Hi, Big Other. I’m new here, at least as a contributor.
My name is James Tadd Adcox. I’m kind of an aesthetics geek. I’m planning, over the next several weeks, to present a series of posts on aesthetic theory, tracing a certain line of aesthetic thought from classical philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Longinus) through the British Empiricists and German Idealists and on through till today, more or less. Along the way, there will be occasional detours for thinkers who seem important for this line of thought, even if they are not themselves primarily or even especially interested in aesthetics—particularly Martin Buber and Walter Benjamin.
While most of what I’m talking about is what you’d call theory, my interest here is ultimately practical. What are we doing as writers, as artists? Are we just prettifying political arguments and pop psychology? Is there something worthwhile that art and literature do that, say, a good argument or case study doesn’t?
It’s possible that I’m going to get quite a few things wrong, because even though I’m really interested in this stuff, I’m going to be trying to cover a lot of territory, comparatively quickly. If there’s something I miss along the way, or if something I say doesn’t seem to make sense, I encourage you to point it out in the comments, & I’ll try to answer you or make appropriate changes to my arguments as I go along.
Before we get into specific aesthetic thinkers, probably we should define our terms.
Aesthetics, as a philosophical term, only dates back to about the eighteenth century, which makes it pretty young, as far as philosophical terms go. On the other hand, we can trace aesthetics as a set of philosophical concerns to before that, to at least Plato and Aristotle. (&, okay, if you want to get into the pre-Socratic philosophers, probably before, but we’ll stop at Plato.)
Aesthetics, in its broadest sense, is the philosophy of sensory perception. That’s what Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), who coined the term aesthetics, meant by it. The word’s derived from the Greek aisthanomai, “to apprehend through the senses.” Baumgarten wanted to distinguish the “confused” field of sensory data from the clear knowledge available to us through reason—though in so doing, he does touch upon questions of art, poetry, etc.
By the time we get to, say, Immanuel Kant—the enlightenment thinker whose work on aesthetics would prove to have the most lasting influence—aesthetics has come to mean “the philosophy of beauty and taste.” Which is not yet the same thing as saying that aesthetics is the philosophy of art. Kant has very little to say about art in his primary work on aesthetics, the Critique of Judgment; most of his examples in the C of J come from the natural world, stuff like flowers & mountains.
Also, I guess he did some stuff about ethics? And has kind of a funny name, but we’ll pass over that in silence.
Kant distinguishes between the aesthetic of the beautiful and the aesthetic of the sublime. He’s not the first to make this distinction; the Englishman Edmund Burke has already written his Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful by this point (& I plan to argue that Burke gets a few things right that Kant gets wrong). Still, Kant’s version of the beautiful & the sublime is the analysis that turned out to be the most influential, and is worth a brief overview, here at the beginning.*
The Beautiful is the aesthetic sensation we’re probably more familiar with, at least by name. Kant defined or explained the sensation of Beauty as “purposiveness without purpose,” which means, basically, something that looks like or gives the impression of being designed for a specific purpose, but without apparent purpose. So, for example, a hammer has both purposiveness and purpose; it’s clearly designed for a specific purpose, that of hitting nails. And so a hammer, generally speaking, is not thought of as beautiful. However, if there are gold designs and inscriptions and so forth all over the hammer, those might be beautiful: they seem to have been designed purposively, but we can’t discern their purpose. Another way of putting this is that to whatever degree a thing is useful, it can’t be beautiful; or, still better, beautiful things don’t look useless, except for the fact that they are.
The sublime is maybe a little trickier. The sublime is the aesthetic sensation of pleasurable terror, or pleasurable incomprehension, a sort of, as Kant defines it, alternation between pleasure and pain. Not as, like, bodily pain—not masochism—but an aesthetic pain, a pain that arises from our perception of something outside us. The sublime tends to refer to things that we cannot, in any real sense of the word, comprehend. Things that threaten to swallow us up. Things that we would often rather not think about in their wholeness—because, frankly, we can’t imagine them in their wholeness, and that’s pretty terrifying. Mountains can be sublime. The ocean can be sublime. Cheesecake or, like, hair product cannot, under pretty much any circumstances, be sublime, no matter what a commercial tells you.
Let’s try a thought experiment. I want you to try to do this as honestly as possible. Close your eyes, and try to picture the ocean. (You can open your eyes and keep reading once you’ve got it) Got it? Okay, now instead of, like, a picture of the ocean, a snapshot, try to picture the whole ocean, all at once…. Now consider that the thing you’re picturing, and calling a picture of the whole ocean, is really just a picture of a globe, a miniature model of the ocean. Try again. Do not picture a globe of the ocean. Picture the whole thing, all at once, bigger than you, bigger than this room or this city or the continent we’re on right now.
If you do that right, you should get a pretty distinct sensation of the sublime.
Of course, picturing the whole ocean, all at once, is impossible.
After Kant, Hegel narrows down the concept of aesthetics a bit further, to mean “the philosophy of art.” And one can see, for that matter, how Kant’s definition of Beauty as “purposiveness without purpose” makes more sense when talking about a painting (which we know, quite clearly, that someone purposively created) than about a flower (which we might merely suspect was purposively created, if we’re of a spiritual bent, or which might only give the impression of purposive creation).
In the modern usage of the word, we can define aesthetics in the broad sense as “the philosophy of art,” and in a narrower sense as “the values of a particular kind or category of art.” So that we can talk about the aesthetics of architecture, for example, or the aesthetics of Modernism vs. the aesthetics of Postmodernism. More narrowly still, we can talk about a particular artist or writer working “within the (or a) surrealist aesthetic,” “within the (or a) New Sincerist aesthetic,” etc. Or we can attempt to define the aesthetic of a particular writer or artist, which is to say, the guiding artistic values of said writer/artist.
Next up in the series, I want to look more closely at a couple of pre- or proto-aestheticians, Plato and Aristotle and the 1st century writer Longinus, and see how they set up certain problems that will persist once we get to aesthetics proper in the eighteenth century.
I’d like to offer a quick word of thanks to Walter Ben Michaels and especially Nicholas Brown, both of whom have talked through a lot of these ideas with me and who have helped to clarify a lot of my thinking on the subject. Thanks as well to John Madera, for offering these posts space on Big Other.
*Naturally, I’ll come back to Kant later on in the series.