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Obsolete Aesthetics

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Obsolete Aesthetics

Can aesthetics ever truly be obsolete? According to present day scholarship you would certainly think so. We are often told that the field of aesthetics was invented/created/discovered in the 18th century. According to Carl Dahlhaus in his Esthetics of Music:
As a whole music esthetics represents--and this explains some of the resistance to it--the spirit of cultivated bourgeois music lovers, a spirit that rose in the eighteenth century and is threatened in the twentieth century with collapse... music esthetics is essentially a phenomenon of the nineteenth century.
Dahlhaus sees esthetics as being founded by Alexander Baumgarten in 1750.
Baumgarten appropriated the word aesthetics, which had always meant "sensation", to mean taste or "sense" of beauty. In so doing, he gave the word a different significance, thereby inventing its modern usage. The word had been used differently since the time of the ancient Greeks to mean the ability to receive stimulation from one or more of the five bodily senses. In his Metaphysic, § 451, Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. Such a judgment of taste he saw as based on feelings of pleasure or displeasure. A science of aesthetics would be, for Baumgarten, a deduction of the rules or principles of artistic or natural beauty from individual "taste". Baumgarten may have been motivated to respond to Pierre Bonhours' opinion, published in a pamphlet in the late 17th century, that Germans were incapable of appreciating art and beauty.
Dahlhaus and other modern writers might mention Plato on the Beautiful as discussed in the Symposium and Phaedrus and certainly everyone knows the Poetics of Aristotle, but after mentioning them, everyone goes on to talk about the modern (i.e. since 1750) conception of aesthetics which may have died a merciful death around 1900.

They skipped a few things, though! Just as when you read up on psychology you are told that it too was something invented in the 19th century and perfected in the 20th century, the actual history is either missed entirely or severely truncated. One would think that the article on psychology in Wikipedia would at least credit Aristotle who actually invented the field in several treatises, but no, again, for modern man, psychology is a recent invention.

My view of aesthetics is that there has been some version of aesthetics in every civilization that has some kind of art. The kinds of aesthetic ideas and the way they were expressed were undoubtedly quite different in each culture and era, but the idea of theorizing, that is, discussing, the effects of art and the reception of art and the quality of art is likely truly universal.

So I tend to be interested in lots of different kinds of aesthetics. Recently I have been reading an absolutely fascinating book on aesthetics in a time when it supposedly didn't exist: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas by Umberto Eco. Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), known to Catholics as the Angelic Doctor, reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with Catholic theology.


Umberto Eco is the famous author of The Name of the Rose and a highly respected semiologist--but his interests are wide and varied. It took me a while to get into the book and get used to the discussion. Eco not only discusses Aquinas' treatment of aesthetics, he also puts it in the whole context of Medieval culture and philosophy. A great deal of the discussion revolves around the nature of beauty:
Beauty arises from the conjunction of several observations of visible forms, and not from the observations alone. [The Polish philosopher Witelo, quoted on op. cit. p. 54]
Quoting Aquinas:
For good (being what all things desire) has properly to do with desire and so involves the idea of end (since desire is a kind of movement toward something). Beauty, on the other hand, has to do with knowledge, for those things are called beautiful which please us when they are seen. This is why beauty consists in due proportion, for the senses delight in rightly proportioned things as similar to themselves, the sense faculty being a sort of proportion itself like all other knowing faculties. Now since knowing proceeds by imagining, and images have to do with form, beauty properly involves the notion of formal causes.
Whew! The teleology and ontology of beauty! Eco takes dozens of pages to explain the historical context of this and how we might understand it.

Aquinas was something of a minor composer as well as being a theologian and philosopher. This is one of his most popular hymns: Adoro Te Devote.



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