The German Rationalists thought aesthetic ideas were confused representations of that which is really perfect, and which can be seen clearly and distinctly by reason. But, more likely, aesthetic ideas are ideas of something that can never be perfect in itself but which are experienced as if perfect. Perfection is really two things, perfection as experienced and perfection in reality. It is the wonderful con-fusion of the particular and the universal in the aesthetic idea that actually constitutes perfection as we experience it. The particular by itself can never be perfect, and the universal by itself is never really experienced. Perfection as idea is prior to its experience. Perfection is an ideal, not the object of what Kant would call an Idea of Reason. So we must distinguish between kinds of confusion, a good sort and a bad sort, although the good sort should probably not be called confusion, since “confusion” has such a negative connotation. Let’s call it the fusion of the particular and the universal. It is in sensual perception of the particular as also universal that perfection is manifest.
In order to fully understand the notion of perfection however we need to understand the role of the sublime in aesthetics. Actually, we need to go further and revise our notion of beauty. Beauty should be subsumed under the sublime. This is the opposite of the Rationalist tendency to subsume the sublime under the beautiful in the sense of the merely proportionate or harmonious. Also it is in opposition to those who would see the beautiful and the sublime as very different. Actually understanding one in terms of the other is very illuminating. Both have what I called in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary, “aura.” So how is beauty so subsumed? It is a mistake to see beauty just in terms of harmonious surface, or even in terms of a specific harmonious whole that is right in front of us. Beauty is only beauty if it fits, and is harmonious with, something much broader than the object just in front of us. So beauty too, like the sublime, has an unendingness to it. When we fall in love and see our beloved as beautiful there is something sublime here as well. Beauty partakes of the sublime. Just as there is a pain aspect of the sublime, so too with beauty. Beauty would not be beautiful without the potential of its loss. The aura of the sublime is that which is behind beauty. The sublime has an element of horror, but so too does beauty, i.e. as something in the background, something we are vaguely aware of. Both the sublime and the beautiful have aura. Aura unifies aesthetics: the sublime, the beautiful and the merely pretty. This is all connected with Dewey’s idea of pervasive quality and infinite background to be discussed later.
In the 20th century we came to see the beautiful more and more in terms of the sublime, i.e. in terms of the mysterious and the wonderful.
In explaining the Rationalist position of Mendelssohn, Beiser writes, “We take pleasure in the sublime because it is immeasurable and unfathomable, but perfection is by its very nature measurable and fathomable, the structure by which we grasp an object as a whole.” (218) But perfection is neither measurable nor fully fathomable, even though it is the structure by which we grasp an object as a whole, what the Rationalists called unity in diversity. Beiser continues: “The aesthetics of perfection, as Baumgarten first defined it and as Mendelssohn later endorsed it, claims that all aesthetic pleasure consists in the intuition of such a structure, in its confused sensible representation.” (218) The problem for the Rationalists is that this cannot explain the sublime. But it can, if we recognize the continuity between the sublime and the beautiful, and that perfection itself has been misconceived. Of course to have unity you need to be able to grasp the object as a whole, and yet unity is constituted in the perception. The object extends beyond the immediate unity, the organic whole of which it is immediately a part. In having unity one could say that it participates in the larger unity of which it is part. Organic wholes can be seen as self-contained and immediate organic wholes or as not self-contained and as parts of larger organic wholes. An important element of the properly beautiful object is not simply that it is an organic whole but that it is in harmony with other larger organic wholes of which it is a part. “The problem with the sublime is that by its very nature it transcends the limits of beauty. The pleasure of the sublime seems to arise precisely from our incapacity to grasp the object as a whole; it stirs out admiration just because it is immeasurable, unfathomable, and infinite.” (219) But this is true of beauty too, although in a different way.
So, Beiser says, “All sensible pleasure is for [Mendelssohn] the intuition of perfection, which consists in unity-in-multiplicity. He want all sensible pleasures, of which the sublime is only a species, to be the confused perception of the forms of reason, the sensible analogues of the purely rational pleasures we would have if we were completely rational beings.” (220) The last part is an unrealizable myth: we are not and should not want to be completely rational beings. Sensible pleasure is indeed intuition of perfection, of a unity in multiplicity, but this unity is an ideal, not an idea of reason.