History of aesthetics before the 20th century  

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This description of the history of aesthetics before the twentieth century is based on an article from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition.


Greek Speculations

Greek aesthetics, kalos

Ancient Greece supplies us with the first important contributions to aesthetic theory, though these are scarcely, in quality or in quantity, what one might have expected from a people which had so high an appreciation of beauty and so strong a bent for philosophic speculation. The first Greek thinker of whose views on the subject we really know something is Socrates. We learn from Xenophon's account of him that he regarded the beautiful as coincident with the good, and both of them are resolvable into the useful. Every beautiful object is so called because it serves some rational end, whether the security or the gratification of man. Socrates appears to have attached little importance to the immediate gratification which a beautiful object affords to perception and contemplation, but to have emphasized rather its power of furthering the more necessary ends of life. The really valuable point in his doctrine is the relativity of beauty. Unlike Plato, he recognized no self-beauty (auto to kalon) existing absolutely and out of all relation to a percipient mind.


Plato on art

Of the views of Plato on the subject, it is hardly less difficult to gain a clear conception from the Dialogues, than it is in the case of ethical good. In some of these, various definitions of the beautiful are rejected as inadequate by the Platonic Socrates. At the same time we may conclude that Plato's mind leaned decidedly to the conception of an absolute beauty, which took its place in his scheme of ideas or self-existing forms. This true beauty is nothing discoverable as an attribute in another thing, for these are only beautiful things, not the beautiful itself. Love (Eros) produces aspiration towards this pure idea. Elsewhere the soul's intuition of the self-beautiful is said to be a reminiscence of its prenatal existence. As to the precise forms in which the idea of beauty reveals itself, Plato is not very decided. His theory of an absolute beauty does not easily adjust itself to the notion of its contributing merely a variety of sensuous pleasure, to which he appears to lean in some dialogues. He tends to identify the self-beautiful with the conceptions of the true and the good, and thus there arose the Platonic formula kalokagathia. So far as his writings embody the notion of any common element in beautiful objects, it is proportion, harmony or unity among their parts. He emphasizes unity in its simplest aspect as seen in evenness of line and purity of colour. He recognizes in places the beauty of the mind, and seems to think that the highest beauty of proportion is to be found in the union of a beautiful mind with a beautiful body. He had but a poor opinion of art, regarding it as a trick of imitation (mimesis) which takes us another step farther from the luminous sphere of rational intuition into the shadowy region of the semblances of sense. Accordingly, in his scheme for an ideal republic, he provided for the most inexorable censorship of poets, etc., so as to make art as far as possible an instrument of moral and political training.


Aristotle on art

Aristotle proceeded to a more serious investigation of the aesthetic phenomena so as to develop by scientific analysis certain principles of beauty and art. In his treatises on poetry and rhetoric he gives us, along with a theory of these arts, certain general principles of beauty; and scattered among his other writings we find many valuable suggestions on the same subject. He seeks (in the Metaphysics) to distinguish the good and the beautiful by saying that the former is always in action (`en praxei) whereas the latter may exist in motionless things as well (`en akinetois.) At the same time he had as a Greek to allow that though essentially different things the good might under certain conditions be called beautiful. He further distinguished the beautiful from the fit, and in a passage of the Politics set beauty above the useful and necessary. He helped to determine another characteristic of the beautiful, the absence of all lust or desire in the pleasure it bestows. The universal elements of beauty, again, Aristotle finds (in the Metaphysics) to be order (taxis), symmetry and definiteness or determinateness (to orismenon). In the Poetics he adds another essential, namely, a certain magnitude; it being desirable for a synoptic view of the whole that the object should not be too large, while clearness of perception requires that it should not be too small. Aristotle's views on art are an immense advance on those of Plato. He distinctly recognized (in the Politics and elsewhere) that its aim is immediate pleasure, as distinct from utility, which is the end of the mechanical arts. He took a higher view of artistic imitation than Plato, holding that so far from being an unworthy trick, it implied knowledge and discovery, that its objects not only comprised particular things which happen to exist, but contemplated what is probable and what necessarily exists. The celebrated passage in the Poetics, where he declares poetry to be more philosophical and serious a matter (spoudaiteron) than philosophy, brings out the advance of Aristotle on his predecessor. He gives us no complete classification of the fine arts, and it is doubtful how far his principles, e.g. his celebrated idea of a purification of the passions by tragedy, are to be taken as applicable to other than the poetic art.


Of the later Greek and Roman writers the Neo-Platonist Plotinus deserves to be mentioned. According to him, objective reason (nous) as self-moving, becomes the formative influence which reduces dead matter to form. Matter when thus formed becomes a notion (logos), and its form is beauty. Objects are ugly so far as they are unacted upon by reason, and therefore formless. The creative reason is absolute beauty, and is called the more than beautiful. There are three degrees or stages of manifested beauty: that of human reason, which is the highest; of the human soul, which is less perfect through its connexion with a material body; and of real objects, which is the lowest manifestation of all. As to the precise forms of beauty, he supposed, in opposition to Aristotle, that a single thing not divisible into parts might be beautiful through its unity and simplicity. He gives a high place to the beauty of colours in which material darkness is overpowered by light and warmth. In reference to artistic beauty he said that when the artist has notions as models for his creations, these may become more beautiful than natural objects. This is clearly a step away from Plato's doctrine towards our modern conception of artistic idealization.

German Writers

We may pass by the few thoughts on the subject to be found among medieval writers and turn to modern theories, beginning with those of German writers as the most numerous and most elaborately set forth. The best of the Germans who attempted to develop an aesthetic theory as part of a system of philosophy was Baumgarten (Aesthetica). Adopting the Leibniz-Wolffian theory of knowledge, he sought to complete it by setting over against the clear scientific or "logical" knowledge of the understanding, the confused knowledge of the senses, to which (as we have seen) he gave the name "aesthetic". Beauty with him thus corresponds with perfect sense-knowledge. Baumgarten is clearly an intellectualist in aesthetics, reducing taste to an intellectual act and ignoring the element of feeling. The details of his aesthetics are mostly unimportant. Arguing from Leibniz's theory of the world as the best possible, Baumgarten concluded that nature is the highest embodiment of beauty, and that art must seek its supreme function in the strictest possible imitation of nature.


Kantian aesthetics

The next important treatment of aesthetics by a philosopher is that of Kant. He deals with the "Judgment of Taste" in the Critique of the Power of Judgment (J. H. Bernard's translation 1892), which treatise supplements the two better-known critiques, and by investigating the conditions of the validity of feeling mediates between their respective subjects, cognition and desire (volition). He takes an important step in denying objective existence to beauty. Aesthetic value for him is fitness to please as object of pure contemplation. This aesthetic satisfaction is more than mere agreeableness, since it must be disinterested and free — that is to say, from all concern about the real existence of the object, and about our dependence on it. He appears to concede a certain formal objectivity to beauty in his doctrine of an appearance of purposiveness (Zweckmässigkeit) in the beautiful object, this being defined as its harmony with the cognitive faculties involved in an aesthetic judgment (imagination and understanding); a harmony the consciousness of which underlies our aesthetic pleasure. Yet this part of his doctrine is very imperfectly developed. While beauty thus ceases with Kant to have objective validity and remains valid only for the contemplator, he claims for it universal subjective validity, since the object we pronounce to be beautiful is fitted to please all men. We know that this must be so from reflecting on the disinterestedness of our pleasure, on its entire independence of personal inclination. Kant insists that the aesthetic judgment is always, in logical phrase, an "individual" i.e. a singular one, of the form "This object (e.g. rose) is beautiful." He denies that we can reach a valid universal aesthetic judgment of the form "All objects possessing such and such qualities are beautiful." (A judgment of this form would, he considers, be logical, not aesthetic.) In dealing with beauty Kant is thinking of nature, ranking this as a source of aesthetic pleasure high above art, for which he shows something of contempt. He seems to retreat from his doctrine of pure subjectivity when he says that the highest significance of beauty is to symbolize moral good; going further than Ruskin when he attaches ideals of modesty, frankness, courage, etc., to the seven primary colours of Newton's system. He has made a solid contribution to the theory of the sublime, and has put forth a suggestive and a rather inadequate view of the ludicrous. But his main service to aesthetics consists in the preliminary critical determination of its aim and its fundamental problems.


Schelling is the first thinker to attempt a Philosophy of Art. He develops this as the third part of his system of transcendental idealism following theoretic and practical philosophy. (See also Schelling's Werke, Bd. v., and J. Watson, Schelling's Transcendental Idealism, ch. vii., Chicago, 1882.) According to Schelling a new philosophical significance is given to art by the doctrine that the identity of subject and object — which is half disguised in ordinary perception and volition — is only clearly seen in artistic perception. The perfect perception of its real self by intelligence in the work of art is accompanied by a feeling of infinite satisfaction. Art in thus effecting a revelation of the absolute seems to attain a dignity not merely above that of nature but above that of philosophy itself. Schelling throws but little light on the concrete forms of beauty. His classification of the arts, based on his antithesis of object and subject, is a curiosity in intricate arrangement. He applies his conception in a suggestive way to classical tragedy.


In Hegel's system of philosophy art is viewed as the first stage of the absolute spirit. (See also Werke, Bd. x., and Bosanquet's Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy of Fine Art.) In this stage the absolute is immediately present to sense-perception, an idea which shows the writer's complete rupture with Kant's doctrine of the "subjectivity" of beauty. The beautiful is defined as the ideal showing itself to sense or through a sensuous medium. It is said to have its life in show or semblance (Schein) and so differs from the true, which is not really sensuous, but the universal idea contained in sense for thought. The form of the beautiful is unity of the manifold. The notion (Begriff) gives necessity in mutual dependence of parts (unity), while the reality demands the semblance (Schein) of liberty in the parts. He discusses very fully the beauty of nature as immediate unity of notion and reality, and lays great emphasis on the beauty of organic life. But it is in art that, like Schelling, Hegel finds the highest revelation of the beautiful. Art makes up for the deficiencies of natural beauty by bringing the idea into clearer light, by showing the external world in its life and spiritual animation. The several species of art in the ancient and modern worlds depend on the various combinations of matter and form. He classifies the individual arts according to this same principle of the relative supremacy of form and matter, the lowest being architecture, the highest, poetry.

Dialectic of the Hegelians

Curious developments of the Hegelian conception are to be found in the dialectical treatment of beauty in its relation to the ugly, the sublime, etc., by Hegel's disciples, e.g. C. H. Weisse and J. K. F. Rosenkranz. The most important product of the Hegelian School is the elaborate system of aesthetics published by F. T. Vischer (Esthetik, 3 Theile, 1846—1834). It illustrates the difficulties of the Hegelian thought and terminology; yet in dealing with art it is full of knowledge and highly suggestive.


The aesthetic problem is also treated by two other philosophers whose thought set out from certain tendencies in Kant's system, namely Schopenhauer and Herbart. Schopenhauer (see also The World as Will and Idea, translated by R. B. Haldane, esp. vol. i. pp. 219–346), abandoning also Kant's doctrine of the subjectivity of beauty, found in aesthetic contemplation the perfect emancipation of intellect from will. In this contemplation the mind is filled with pure intellectual forms, the "Platonic Ideas" as he calls them, which are objectifications of the will at a certain grade of completeness of representation. He exalts the state of artistic contemplation as the one in which, as pure intellect set free from will, the misery of existence is surmounted and something of blissful ecstasy attained. He holds that all things are in some degree beautiful, ugliness being viewed as merely imperfect manifestation or objectification of will. In this way the beauty of nature, somewhat slighted by Schelling and Hegel, is rehabilitated.


J. F. Herbart struck out another way of escaping from Kant's idea of a purely subjective beauty (Kerbach's edition of Werke, Bd. ii. pp. 339 et seq.; Bd. iv. pp. 105 et seq., and Bd. ix. pp. 92 et seq..) He did, indeed, adopt Kant's view of the aesthetic Judgment as singular ("individual"); though he secures a certain degree of logical universality for it by emphasizing the point that the predicate (beauty) is permanently true of the same aesthetic object. At the same time, by referring the beauty of concrete objects to certain aesthetic relations, he virtually accepted the possibility of universal aesthetic judgments (compare above). Since he thus reduces beauty to abstract relations he is known as a formalist, and the founder of the formalistic school in aesthetics. He sets out with the idea that only relations please — in the Kantian sense of producing pleasure devoid of desire; and his aim is to determine the "aesthetic elementary relations", or the simplest relations which produce this pleasure. These include those of will, so that, as he admits, ethical judgments are in a manner brought under an aesthetic form. His typical example of aesthetic relations of objects of sense-perception is that of harmony between tones. The science of thorough-bass has, he thinks, done for music what should be done also for other departments of aesthetic experience. This doctrine of elementary relations is brought into connexion with the author's psychological doctrine of presentations with their tendencies to mutual inhibition and to fusion, and of the varying feeling-tones to which these processes give rise. This mode of treating the problem of beauty and aesthetic perception has been greatly developed and worked up into a comrlete system of aesthetics by one of Herbart's disciples, Robert Zimmermann (Asthetik, 1838).


Lessing, in his Laocoon and elsewhere, sought to deduce the special function of an art from a consideration of the means at its disposal. He took pains to define the boundaries of poetry and upon the ends and appliances of art. Among these his distinction between arts which employ the coexistent in space and those which employ the successive (as poetry and music) is of lasting value. In his dramatic criticisms he similarly endeavoured to develop clear general principles on such points as poetic truth, improving upon Aristotle, on whose teaching he mainly relies.

Goethe and Schiller

Goethe wrote several tracts on aesthetic topics, as well as many aphorisms. He attempted to mediate between the claims of ideal beauty, as taught by J. J. Winckelmann, and the aims of dualization. Schiller discusses, in a number of disconnected essays and letters some of the main questions in the philosophy of art. He looks at art from the side of culture and the forces of human nature, and finds in an aesthetically cultivated soul the reconciliation of the sensual and rational. His letters on aesthetic education (Uber die asthetische Erzichung des Menschen, trans. by J. Weiss, Boston, 1845) are valuable, bringing out among other points the connexion between aesthetic activity and the universal impulse to play (Spieltrieb). Schiller's thoughts on aesthetic subjects are pervaded with the spirit of Kant's philosophy.

Jean Paul Richter

Another example of this kind of reflective discussion of art by literary men is afforded us in the Vorschule der Asthetik of Jean Paul Richter. This is a rather ambitious discussion of the sublime and ludicrous, which, however, contains much valuable matter on the nature of humour in romantic poetry. Among other writers who reflect more or less philosophically on the problems to which modern poetry gives rise are Wilhelm von Humboldt, the two Schlegels and Gervinus.

Contributions by German savants

A word may be said in conclusion on the attempts of German savants to apply a knowledge of physiological conditions to the investigation of the sensuous elements of aesthetic effect, as well as to introduce into the study of the simpler aesthetic forms the methods of natural science. The classic work of Helmholtz on "Sensations of Tone" is a highly musical composition on physics and physiology. The endeavour to determine with a like degree of precision the physiological conditions of the pleasurable effects of colours and their combinations by E. W. Brucke, Ewald Hering and more recent investigators, has so far failed to realize the desideratum laid down by Herbart, that there should be a theory of colour-relations equal in completeness and exactness to that of tone-relations. The experimental inquiry into simple aesthetically pleasing forms was begun by G. T. Fechner in seeking to test the soundness of Adolf Zeising's hypothesis that the most pleasing proportion in dividing a line, say the vertical part of a cross, is the "golden section", where the smaller division is to the larger as the latter to the sum. He describes in his work on "Experimental Aesthetics" (Auf experimentalen Asthetik) a series of experiments carried out on a large number of persons, bearing on this point, the results of which he considers to be in favour of Zeising's hypothesis.

French Writers

In France aesthetic speculation grew out of the discussion by poets and critics on the relation of modern art; and Boileau in the 17th century, the development of the dispute between the "ancients" and the "moderns" at the end of the 17th century by B. le Bouvier de Fontenelle and Charles Perrault, and the continuation of the discussion as to the aims of poetry and of art generally in the 18th century by Voltaire, Bayle, Diderot and others, not only offer to the modern theorists valuable material in the shape of a record by experts of their aesthetic experience, but disclose glimpses of important aesthetic principles. Yves Marie André's Essay on Beauty was an exploration of visual, musical, moral, and intellectual beauty. A more systematic examination of the several arts (corresponding to that of Lessing) is to be found in the Cours de belles lettres of Charles Batteux (1765), in which the meaning and value of the imitation of nature by art are further elucidated, and the arts are classified (as by Lessing) according as they employ the forms of space or those of time.

Theories of organic beauty: Buffier

The beginning of a more scientific investigation of beauty in general is connected with the name of Pere Buffier (see First Truths), form, and illustrates his theory by the human face. A beautiful face is at once the most common and most rare among members of the species. This seems to be a clumsy way of saying that it is a clear expression of the typical form of the species.


This idea of typical beauty (which was adopted by Reynolds) has been worked out more recently by H. Taine. In his work, The Ideal in Art (trans. by I. Durand), he proceeds in the manner of a botanist to determine a scale of characters in the physical and moral man. The degree of the universality or importance of a character, and of its beneficence or adaptation to the ends of life, determine the measure of its aesthetic value, and render the work of art, which seeks to represent it in its purity, an ideal work.

French systems of aesthetics: The spiritualistes

The only elaborated systems of aesthetics in French literature are those constructed by the spiritualistes, the philosophic writers who under the influence of German thinkers effected a reaction against the crude sensationalism of the 18th century. They aim at elucidating the higher and spiritual element in aesthetic impressions, appearing to ignore any capability in the sensuous material of affording a true aesthetic delight. J. Cousin and Jean Charles Leveque are the principal writers of this school. The latter developed an elaborate system of the subject (La Science du beau). All beauty is regarded as spiritual in its nature. The several beautiful characters of an organic body — of which the principal are magnitude, unity and variety of parts, intensity of colour, grace or flexibility, and correspondence to environment — may be brought under the conception of the ideal grandeur and order of the species. These are perceived by reason to be the manifestations of an invisible vital force. Similarly the beauties of inorganic nature are to be viewed as the grand and orderly displays of an immaterial physical force. Thus all beauty is in its objective essence either spirit or unconscious force acting with fulness and in order.

English Writers

There is nothing answering to the German conception of a system of aesthetics in English literature. The inquiries of English thinkers have been directed for the most part to such modest problems as the psychological process by which we perceive the beautiful — discussions which are apt to be regarded by German historians as devoid of real philosophical value. The writers may be conveniently arranged in two divisions, answering to the two opposed directions of English thought: (1) the Intuitionalists, those who recognize the existence of an objective beauty which is a simple unanalysable attribute or principle of things; and (2) the Analytical theorists, those who follow the analytical and psychological method, concerning themselves with the sentiment of beauty as a complex growth out of simpler elements.

The Intuitionists


Shaftesbury is the first of the intuitional writers on beauty. In his Characteristics the beautiful and the good are combined in one ideal conception, much as with Plato. Matter in itself is ugly. The order of the world, wherein all beauty really resides, is a spiritual principle, all motion and life being the product of spirit. The principle of beauty is perceived not with the outer sense, but with an internal or moral sense which apprehends the good as well. This perception yields the only true delight, namely, spiritual enjoyment.


Francis Hutcheson, in his System of Moral Philosophy, though he adopts many of Shaftesbury's ideas, distinctly disclaims any independent self-existing beauty in objects. "All beauty", he says, "is relative to the sense of some mind perceiving it." One cause of beauty is to be found not in a simple sensation such as colour or tone, but in a certain order among the parts, or "uniformity amidst variety". The faculty by which this principle is discerned is an internal sense which is defined as "a passive power of receiving ideas of beauty from all objects in which there is uniformity in variety". This inner sense resembles the external senses in the immediateness of the pleasure which its activity brings, and further in the necessity of its impressions: a beautiful thing being always, whether we will or no, beautiful. He distinguishes two kinds of beauty, absolute or original, and relative or comparative. The latter is discerned in an object which is regarded as an imitation or semblance of another. He distinctly states that "an exact imitation may still be beautiful though the original were entirely devoid of it." He seeks to prove the universality of this sense of beauty, by showing that all men, in proportion to the enlargement of their intellectual capacity, are more delighted with uniformity than the opposite.


In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers (viii. "Of Taste") Thomas Reid applies his principle of common sense to the problem of beauty saying that objects of beauty agree not only in producing a certain agreeable emotion, but in the excitation along with this emotion of a belief that they possess some perfection or excellence, that beauty exists in the objects independently of our minds. His theory of beauty is severely spiritual. All beauty resides primarily in the faculties of the mind, intellectual and moral. The beauty which is spread over the face of visible nature is an emanation from this spiritual beauty, and is beauty because it symbolizes and expresses the latter. Thus the beauty of a plant resides in its perfect adaptation to its end, a perfection which is an expression of the wisdom of its Creator.


In his Lectures on Metaphysics Sir W. Hamilton gives a short account of the sentiments of taste, which (with a superficial resemblance to Kant) he regards as subserving both the subsidiary and the elaborative faculties in cognition, that is, the imagination and the understanding. The activity of the former corresponds to the element of variety in a beautiful object, that of the latter with its unity. He explicitly excludes all other kinds of pleasure, such as the sensuous, from the proper gratification of beauty. He denies that the attribute of beauty belongs to fitness.


John Ruskin's well-known speculations on the nature of beauty in Modern Painters ("Of ideas of beauty"), though sadly wanting in scientific precision, have a certain value in the history of divine attributes. Its true nature is appreciated by the theoretic faculty which is concerned in the moral conception and appreciation of ideas of beauty, and must be distinguished from the imaginative or artistic faculty, which is employed in regarding in a certain way and combining the ideas received from external nature. He distinguishes between typical and vital beauty. The former is the external quality of bodies which typifies some divine attribute. The latter consists in "the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function in living things". The forms of typical beauty are:-- (1) infinity, the type of the divine incomprehensibility; (2) unity, the type of the divine comprehensiveness; (3) repose, the type of the divine permanence; (4) symmetry, the type of the divine justice; (5) purity, the type of the divine energy; and (6) moderation, the type of government by law. Vital beauty, again, is regarded as relative when the degree of exaltation of the function is estimated, or generic if only the degree of conformity of an individual to the appointed functions of the species is taken into account. Ruskin's writings illustrate the extreme tendency to identify aesthetic with moral perception.

The analytical theorists


Addison's "Essays on the Imagination" contributed to the Spectator, though they belong to popular literature, contain the germ of scientific analysis in the statement that the pleasures of imagination (which arise originally from sight) fall into two classes — (1) primary pleasures, which entirely proceed from objects before our eyes; and (2) secondary pleasures, flowing from the ideas of visible objects. The latter are greatly extended by the addition of the proper enjoyment of resemblance, which is at the basis of all mimicry and wit. Addison recognizes, too, to some extent, the influence of association upon our aesthetic preferences.


In the Elements of Criticism of Home (Lord Kames) another attempt is made to resolve the pleasure of beauty into its elements. Beauty and ugliness are simply the pleasant and he appears to admit no general characteristic of beautiful objects beyond this power of yielding pleasure. Like Hutcheson, he divides beauty into intrinsic and relative, but understands by the latter the appearance of fitness and utility, which is excluded from the beautiful by Hutcheson.


Passing by the name of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose theory of beauty closely resembles that of Pere Buffier, we come to the articulations of another artist and painter, William Hogarth. He discusses, in his Analysis of Beauty, all the elements of visual beauty. He finds in this the following elements:-- (1) fitness of the parts to some design; (2) variety in as many ways as possible; (3) uniformity, regularity or symmetry, which is only beautiful when it helps to preserve the character of fitness; (4) simplicity or distinctness, which gives pleasure not in itself, but through its enabling the eye to enjoy variety with ease; (5) intricacy, which provides employment for our active energies, leading the eye "a wanton kind of chase"; (6) quantity or magnitude, which draws our attention and produces admiration and awe. The beauty of proportion he resolves into the needs of fitness. Hogarth applies these principles to the determination of the degrees of beauty in lines, figures and groups of forms. Among lines he singles out for special honour the serpentine (formed by drawing a line once round from the base to the apex of a long slender cone).


Burke's speculations, in his Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful], illustrate the tendency of English writers to treat the problem as a psychological one and to introduce physiological considerations. He finds the elements of beauty to be:-- (1) smallness; (2) smoothness; (3) gradual variation of direction in gentle curves; (4) delicacy, or the appearance of fragility; (5) brightness, purity and softness of colour. The sublime is rather crudely resolved into astonishment, which he thinks always retains an element of terror. Thus "infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with a delightful horror." Burke seeks what he calls "efficient causes" for these aesthetic impressions in certain affections of the nerves of sight analogous to those of other senses, namely, the soothing effect of a relaxation of the nerve fibres. The arbitrariness and narrowness of this theory cannot well escape the reader's attention.


Alison, in his well-known Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, proceeds by a method exactly the opposite to that of Hogarth and Burke. He seeks to analyse the mental process then finds that this consists in a peculiar operation of the imagination, namely, the flow of a train of ideas through the mind, which ideas always correspond to some simple affection or emotion (e.g. cheerfulness, sadness, awe) awakened by the object. He thus makes association the sole source of aesthetic delight, and denies the existence of a primary source in sensations themselves. He illustrates the working of the principle of association at great length, and with much skill; yet his attempt to make it the unique source of aesthetic pleasure fails completely. Francis Jeffrey's Essays on Beauty (in the Edinburgh Review, and Encyclopædia Britannica, 8th edition) are little more than a modification of Alison's theory. Philosophical Essays consists in pointing out the unwarranted assumption lurking in the doctrine of a single quality running through all varieties of beautiful object. He seeks to show how the successive changes in the meaning of the term "beautiful" have arisen. He suggests that it originally connoted the pleasure of colour. The value of his discussion resides more in the criticism of his predecessors than in the contribution of new ideas. His conception of the sublime, suggested by the etymology of the word, emphasizes the element of height in objects.

Of the association psychologists James Mill did little more towards the analysis of the sentiments of beauty than re-state Alison's doctrine. Alexander Bain, in his treatise, The Emotions and the Will ("Aesthetic Emotions"), carries this examination considerably further. He seeks to differentiate aesthetic from other varieties of pleasurable emotion by three characteristics:-- (1) their freedom from life-serving uses, being gratifications sought for their own sakes; (2) their purity from all disagreeable concomitants; (3) their eminently sympathetic or shareable nature. He takes a comprehensive view of the constituents of aesthetic enjoyment, including the pleasures of sensation and of its revived or its "ideal" form; of revived emotional states; and lastly the satisfaction of those wide-ranging susceptibilities which we call the love of novelty, of contrast and of harmony. The effect of sublimity is connected with the manifestation of superior power in its highest degrees, which manifestation excites a sympathetic elation in the beholder. The ludicrous, again, is defined by Bain, improving on Aristotle and Hobbes, as the degradation of something possessing dignity in circumstances that excite no other strong emotion.


Herbert Spencer, in his First Principles, Principles of Psychology and Essays, has given an interesting turn to the psychology of aesthetics by the application of his doctrine of evolution. Adopting Schiller's idea of a connexion between aesthetic activity and play, he seeks to make it the starting-point in tracing the evolution of aesthetic activity. Play is defined as the outcome of the superfluous energies of the organism: as the activity of organs and faculties which, owing to a prolonged period of inactivity, have become specially ready to discharge their function, and as a consequence vent themselves in simulated actions. Aesthetic activities supply a similar mode of self-relieving discharge to the higher organs of perception and emotion; and they further agree with play in not directly subserving any processes conducive to life; in being gratifications sought for their own sake only. Spencer seeks to construct a hierarchy of aesthetic pleasures according to the degree of complexity of the faculty exercised: from those of sensation up to the revived emotional experiences which constitute the aesthetic sentiment proper. Among the more vaguely revived emotions Spencer includes more permanent feelings of the race transmitted by heredity; as when he refers the deep and indefinable emotion excited by music to associations with vocal tones expressive of feeling built up during the past history of our species. This biological treatment of aesthetic activity has had a wide influence, some e.g. Grant Allen being content to develop his evolutional method. Yet, as suggested above, his theory is now recognized as taking us only a little way towards an adequate understanding of our aesthetic experience.

See also

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