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A note on some meanings of the term 'aesthetic.'


THERE ARE distinctions, not always properly observed, to be drawn between the adjective `aesthetic' and the noun `a esthetics'. Thus, to make an aesthetic judgement or to have an aesthetic experience is not to do a esthetics, notwithstanding George Sturt's comment: `I might look away to Hindhead and rejoice in the sense of vast warm distances; I might admire the landscape, and practise my a esthetics; but he [Bettesworth] was becking in amongst the potatoes, and it is his point of view, not mine, that has survived and given its tinge to these talks'.[1] Nor is to practise a esthetics, say, to make aesthetic judgements or seek aesthetic experiences although these may contingently or by happy chance occur in the doing of a esthetics, for example as when we might read some particularly fine passage in The Sense of Beauty by Santayana. Confusion is born of the failure to pay proper regard to the differences.

`Aesthetics' denotes a branch of inquiry, more or less controversial depending upon the time and place, and in some quarters a scepticism obtains whether there is any such subject. For the unsceptical, however, `a esthetics' generally denotes a branch of some more extensive or parent discipline, for example of psychology or sociology and most famously it denotes a branch of philosophical inquiry.[2] Whatever discipline, however, a esthetics finds itself to be a branch of, the same problems tend to recur, such as the nature and defining characteristics of art, the meaning works of art are said to have, how they may be judged, valued or interpreted, the nature of imagination and of creativity, the kinds of experience offered by art, &C, though naturally the approach to them is determined by the host discipline concerned.

If this is a esthetics, what does the term `aesthetic' mean? This is a word with a significant history. At different times `aesthetic' has been variously identified with one of three main ideas: the perceptual, the beautiful and the artistic. There is hardly anything of the first, the perceptual, surviving in contemporary usage, except in the negative form, `anaesthetic'.[3] But the other two, the beautiful and the artistic, survive in contemporary usage though none, I believe, is sufficient, either individually or conjunctively, to capture all the contemporary nuances of the term.

Sometimes, just to note a stylistic complication, and not one of any philosophical significance, the word `aesthetic' is used as a substitute for `a esthetics'. For example, we find Croce, or at any rate one of his English translators, speaking of `the science of aesthetic' which would be like speaking of `the science of economic'. One can find the usage in American writing too, with the additional refinement there that the `a' of the diphthong is often dropped to give `esthetic' and `esthetics'.

Of course we cannot be too rigid in distinguishing `a esthetics' from `aesthetic' important though the differences are, since the fortunes of the one, not surprisingly, are to some extent bound up with the fortunes of the other; but this does not mean that the terms are identical in meaning. Nor is this situation in which there is some divergence of meaning between the noun form and adjectival form peculiar to this pair of terms, `a esthetics' and `aesthetic'. Consider for example: `economics' and `economic'; `politics' and `politic'. Thus somebody may be economic with money, meaning anything from careful and prudent to mean and tight-fisted, whereas economics is a body of theory the study of which is not intended to make its students mean or frugal. So far as I know, this outcome is not used as a performance indicator by the Higher Education Funding Councils in their so-called quality assessments of the teaching of economics. Likewise I may decide that it is politic to keep on the right side of a certain colleague but this has nothing to do with the academic study of politics. Or to bring the examples nearer home, a course in a esthetics does not aim to teach the improvement of taste.

The term `aesthetic' was originally derived from the Greek word `aesthesis' meaning `to perceive' and most familiar to us, as I have suggested, in the word `an aesthetic' for an an aesthetic before a surgical operation renders us insensible or unperceiving.

Kant at first defended this original perceptual meaning of the term against changes proposed by a fellow philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten. So in She Critique of Pure Reason, we find a section headed `The Transcendental Aesthetic' where the material discussed is not about art or beauty, which Kant makes separate provision for in his later Critique of Judgement. Rather, what Kant offers under `The Transcendental Aesthetic' is his theory of space and time, which is given early prominence in the First Critique since Kant regarded space and time as structuring the conditions of sense perception. So for Kant `aesthetic' at least in his Critique of Pure Reason, denotes `the science of all the principles of sensibility'.[4] This science was to concern itself with the `capacity for receiving representations . . . through the mode in which we are affected by objects'[5] which sounds like but nevertheless should not be identified with what we would now call the psychology of perception.

Explaining what he means by the term `aesthetic' in a footnote in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant says:

The Germans are the only people who at present use this word to indicate what

others call the critique of taste. At the foundation of this term lies the disappointed

hope, which the eminent analyst, Baumgarten, conceived, of subjecting the criticism

of the beautiful to principles of reason, and so of elevating its rules into a

science. But his endeavours were vain. For the said rules or criteria are, in respect

to their chief sources, merely empirical, consequently never can serve as determinate

laws a priori, by which our judgement in matters of taste is to be directed. It

is rather our judgement which forms the proper test as to the correctness of the

principles. On this account it is advisable to give up the use of the term as designating

the critique of taste, and to apply it solely to that doctrine, which is true

science--the science of the laws of sensibility--and thus come nearer to the language

and the sense of the ancients. . .

or to share it with speculative philosophy, and employ it partly in a transcendental,

partly in a psychological signification.[6]

Baumgarten, on the other hand, proposed to appropriate the word `a esthetics' and in this he was successful, to name his new science of the beautiful. Not the least of Kant's objections to Baumgarten's program me was that, like Wittgenstein, Kant did not believe that there could be a science of the beautiful. He took the view that while indeed we can make aesthetic judgements, there is no science from which such judgements are derived or to which they belong. To make a judgement that something, a rose for example, is beautiful, is to make a judgement of taste.

Notwithstanding Kant's protest, Baumgarten's sense of `aesthetic' survived. It seems to have been introduced into England around I 830, that is, not much more than about 160 years ago. In consequence of this recent introduction of the term into English, all those eighteenth-century British and particularly Scottish philosophers, such as Hume, Reid, Dugald Stewart and Lord Kames, who were engaged in what Kant calls a critique of taste, and whom in our modern histories and textbooks of philosophy we label as `doing a esthetics' had no idea that this was the banner they were labouring under. Terms such as `taste' `genius' `criticism' occur frequently in their works but never the pair `a esthetics' and `aesthetic'.

When `aesthetic' was first introduced into English, its use was resisted. The Oxford Dictionary for example cites the Philological Museum, 1832, as saying:

some writers used `aesthetic' to designate the principles of beauty and ugliness

upon which taste depends. [But] Perception in general to which it properly

referred is something very different from that peculiar and complex modification

of it, which takes cognisance of the beauties of poetry and art. A esthetics would

naturally designate the doctrine of perception in general.

As late as 1859 Sir William Hamilton was making a similar objection, although he conceded that `aesthetic' in Baumgarten's sense had by now established itself in Britain.

It is nearly a century since Baumgarten, a celebrated philosopher of the LeibnihoWolfian

School, first applied the term `Aesthetic' to the doctrine which we vaguely

and periphrastically denominate the Philosophy of Taste, rhe theory of the Fine

Arts, the science of the Beautiful and Sublime, &C, and this term is now in

general acceptation not only in Germany but throughout the other countries of

Europe. The term Apolaustic (from the Greek, to enjoy,) would have been a

more appropriate designation.[7]

Hamilton's protest was in vain. The Concise Oxford Dictionary nowadays defines `aesthetic' as `Belonging to the appreciation of the beautiful; having such appreciation, in accordance with principles of good taste'.

Hegel, who is the next step in the story, held that aesthetic is co-extensive with the entire realm of the beautiful but: `More specifically described, its province is that of art'.[8] This was quite a momentous step leading to the identification of a esthetics with art and the philosophy of art, and generally to the displacement of enquiries into the beautiful in nature.

In line with this, `aesthetic' has increasingly come to be used as a synonym for art, though the ideas which underlie this have not gone unchallenged. Thus Arthur R. Howell protests: `the aesthetic spirit has been limited far too exclusively to the work of art and artists. We behave very differently towards the ethical-religious spirit. When thinking of what is religion and its expression, we do not think only of the religious service . . . Neither is the priest looked upon as the only exponent of its expression'.[9]

Nevertheless the identification of art with the aesthetic has had the upper hand this century. For example, in the work of formalists such as Clive Bell, `aesthetic' is taken to refer to a specific kind of emotion allegedly felt for works of art and only works of art, and caused by the presence in the work of the so-called quality of `significant form'.[10] On this usage it became legitimate to distinguish the aesthetic interest which we might take in a picture from matters of allegedly non-aesthetic interest such as narrative or story! Elsewhere, Bell proclaims that in literature there is `an immense amount of stuff which is not purely aesthetic, which is cognitive and suggestive, and which an ihtelligent bourgeois can understand as well as anyone else'.[11] On these sorts of premisses (or prejudices) Bell also excludes nature as a proper object of aesthetic appreciation, in this respect following He gel.

To the identification of art and the aesthetic we may, I think, trace the following contemporary usage of `aesthetic' as a synonym for `artistic'. For example, some years ago, a newspaper, I think it was the Sunday Times, carried the headline `A esthetics in the sky'; the report below was a discussion of contemporary architecture. This usage of `aesthetic' as a synonym for `artistic' can already be found in the nineteenth century in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Marble Faun, where the phrase `An Aesthetic Company' means a company of artists. Elizabeth Bowen in her book, A Time in Rome, offers a more recent example. Discussing paintings by Claude, Van Heemskerk and Canaletto, which depict the Forum, she remarks: `These, the aesthetic records, remain our only ones'.[12]

Anglo-American a esthetics in the twentieth century has been devoted to the philosophy of art, and scarcely at all, although the situation is at last beginning to change, to the philosophy of beauty. This commitment, trenchantly expressed by R. G. Collingwood to the effect that `aesthetic' is the theory of art and has nothing to do with beauty, that rather is the philosophy of love,[13] shows most strikingly in the titles of classic works in this tradition such as Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. The subtitle says everything; in the work which follows I do not recall a single mention of beauty.


I suspect, however, that the term `aesthetic' is now taking on in general usage meanings and resonances which cannot be captured by restriction to that which pertains only to art and/or beauty. I have suggested elsewhere,[14] that we should regard the term `aesthetic' as a term that extends thought by pointing to new and not as yet entirely understood territory. The idea is that by means of inadequately understood expressions such as `aesthetic experience' our language is leading us to new possibilities of experience of which philosophy is not yet fully cognisant. This assumes, not unreasonably, that there is more in a language than is at any one time articulated in philosophy, and that in the case of such expressions as `aesthetic experience' usage implicitly indicates that which it is the task of philosophy to clarify and explicate. The idea is that language implies more than we know by having hit upon new possibilities of experience when it was not necessarily engaged in such a search but was busy about other tasks. Language does not go in search of new experience but makes it possible.

Examples of uses of the term `aesthetic' which I do not believe can be cashed out in terms of art or beauty without remainder include: `It is the aesthetic, intuitive factor that is declared to be ultimately real, while the theoretically designated factor in our experience is only relatively so';[15] `It was not only a blow to her love, to her pride, to her happiness. It was a blow to something deeper than these, to that innate respect for life as a thing of quite definite aesthetic values, which made up the very illusion of her soul,;[16] and:

You tend to accept the mud and cold as permanent surroundings, and you are

seldom detached enough from factual thinking to remember seasons, ideas, and

other broad and only semi-tangible influences. This putting aside of aesthetic life

is going to have its advantages because it will make the day-off and especially

leave (touch wood!) much greater occasions I Han they would otherwise have


My suggestion is that reflection on these sorts of uses of the term `aesthetic' may, to breach my own ordinance on the need to distinguish the aesthetic from a esthetics, make us more sensitive to ranges of experience beyont domains entrenched within a esthetics as hitherto established within philosophy. For example we nught profitably look at the overlap of esthetics and the philosophy of religion where the latter is not, as it generally is in our tradition, tacitly itcntifiet with Christianity.


[1] George Sturt, Memoirs of a Surrey Labourer (1907; Caliban Books, Firle, 1978 facsimile reprint), p. 181. [2] I am indebted to Professor Du Wei of Zhejiang University for the question, is not a esthetics an autonomous discipline too? I have not (yet) found a satisfaaory answer to this question. [3] One of the minor pleasures of editing this journal of a esthetics (there were major ones too) was to receive an invitation, not taken up, to attend a conference in South America on the subject of anaesthetics. [4] Immanuel Kant, Critigue of Pure Reason, trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (London: J. M. Dent, Everyman Library edition, 1934), p. 42. [5] Kant, ibid., p. 41. [6] Kant, ibid., p. 42. [7] Sir William Hamilton, Lertures on Metaphysics (Edinburgh: Blackwood, l870), p. 124 [8] G. Hegel, Philosophy Of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Osmaston (London: Bell, 19l6), p. n [9] Arthur R. Howell, The Meaning and Purpose of Art or the Making of Life (Ditchling Press, revised ed., 1957), pp. 73-4. I feel some personal attachment to this work since its author lived in the next village to mine and the idea that my locality could harbour at least two practitioners of a subject not noted for its numerous following is reassuring. In Ditchling there is a commemorative bench to Howell where walkers may rest; the only other place where I have seen philosophers of art and beauty commemorated is in a rather grander manner on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. [10] Clive Bell, Art (Chatto and Windus, 1914; Grey Arrow, 1961), p. 23. [11] Clive Bell, `The Difference of Literature' in William Bywater, Clive Bell's Eye (Wayne State U.P., 19753, p. 155. [12] Elizabeth Bowen, A Time in Rome (London: Longman, 1960), p. 34 [13] R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1938), p. 38. [14] See my essay, `The Idea of Aesthetic Experience' in M. H. Mitias, ed., Possibility of the Aesthetic Experience (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986), pp. 3-12, and reprinted in my Republic of Art and Other Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1991). [15] Herbert V. Guenther, Buddhist Philosophy in Theory and Practice (Penguin Books, 1972), p. 19. [16] John Cowper Powys, After My Fashion (written c. 1919, published Pan Picador, 980), p. 137. [17] James Farrar, The Unreturning Spring (Williams and Norgate, 1950), p. 145.

An earlier version of this paper was given to the University of Exeter 12th Creative Arts Summer School held at Dillington College for Adult Education, Ilminster, Somerset, in July 1990. I would like to thank the participants for their encouraging comments.
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Author:Diffey, T.J.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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