Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art
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This collection of essays explores the rise of aesthetics as a response to, and as a part of, the reshaping of the arts in modern society. The theories of art developed under the name of 'aesthetics' in the eighteenth century have traditionally been understood as contributions to a field of study in existence since the time of Plato. If art is a practice to be found in all human societies, then the philosophy of art is the search for universal features of that practice, which can be stated in definitions of art and beauty. However, art as we know it - the system of 'fine arts' - is largely peculiar to modern society. Aesthetics, far from being a perennial discipline, emerged in an effort both to understand and to shape this new social practice. These essays share the conviction that aesthetic ideas can be fully understood when seen not only in relation to intellectual and social contexts, but as themselves constructed in history.
faced with judgments sharply out of line with the "natural" consensus; for example in what he (now apparently wrongly) regards as the "palpable absurdity" of comparing the genius of Bunyan and Addison (235). The problem (which relates to the second opposition to be discussed) is that the evidence for the naturalness of the standard of taste is in uniformity of sentiment, but such uniformity is not suffi9 This solution was adopted by Hume's contemporary Lord Kames, for whom the universal assent
be? If judgments of taste have a "definite objective principle/7 he argues, then they would, like cognitive judgments, possess unconditional necessity and be simply communicable; on the other hand, if they have no such principle at all, like judgments of the sense of taste (which like the judgments of the other individual senses can afford us only "pleasures of enjoyment" rather than the properly aesthetic pleasures of "reflection"), then they would have no necessity at all and would not be
A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett: 1983], p. 139. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse of the Sciences and Arts, in The First and Second Discourses, ed. and tr. R. D. Masters (New York: St. Martin's, 1964), p. 51. "Quand ces peuples commencerent a degenerer, que la vanite et Pamour du plaisir eurent succede a celui de la patrie et de la vertu, alors le vice et la molesse penetrerent de toutes parts, et il ne fut plus question que de Luxe et d'argent pour y satisfaire. Les particuliers s'enrichirent, le
taste on the outward appearance and on the mind and character of men?" 74 Taste, by fostering harmony in the individual, will bring harmony into society. Providing a spiritual experience of the physical world, it opens the way to a realm of experience in which the interests of reason are reconciled with the interests of the senses. Art thus holds out the promise of a future happiness for humankind, but even under current conditions it provides "an ideal semblance which ennobles the reality of
French republic are extending the rule of force. They have proved unable to govern themselves. The lesson to be drawn from the bloody course the revolution was taking is that men are as yet unequipped for self-rule. In this grave deficiency lies the rationale for the Aesthetic Letters. He is justified in diverting attention to the fine arts, Schiller writes, because only aesthetic education can equip men for self-government. Or, as he puts it in the passage from which I quoted at the outset: "if