History of Aesthetics, by Szu-Hsien Lee


- Begins with Plato; the famous aesthetic judgment was the beginning of wonder about imitation.

- Pythagoras and his Order discovered the dependence of musical intervals on the ratios of the lengths of stretched strings, generalized this discovery into a theory about the elements of the material world.



Plato ("Mimesis")


Plato's principal discussions are in the Ion, Symposium,Republic, the Sophist and Laws, and the Phaearus.


1. Art and craft

- Plato: the fine arts -- visual arts (painting, sculpture, architecture), literary arts (epic, lyric, dramatic poetry) mixed musical arts (dance and song) -- belong in the more general class of "craft".

- craft: acquisitive and productive; productiveis subdivided into

1) production of actual objects

2) production of images.


2. What is imitation?

- Images, which imitate their originals but cannot fulfill their function, are further subdivided:

(1) genuine likeness, with the same properties as his model.

(2) apparent likeness, or semblance, which merely looks like the original.

- Problem: If all created things are imitations of their eternal archetypes, or "forms," Plato sees also to regard paintings, dramatic poems, and songs as imitations or images. It places the arts at the second remove from the reality of the forms, on the lowest of the four levels of cognition, imagining.

- Why imitators changes reality to make it look better or semblances? They seek those images that will appear beauty.


3. What is beauty? what is beneficial or what pleases through the senses of hearing and sight; beautiful things are made with care in the due proportion of part to part, by mathematical measurement.


4. Art and Knowledge: Do the arts contain or convey knowledge?

- Knowledge is a grasp of the eternal forms; Plato clearly denies it to the arts, as imitations of imitations.

- On the other hands, a work of art that embodies beauty has some direct relation to one form. If the artist inspired by the Muses, he may have a kind of insight that goes beyond ordinary knowledge.

- The competent judge must have

1) a knowledge of the nature of the original

2) a knowledge of the correctness of the copy

3) a knowledge of the excellence with the copy


5. Art and Morality: for Plato, the supreme crafts (arts) are those with indispensable means of character education, which is able to make men better and more virtuous.

- Problem: What effects the arts have on people?

1) there is the enjoyability of art. the pleasures art gives are pure, unalloyed, and harmless. Dramatic poetry, the pleasures are to be condemned for their unworthy effect on character.

2) Plato thinks the literary imitation of evil conduct is an implicit invitation to imitate the conduct in one's life. Music composed in enervation modes must also be replaced by a suitable kind.



Aristotle: Theory-- Poetics (347-342 BC)


1. The art of Poetry

- He defines the arts of poetry:

1) He assumes a distinction between three kinds of "thought:" knowing , doing, and making.

2) Imitation is one kind of making -- representation of objects or events. The imitative art divides into

(1) the art of imitating visual appearances by means of color and drawing

(2) the art of poetry, the imitation of a human action through verse, song, and dance.

3) Thus the art of poetry is distinguished from painting by its medium (words, melody, rhythm), and from verified history of philosophy by virtue of the object it imitated.

- Two species of the poetic art: drama and epic poetry (tragedy, distinguished from comedy).


2. The Pleasure of Imitation:

- Two motives give rise to tragedy:

1) imitation is natural

2) recognizing of imitation is naturally pleasurable to man

- The function of tragedy must be to provide a certain kind of enjoyable experience -- the "proper pleasure" of tragedy.

- Tragedies' proper pleasure is the pleasure that comes from pity and fear by means of imitation.

- So, he resolves part of Plato's problem: he takes the basic aesthetic pleasure as a cognitive one.


3. The Pleasure of beauty: tragedy also grows out of our natural disposition to "melody and rhythm."--which may be taken as pleasure in beauty in general.


4. the Universal: If the function of tragic poetry is to provide a certain species of enjoyment, we can then inquire the features of a particular work that will promote or inhibit this enjoyment. The behavior that is motivated in accordance with psychological laws, is what Aristotle calls "universal."


5. The Catharsis (most important concept):

- Aristotle's theory of Catharsis is not about the immediate pleasure of tragedy but about its deeper psychological effects (through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions).

- Thus he answerss Plato's second objection to poetry: poetry helps men to be rational. The immoral effects of tragedy are not to be feared, since the finest ones will have to show a kind of moral progress if they are to be structurally capable of moving the spectator tragically.



The Later Classical Philosophers


1. Stoicism:

- The Stoics were much interested in poetry and in problems of semantics and logic.

- The Stoics held that beauty depends on the arrangement of parts. The delight in beauty was connected with the virtue that expresses itself in an ordered life, with decorum.

- The Stoics emphasized the moral benefit of poetry as its chief justification and held that it might allegorize true philosophy.


2. Epicureanism:

- Philodemus.

1) On Music: argues that music by itself (apart from the words) is incapable either of arousing emotions or of effecting ethical transformations of the soul (which was called "formalism" later).

2) On Poems: poetic goodness is not determined either by the moral-didactic aim, by the pleasure of technique and form, or by a mere addition of the two, but by a unit of form and content.

- Horace: discusses many questions of style and form.


3. Plotinus (529 A.D) : Neoplatonism; 3 tractates deal especially with aesthetic matters: On Beauty, On the Intellectual Beauty, and How the Multiplicity of the Ideal-Forms Came into Being.

- Hypostatsis:

1) First, behind the visible world, stands " the one" which is ultimate reality, beyond all conception and knowledge.

2) Second hyphsitasis, reality is "intellect," or "mind".

3)Third, it is the "all-soul" or principle of creativity an life.


- Plotinus answered the Stoics' "Beauty is symmetry:"

1) simple sense qualities, and also moral qualities, can have beauty though they cannot be symmetrical; an objet can lose some of its beauty without losing any symmetry. Symmetry is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of beauty. It is not beauty but participation in ideal-form. When an object becomes unified, beauty enthrones itself.

2) In the experience of beauty, the soul finds joy in recognize in the object and "affinity" to itself; for in this affinity it becomes aware of its own participation in ideal-form and its divinity.


- Plotinus speaks of nature as offering a loveliness that cannot help but lead the admiring contemplator to thought of the higher beauties that are reflected there. He reminds us that earthly and visible beauty may distract us from the infinite, that "authentic beauty," or "beyond-beauty," is invisible.

The Middle Age


Churches were somewhat doubtful of beauty and the arts. But Despite the danger of idolatry, sculpture and painting became accepted as legitimate aids to piety, and literature became accepted as part of education in the liberal arts.


1. St. Augustine (On the beautiful and Fitting):

- The key concept in his theory are unity, number, equality, proportion and order. Unity is the basic notion; number is fundamental both to being and to beauty; number gives rise to order; from order comes a second-levle kind of unity, the emergent unity of heterogeneous wholes, harmonized or made symmetrical through internal relations of likeness between the parts.

- He also wrestled with the problem of literary truth. The propose a rather sophisticated distinction between different sorts of lying or deception. The fictional character could not be real and does not pretend to be real by his own will, but only follow the will of the poet.


2. St. Thomas Aquinas:

- Goodness is one of the "transcendentals" in his metaphysics. Teh pleasant is one of the divisions of goodness.

- Beauty is what pleasese on being seen. "Seeing" extends to all cognitive grasp; the perceptin of beauty is a kin do fknowing. Since cognitin consists i abstracting the form that makes an object what it is, beauty depends on the form.


3. The Theory of Interpretation:

- The consuming tasks of the early Fathers required a method of exegetical interpretation. The method, allegorizing Jewish scriptures, is by Philo of Alexandria.

- Origen, who adopted the method, distinguished three levels of meaning in scripture: the literal, the moral, and the spiritual or mystical.

- It's developed by John Cassian: literally (historically); allegorical (typical); tropological (moral), and anagogical level. The last 3 levels are sometimes called the "allegorical" or "spiritual" meaning. The literal meaning also includes metaphorical statements. The second-level meanings are a function of the first level, and a first-level meanings can always be found if metaphor is included in it.

- Christian thinkers tended to hold that nature itself must carry the marks or signs of its origin and be a symbolic embodimemtn of the Word. Thus, nature becomes an allegory, and every natural object a symbol of something beyond. They initiated reflection on the general problem of interpreting works of art, and they showed the possibility of a broad philosophy of symbolic forms, in which all art might be understood as a kid of symbolism.



The Renaissance: Platonism and the creation of a vigorous Neoplatonism ( (15-16th ct)


1. Theory of Contemplation: addressed by Marsilio Ficino, based on Plato's Phaedo. In contemplation, the soul withdraws to some extent from the body into a purely rational consciousness of the Platonic forms. This inward concentration is required for artistic creation, which involves detachment from the real, and also is required for the experience of beauty.


2. Painting:

- Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da vinci, and Albrecht Durer establish a states for painting within the liberal arts, separating it from the other manual crafts among which it had been classified throughout the medieval period.

- The painter requires a special talent and skill. He needs a liberal education and a knowledge of human affairs and human nature. He must be a scientist, in order to follow the laws of nature and produce accurate representations of natural events and human actions. His scientific knowledge must be basically mathematical, for the theory of proportions and the theory of linear perspective are mathematical studies.


3. Music: Zarlino, Galilei: the music theorists sought for a vocal music that would attain the powerful emotional and ethical effects attributed to Greek music. The stressed the importance of making the music follow the text, to intensify the meanings of the words.


4.Poetry: Renaissance poetics was dominated by Aristotle and Horace. The Aristotelian Catharisis and Plato's condemnation of the poets were central and recurrent topics.



The Enlightenment: Cartesian Rationalism (17-18th ct)


1. Cartesian:

- Descartes's epistemological method (Cartesian): search for clarity of concept, rigor of deduction, and intuitive certainty of basic principles penetrated the realm of critical theory.

- Cartesian and Aristotelian elements combined in the concepts of reason and nature, which became central to all theories of the arts, -- the new rationalism. These rules could be given a more solid foundation by deduction from a basic self-evident axiom, such as the principle that art is imitation of nature -- where nature comprised the universal the normal the essential, the characteristic, the ideal.

- The Problem of the rules: the controversy over the authority and infallibility of the rules reflected a conflict between reason and experience. For example, in drama, there must be rules, but the rules themselves are only probable and rest in part upon experience. ... In music, the conflict between reason and experience appeared in controversies over harmony and consonance, such as the avoidance of parallel fifths. The followers of Zarlino insisted on a mathematical basis for acceptable chords; the followers of Galilei were more willing to let the ear be the judge.


2. Toward an unified aesthetics:

- Baumgarten aimed to provide an account of poetry as involving a particular form of cognition, -- sensory cognition. The "extensive clarity" of a poem consists in the number of clear ideas combined in it, and the rules for making or judging poetry have to do with ways in which the extensive clarity of a poem may be increased or diminished. Its basic principle is still the imitation of nature.

- Lessing looked for the specific individual potentialities and values of painting and poetry in their own distinctive mediums. The medium of an art is the "signs" it uses for imitation; painting and poetry turn out to be radical different. Consisting of shapes and colors, side by side painting is best at picturing objects and visible properites, and can only indirectly suggest actions; poetry is just the opposite. When a secondary power of an art is made primary, it cannot do its best work.



The Enlightenment: Empiricism (17th, 18th)

-- the investigation of the psychological effects of art and to the aesthetic experience


1. The Imagination:

- Among the rationalists, the imagination played little or no role in knowledge. But Bacon (Advancement of Learning, 1605) placed the imagination as a faculty alongside memory and reason, then assigned poetry to it, as history and philosophy were assigned to the other faculties.

- Thomas Hobbes states that the mind's "train" of thought are guided by a general principle of association. He defined:

1)"simple imagination" as "decaying sense"

2) the phantasms, or images, that remain when the physiological motions of sensation cease.

3) "Compound imagination" creates novel images by rearranging old ones.

- The theory of the accociation was noted by Lock as a pathological feature of the understanding.

- The theory of the association of ideas was developed into a systematic psychology by Hume (Treatise of Human Nature, 1740) and Hartley (Observations on Man, 1749).

1) In Hume, it becomes a powerful principle for explaining many mental operations.

2) In Hartley, associationism played a crucial role in 18th-ct attempts to explain the pleasures of art.


2. The problem of Taste:

- The investigation of the psychological effects of art developed along two paths:

1) the search for an adequate analysis and explanation of certain basic aesthetic qualities -- beautiful and sublime.

2) an inquiry into the nature and justification of critical judgment, the problem of "taste".

- Shaftesbury:

1) The harmony is perceived as beauty, also perceived as virtue. He gave the name "moral sense" to " inward eye" that grasps harmony in both its aesthetic and ethical forms.

2) He described that disinterestedness as a characteristic of the aesthetic attitude.

3) The concept to the sublime as an aesthetic quality distinct from beauty.

- Joseph Addison conceived taste as simply the capacity to discern those three qualities that give rise to " the pleasures of the imaginations," -- greatness (sublimity), uncommonness (novelty), and beauty.

- Francis Hutcheson: the sense of beauty is the power to frame the idea of beauty when confronted with those qualities of objects suited to raise it.

- David Hume: it is natural to seek for a standard of taste. But there will always be areas within which preference is due to temperament, age, culture, and similar factors unchangeably by argument. There is no objective standard by which such differences can be rationally resolved.


3. The Aesthetic qualities: (beauty and sublimity, foundations of taste)

- Edmund Burke (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the sublime and Beautiful, 1757) argues two levels, phenomenological and physiological.

1) phenomenological: The feeling of the sublime ("astonishment" without actual danger) involves a degree of horror. Any object that can excite the ideas of pain and danger, or is associated with such objects or has qualities that can operate in a similar way, can be sublime. Beauty is response to female beauty, minus lust, and objects can give the feeling of beauty. The same scene can be both beautiful and sublime.

2) physiological: What enables the perceptual qualities to evoke the feelings of beauty and sublimity? They do so by producing physiological effects like those of actual love and terror.


- The achievements of empiricists reached by Archibald Alison (Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, 1790). He abandoned the hope for simple formulas of beauty and resolved the pleasure of taste into the enjoyment of following a train of imaginations. No special sense is required, the principles of association explain everything.



German Idealism


1. Kant (Critique of Judgment, 1790, essential reading) became the first modern philosopher to make his aesthetic theory an integral part of philosophic system. He aimed to link the worlds of nature and freedom.

- Analysis of Judgments of Taste: judgments of beauty (judgments of taste) are analyzed in terms of the four "moments" of the table of categories: relation, quantity, quality, and modality.

1) The judgment of taste does not subsume a representation under a concept, but states a relation between the representation and a special disinterested satisfaction, a satisfaction independent of desire and interest.

2) The judgment of taste, though singular in logical form, lays title to universal acceptance, unlike a report of mere sensuous pleasure, which imposes no obligation to agree.

3) aesthetics satisfaction is evoked by an object that is purposive in its form, though in fact it has no purpose or function. It has "purposiveness without purpose."

4) the beautiful is claimed by the judgment of taste to have a necessary reference to aesthetic satisfaction: not that when we find ourselves moved in this was by an object we can guarantee that all others will be similarly move, but at they ought to take the same satisfaction we do in it.

- Analysis of Judgments of Sublime: He explains that sublime arises in two ways:

1) when we are confronted in nature with the extremely vast, our imagination falters in the tastk of comprehending it and we become aware of the supremacy of reason, whose ideas reach toward infinite totality.

2) When we are confronted with the overwhelmingly powerful, the weakness of our empirical selves makes us aware.


2. Schiller: a dramatic poet who uses Kant's aesthetic theories.

- He developed a neo-Kantian view of art and beauty as the medium through which humanity advances from a sensuous to a rational, and therefrom full human, stage of existence.

- He distinguishes two basic drives in man, the sensuous impulse and the formal impulse. They are synthesized and lifted to a higher plane in what he calls the play impulse, which responds to the living shape or beauty of the world. Play, is a more concrete version of Kant's harmony of imagination and understanding.


3. Schelling:

- He is the first philosopher to claim to have discovered an "absolute standpoint" from which the dualisms and dichotomies of Kant's epistemology could be overcome.

- He is the first since Plotinus to make art and beauty the capstone of a system. In his Philosophy of Art, "transcendental idealism" becomes "absolute idealism"; art becomes the medium through which the infinite "ideas" become embodied in finite form, and therefore the medium through which the absolute is most fully revealed.


4. Hegel:

- The most fully articulated idealistic system of aesthetics. In art, the "idea" becomes embodied in sensuous form. This is beauty. When the sensuous is spiritualized in art, there is both a cognitive revelation of truth, and also a reinvigoration of the beholder. Natural beauty is capable on embodying the idea to some degree, but in human art the highest embodiment takes place.

- He also worked out a theory of the dialectical development of art in the history of human culture: from Oriental "symbolic" art, in which the idea is overwhelmed by the medium; through its antithesis, classical art, in which the idea and the medium are in perfect equilibrium; to the synthesis, romantic art, in which the idea dominates the medium and spiritualzati is complete.





Romantic revolution in feeling and taste was fully under way in Schelling's philosophy of nature, and in the new forms of literary creation explored by the German and English poets from about 1890-1910.


1. Emotional expression: the romantics generally conceived of art as essentially the expression of the artist's personal emotions.


2. Imagination: Coleridge provided one of the fullest formulations:

- The fancy is a "mode of memory," operation associatively to recombine the elementary data of sense.

- The imagination is the "coadunating faculty" that dissolves and transforms the data sand creates. novelty and emergent quality.

- The distinction between the primer and secondary imagination is between the unconscious creativity involve both in natural processes and in all perception and the conscious and deliberate expression this in the artist's creating.


3. Organism: Coleridge distinguished between mechanical and organic form, and his conception of a work of art as an organic whole, bound together by deeper and more subtle untity thatn that explicated in the neoclassic rules and having a vitality that grows from within.


4. Symbolism: work of art as being a symbol. Goethe distinguished allegory (a mechanical combination of universal and particular) and symbol as a concrete unity.

5. Schopenhauer (World as Will and Idea, 1819): the objects of the phenomenal world fall into a hierarchy of types, that embody certain universals or Platonic ideas. Since the idea is timeless, the contemplation of it frees us from subjection to the " principle of sufficient reason," which dominates our ordinary practical and cognitive consciousness, and hence from the constant pressure of the will. In the " pure will-less state," we lose individuality and pain.

6. Nietzsche: He presented a theory of tragedy as arising from the conjunction of two fundamental impulses, which he called the Dionysiam and Apollonian spirits: the one a joyful acceptance of experience, the other a need for order and proportion. The former becomes dominate: tragedy exists not to inculcate resignation and a Buddhist negation of life, by showing the inevitability of suffering, but to affirm life in all its pain, to express the artist's overabundance of will to power.



The Artist and Society


1. Art for Art's sake: From 1820-30, it became the doctrine. Artist as a person with a calling of his own. His primary obligation is to perfect his work, especially its formal beauty, whatever society may expect. This notion stems from the German Romantics.


2. Realism: the theory of realism arose as a broadened convictions of the cognitive duty of literature, a desire to give it an empirical, and even experimental status, as exhibitor of human nature and social condition.


3. Social Responsibility: first fully worked out by the French sociologists. They attacked the idea that art can be end in itself and projected visions of future social borders free of violence and exploitation, in which beauty and use would be fruitfully combined and for which art will help prepare.

4. Tolstoy: A work must be judged by the highest religious criteria of the age. Great art is that which transmits either simple feeling, drawing man together, or the feeling of brotherhood itself.



Contemporary Developments


1. Metaphysical Theories:

- Benedetto Croce (Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, 1902): Aesthetics is the "science" of images or intuitive knowledge, as logic is knowledge of concepts -- both being distinguished from "practical knowledge." Here his celebrated formula, " intuition = expression," on which many principles of his aesthetics are based.

- Henri Bergson: Intuition enables us to penetrate the ultimate reality which our specializing intellects inevitably distort.


2. Naturalism:

- George Santavana argues against a sharp separation of "fine" from "useful" arts ad gives a strong justificatoi of fine art as both a model and an essential constituent of this life of reason.

- Jong Dewey begun to reflect upon the "consummatory" aspect of experience. He treated art as the "culmination of nature," to which scientific discovery is a handmaiden. Art is expression, in the sense that in expressive objects there is a "fusion" of "meaning " in the present quality.


3. Semiotic Approaches

- C. G. Jung suggested that the basic symbolic elements of all literature are "primordial images" or "archetypes" that emerge from the "collective unconscious" of man.

- Ernst Cassirer: Man's world is determine in fundamental ways, by the very sbublic forms in which he represents it to himself.

Cassirer's philosophy exerted a strong influence upon two American philosophers

1) Wilbur Marshall Urban (Language and Reality, 1939), argued that aesthetic symbols are insight symbols of a specially reelatory sort.

2) Susanne Langer (Feeling and Form, 1953), developed a theory of art as a "presentational symbol" or "semblance". She argued that music is not self-expression or evocation but symbolizes the morphology of human sentience and hence articulated the emotional life of man.


4. Marxism-Leninism: Dialectical materialism, formulated by Karl Marx and friedrich Engels. Art belongs to the cultural "superstructure" and is determined by sociohistorical conditions, especially economic conditions. From this it is argued that a connector can always be traced between a work of art and its sociohistorical matrix.


5. Phenomenology and Existentialism:

- First developed by Edmend Husserl. In the 20th-ct, a strong emphasis on the autonomy of the work of art independent of both its creator and its perceivers. This emphasis on the autonomy of the work of art has been support by Gestalt psychology.

- Mikel Dufrenne (closer to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre) finds that the basic difference lies in the "expressed world" of each aesthetic object, its own personality, which combines the "being in itself" of a presentation with the "being for itself" of consciousness and contains measureless depths that speak to the depths of ourselves as persons.

- the "Existential Phenomentalism" of Heidegger nd Sartre suggests the central concept of "authentic existence," which art might be said to further.


6. Empiricism: the contemporary empiricist resolving the traditional problems of philosophy into two types of questions:

1)Questions about matters of fact, to be answered by empirical science. There are two lines.

(1) Gestalt psychology (Arnheim). The studies of perceptual phenomena and the laws of Gestalt perception have illumined the nature and value of form in art.

(2) Freudian psychology.

2) Questions about concepts and methods, to be answered by philosophical analysis. Analytical aesthetics, in both its"reconstructionist" and "ordinary language" forms. This school considers the task of philosophical aesthetics to consist in the analysis of the language and reasoning of critics, to clarify language, to resolve puzzles due to misapprehensions about language, and to understand its special functions, methods, and justifications.