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The nature and scope of aesthetics

A problem is encountered at the outset, however, for terms such as beautiful and ugly seem too vague in their application and too subjective in their meaning to divide the world successfully into those things that do, and those that do not, exemplify them. Almost anything might be seen as beautiful by someone or from some point of view; and different people apply the word to quite disparate objects for reasons that often seem to have little or nothing in common.

It may be that there is some single underlying belief that motivates all of their judgments. It may also be, however, that the term beautiful has no sense except as the expression of an attitude, which is in turn attached by different people to quite different states of affairs. Moreover, in spite of the emphasis laid by philosophers on the terms beautiful and ugly, it is far from evident that they are the most important or most useful either in the discussion and criticism of art or in the description of that which appeals to us in nature.

To convey what is significant in a poem, we might describe it as ironic , moving, expressive, balanced, and harmonious. Likewise, in characterizing a favourite stretch of countryside, we may prefer to describe it as peaceful, soft, atmospheric, harsh, and evocative , rather than beautiful. At the same time, there seems to be no clear way of delimiting the class in question—not at least in advance of theory. Aesthetics must therefore cast its net more widely than the study either of beauty or of other aesthetic concepts if it is to discover the principles whereby it is to be defined. We are at once returned, therefore, to the vexing question of our subject matter: What should a philosopher study in order to understand such ideas as beauty and taste?

Three broad approaches have been proposed in answer to that question, each intuitively reasonable:. In his famous treatise On the Sublime and Beautiful , Edmund Burke attempted to draw a distinction between two aesthetic concepts, and, by studying the qualities that they denoted, to analyze the separate human attitudes that are directed toward them.

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In more recent times, philosophers have tended to concentrate on the concepts of modern literary theory—namely, those such as representation, expression, form, style, and sentimentality. The study invariably has a dual purpose: A philosophical study of certain states of mind —responses, attitudes , emotions—that are held to be involved in aesthetic experience.

Hegel, the Phenomenologists, and Ludwig Wittgenstein more precisely, the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations []. In considering these theories some of which are discussed below a crucial distinction must be borne in mind: Philosophy is not a science, because it does not investigate the causes of phenomena.

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It is an a priori or conceptual investigation, the underlying concern of which is to identify rather than to explain. In effect, the aim of the philosopher is to give the broadest possible description of the things themselves, so as to show how we must understand them and how we ought to value them. The two most prominent current philosophical methods—Phenomenology and conceptual analysis—tend to regard this aim as distinct from, and at least in part prior to, the aim of science.

For how can we begin to explain what we have yet to identify? While there have been empirical studies of aesthetic experience exercises in the psychology of beauty , these form no part of aesthetics as considered in this article. Indeed, the remarkable paucity of their conclusions may reasonably be attributed to their attempt to provide a theory of phenomena that have yet to be properly defined.

The philosophical study of the aesthetic object. This approach reflects the view that the problems of aesthetics exist primarily because the world contains a special class of objects toward which we react selectively and which we describe in aesthetic terms. The usual class singled out as prime aesthetic objects is that comprising works of art. If we adopt such an approach, then there ceases to be a real distinction between aesthetics and the philosophy of art; and aesthetic concepts and aesthetic experience deserve their names through being, respectively, the concepts required in understanding works of art and the experience provoked by confronting them.

Thus Hegel, perhaps the major philosophical influence on modern aesthetics, considered the main task of aesthetics to reside in the study of the various forms of art and of the spiritual content peculiar to each. Much of recent aesthetics has been similarly focussed on artistic problems, and it could be said that it is now orthodox to consider aesthetics entirely through the study of art.

The third approach to aesthetics does not require this concentration upon art. Even someone who considered art to be no more than one manifestation of aesthetic value—perhaps even a comparatively insignificant manifestation—may believe that the first concern of aesthetics is to study the objects of aesthetic experience and to find in them the true distinguishing features of the aesthetic realm.

Unless we restrict the domain of aesthetic objects, however, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain that they have anything significant in common beyond the fact of inspiring a similar interest. This means that we should be compelled to adopt the second approach to aesthetics after all. And there seems no more plausible way of restricting the domain of aesthetic objects than through the concept of art.

The three approaches may lead to incompatible results. Alternatively, they may be in harmony.

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  • Once again, it can only be at the end point of our philosophy that we shall be able to decide. Initially, it must be assumed that the three approaches may differ substantially, or merely in emphasis, and thus that each question in aesthetics has a tripartite form. The third approach to aesthetics begins with a class of aesthetic objects and attempts thereafter to show the significance of that class to those who selectively respond to it.

    The term aesthetic object, however, is ambiguous , and, depending on its interpretation, may suggest two separate programs of philosophical aesthetics.

    Aesthetics Philosophy of the Arts

    This distinction, a legacy of the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, has played a major role in recent Phenomenology. It may be briefly characterized as follows: When someone responds to object O, his response depends upon a conception of O that may, in fact, be erroneous. O is then the material object of his response, while his conception defines the intentional object. A person is frightened by a white cloth flapping in a darkened hall, taking it for a ghost.

    Here, the material object of the fear is the cloth, while the intentional object is a ghost. A philosophical discussion of fear may be presented as a discussion of things feared, but if so, the phrase denotes the class of intentional objects of fear and not the infinitely varied and infinitely disordered class of material objects. In an important sense, the intentional object is part of a state of mind , whereas the material object always has independent and objective existence.

    It is in this sense that the term occurs in the writings of Phenomenologists e. Which of those two approaches should be adopted? We can already see one reason for adopting the approach that puts the aesthetic experience first and examines the aesthetic object primarily as the intentional object of that experience. It is, after all, to experience that we must turn if we are to understand the value of the aesthetic realm—our reason for engaging with it, studying it, and adding to it.

    Until we understand that value, we will not know why we ought to construct such a concept as the aesthetic, still less why we should erect a whole branch of philosophy devoted to its study. A further reason also suggests itself for rejecting the approach to aesthetics that sees it merely as the philosophy of art, because art, and the institutions that sustain it, are mutable and perhaps inessential features of the human condition. While we classify together such separate art forms as poetry, the novel, music , drama , painting , sculpture , and architecture , our disposition to do so is as much the consequence of philosophical theory as its premise.

    Would other people at other times and in other conditions have countenanced such a classification or seen its point? And if so, would they have been motivated by similar purposes, similar observations, and similar beliefs? The only answer to be extracted from Bell is this: In any normal understanding of the words, a traffic warden is a significant form, at least to the motorist who sees himself about to receive a ticket. Moreover, it is of the greatest philosophical importance to attend not only to the resemblances between the art forms but also to their differences.

    It is true that almost anything can be seen from some point of view as beautiful. At the same time, however, our experience of beauty crucially depends upon a knowledge of the object in which beauty is seen. It is absurd to suppose that I could present you with an object that might be a stone, a sculpture, a box, a fruit, or an animal, and expect you to tell me whether it is beautiful before knowing what it is. Features that we should regard as beautiful in a horse—developed haunches, curved back, and so on—we should regard as ugly in a human being , and those aesthetic judgments would be determined by our conception of what humans and horses generally are, how they move, and what they achieve through their movements.

    In a similar way, features that are beautiful in a sculpture may not be beautiful in a work of architecture, where an idea of function seems to govern our perceptions. In every case, our perception of the beauty of a work of art requires us to be aware of the distinctive character of each art form and to put out of mind, as largely irrelevant to our concerns, the overarching category of art to which all supposedly belong. But if that is so, it is difficult to see how we could cast light upon the realm of aesthetic interest by studying the concept of art. Whether or not that concept is a recent invention, it is certainly a recent obsession.

    Medieval and Renaissance philosophers who approached the problems of beauty and taste— e. Thomas Aquinas , Peter Abelard , and even Leon Battista Alberti—often wrote of beauty without reference to art, taking as their principal example the human face and body. The distinctively modern approach to aesthetics began to take shape during the 18th century, with the writings on art of Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Charles Batteux, and Johann Winckelmann and the theories of taste proposed by the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson , Lord Kames Henry Home , and Archibald Alison.

    This approach materialized not only because of a growing interest in fine art as a uniquely human phenomenon but also because of the awakening of feelings toward nature , which marked the dawn of the Romantic movement. Art, for Kant, was not merely one among many objects of aesthetic interest; it was also fatally flawed in its dependence upon intellectual understanding.

    Even without taking that extreme position, it is difficult to accept that the fragile and historically determined concept of art can bear the weight of a full aesthetic theory. Leaving aside the case of natural beauty, we must still recognize the existence of a host of human activities dress, decoration, manners, ornament in which taste is of the essence and yet which seems totally removed from the world of fine art.

    It has been common, following the lead of Batteux, to make a distinction between the fine and the useful arts, and to accommodate the activities just referred to under the latter description; but it is clear that this is no more than a gesture and that the points of similarity between the art of the dressmaker and that of the composer are of significance only because of a similarity in the interests that these arts are meant to satisfy.

    Whichever approach we take, however, there is an all-important question upon the answer to which the course of aesthetics depends: Only beings of a certain kind have aesthetic interests and aesthetic experience, produce and appreciate art, employ such concepts as those of beauty, expression, and form.

    What is it that gives these beings access to this realm? The question is at least as old as Plato but received its most important modern exposition in the philosophy of Kant, who argued, first, that it is only rational beings who can exercise judgment—the faculty of aesthetic interest—and, second, that until exercised in aesthetic judgment rationality is incomplete.

    It is worth pausing to examine these two claims. Kant argued that reason has both a theoretical and a practical employment, and that a rational being finds both his conduct and his thought inspired and limited by reason. The guiding law of rational conduct is that of morality , enshrined in the categorical imperative , which enjoins us to act only on that maxim which we can at the same time will as a universal law. By virtue of practical reason, the rational being sees himself and others of his kind as subject to an order that is not that of nature: Moreover, he looks on every rational being—himself included—as made sacrosanct by reason and by the morality that stems from it.

    The rational being, he recognizes, must be treated always as an end in himself, as something of intrinsic value, and never as a mere object to be disposed of according to purposes that are not its own. The capacity to see things as intrinsically valuable, irreplaceable, or ends in themselves is one of the important gifts of reason. But it is not exercised only practically or only in our dealings with other reasoning beings.

    It may also be exercised contemplatively toward nature as a whole. In this case, practical considerations are held in abeyance , and we stand back from nature and look on it with a disinterested concern. Such an attitude is not only peculiar to rational beings but also necessary to them. Without it, they have only an impoverished grasp of their own significance and of their relation to the world in which they are situated through their thoughts and actions. This disinterested contemplation and the experiences that arise from it acquaint us, according to Kant, with the ultimate harmony that exists between the world and our faculties.

    They therefore provide the guarantee, both of practical reasoning and of the understanding, by intimating to us directly that the world answers to our purposes and corresponds to our beliefs. Disinterested contemplation forms, for Kant, the core of aesthetic experience and the ground of the judgment of beauty.

    He thus concludes 1 that only rational beings have aesthetic experience; 2 that every rational being needs aesthetic experience and is significantly incomplete without it; and 3 that aesthetic experience stands in fundamental proximity to moral judgment and is integral to our nature as moral beings. Modern philosophers have sometimes followed Kant, sometimes ignored him. Rarely, however, have they set out to show that aesthetic experience is more widely distributed than the human race.

    For what could it mean to say of a cow, for example, that in staring at a landscape it is moved by the sentiment of beauty? While a cow may be uninterested, it cannot surely be disinterested, in the manner of a rational being for whom disinterest is the most passionate form of interest. It is in pondering such considerations that one comes to realize just how deeply embedded in human nature is the aesthetic impulse, and how impossible it is to separate this impulse from the complex mental life that distinguishes human beings from beasts.

    This condition must be borne in mind by any philosopher seeking to confront the all-important question of the relation between the aesthetic and the moral. Such considerations point toward the aforementioned approach that begins with the aesthetic experience as the most likely to capture the full range of aesthetic phenomena without begging the important philosophical questions about their nature. Can we then single out a faculty, an attitude, a mode of judgment, or a form of experience that is distinctively aesthetic?

    And if so, can we attribute to it the significance that would make this philosophical enterprise both important in itself and relevant to the many questions posed by beauty, criticism, and art? While there is certainly something of interest to be said along those lines, it cannot be the whole story. Just what kind of distance is envisaged?


    Is the lover distanced from his beloved? If not, by what right does he call her beautiful? Does distance imply a lack of practical involvement? If such is the case, how can we ever take up an aesthetic attitude to those things that have a purpose for us—things such as a dress, building, or decoration?

    But if these are not aesthetic, have we not paid a rather high price for our definition of this word—the price of detaching it from the phenomena that it was designed to identify? He described the recipient of aesthetic experience not as distanced but as disinterested, meaning that the recipient does not treat the object of enjoyment either as a vehicle for curiosity or as a means to an end. Regarding it thus, a person could come to see the Idea that the object expressed, and in this knowledge consists aesthetic appreciation Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung [; The World as Will and Idea ].

    Such thoughts have already been encountered. The problem is to give them philosophical precision. They have recurred in modern philosophy in a variety of forms—for example, in the theory that the aesthetic object is always considered for its own sake, or as a unique individual rather than a member of a class. Those particular formulations have caused some philosophers to treat aesthetic objects as though they were endowed with a peculiar metaphysical status.

    Alternatively, it is sometimes argued that the aesthetic experience has an intuitive character, as opposed to the conceptual character of scientific thought or the instrumental character of practical understanding. The simplest way of summarizing this approach to aesthetics is in terms of two fundamental propositions:.

    The aesthetic object is an object of sensory experience and enjoyed as such: The aesthetic object is at the same time contemplated: The first of these propositions explains the word aesthetic, which was initially used in this connection by the Leibnizian philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in Meditationes Philosophicae de Nonnullis ad Poema Pertinentibus ; Reflections on Poetry.

    The second proposition is, in essence, the foundation of taste.

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    It describes the motive of our attempt to discriminate rationally between those objects that are worthy of contemplative attention and those that are not. Nevertheless, subsequent theories have repeatedly returned to the idea that aesthetic experience involves a special synthesis of intellectual and sensory components, and that both its peculiarities and its value are to be derived from such a synthesis.

    The idea at once gives rise to paradoxes. The most important was noticed by Kant, who called it the antinomy of taste. As an exercise of reason , he argued, aesthetic experience must inevitably tend toward a reasoned choice and therefore must formulate itself as a judgment. Aesthetic judgment, however, seems to be in conflict with itself. It cannot be at the same time aesthetic an expression of sensory enjoyment and also a judgment claiming universal assent.

    Yet all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, seem disposed to make these judgments. On the one hand, they feel pleasure in some object, and this pleasure is immediate, not based, according to Kant, in any conceptualization or in any inquiry into cause, purpose, or constitution.

    But how can this be so? The pleasure is immediate, based in no reasoning or analysis. So what permits this demand for universal agreement? However we approach the idea of beauty, we find this paradox emerging. Our ideas, feelings, and judgments are called aesthetic precisely because of their direct relation to sensory enjoyment. Hence, no one can judge the beauty of an object that he has never encountered. But I cannot take you as my authority for the merits of Leonardo or Mozart if I have not seen or heard works by either artist. It would seem to follow from this that there can be no rules or principles of aesthetic judgment, since I must feel the pleasure immediately in the perception of the object and cannot be talked into it by any grounds of proof.

    It is always experience, and never conceptual thought, that gives the right to aesthetic judgment, so that anything that alters the experience of an object alters its aesthetic significance as well. Such a conclusion, however, seems to be inconsistent with the fact that aesthetic judgment is a form of judgment. When I describe something as beautiful, I do not mean merely that it pleases me: I am speaking about it, not about myself, and, if challenged, I try to find reasons for my view.

    I do not explain my feeling but give grounds for it by pointing to features of its object. I am in effect saying that others, insofar as they are rational, ought to feel exactly the same delight as I feel. Being disinterested, I have put aside my interests, and with them everything that makes my judgment relative to me. In short, the expression aesthetic judgment seems to be a contradiction in terms, denying in the first term precisely that reference to rational considerations that it affirms in the second. On the contrary, it is encountered in one form or another by every philosopher or critic who takes aesthetic experience seriously, and who therefore recognizes the tension between the sensory and the intellectual constraints upon it.

    On the one hand, aesthetic experience is rooted in the immediate sensory enjoyment of its object through an act of perception. On the other, it seems to reach beyond enjoyment toward a meaning that is addressed to our reasoning powers and that seeks judgment from them. Thus criticism, the reasoned justification of aesthetic judgment, is an inevitable upshot of aesthetic experience.


    Yet, critical reasons can never be merely intellectual; they always contain a reference to the way in which an object is perceived. Two related paradoxes also emerge from the same basic conception of the aesthetic experience. Lectures on Fine Art , roughly as follows: Routledge; 1 edition 28 May Language: Be the first to review this item Amazon Bestsellers Rank: Customer reviews There are no customer reviews yet.

    Share your thoughts with other customers. Write a product review. Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon. This book was core reading for the aesthetics module of my philosophy major and I found it to be an engrossing read. Having seen Colin lecture in person it was fantastic to see that the man's colourful and creative intelligence had been well captured onto the page. His style is one that constantly challenges you to think for yourself and I found this book to be an excellent tool, teaching me how to dig out and sculpt my raw feelings on art.

    Informed, lively and, considering the fair depth he goes to on thinkers such as Benedetto Croce, a pleasantly flowing and illuminating read. Your recently viewed items and featured recommendations. View or edit your browsing history. Get to Know Us. Delivery and Returns see our delivery rates and policies thinking of returning an item? See our Returns Policy.