. Thus one finds a significant point of departure for classification in the arts and sciences. Genuine knowledge comes from the application of a unified methodology. Hence Descartes argues that it is inappropriate to separate the sciences on the basis of subject matter, since quality scientists should be applying a single method of thought in all scientific matters. The arts, however, comprise separate and distinct skills. As a result, the arts should be distinguished, studied and mastered individually. Skilled craftsmen specialize; skilled intellects universalize. The arts are those intellectual enterprises that also require a practical component, but the latter should not diminish the fact of the former.

Yet as the eighteenth century unfolds there occurs a startling series of innovations in both the arts and the sciences. As the sciences mature, an understanding of what it means to classify comes into focus. The arts develop an independent character, and theories of art push thinking about the nature of classification in the arts in new directions.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterClassification of Arts and Early Modern Sciences - Aristotelian Background, Medieval Academia, Early Modern Context, Early Modern Classification In The Arts, Early Modern Classification In The Sciences