Friday, January 20, 2017

Is there a German Rationalist contribution to aesthetics?

It seems strange to find myself sympathetic to some of the things the German Rationalists (I capitalize Rationalists since the reference is not just to people who value reason but to a specific philosophical school of thought) held in the 18th century, for example in their thoughts about aesthetics.  However I have been reading Frederick Beiser’s Diotima’s Children:  German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford University Press, 2009) and I must say that the whole thing has given me some pause.  The Rationalists, for Beiser, are Leibniz, Wolff, Gottshed, Baumgarten, Wincklemann, Mendelssohn and Lessing.  Kant is not included, and, in fact, much of his Critique of Judgment is seen as a systematic attack on the aesthetic Rationalists.  (Beiser sees Kant as largely misunderstanding the Rationalists, particularly in assuming that the concept associated with perfection must be a concept of purpose.)  Baumgarten is important for aesthetics in that he invented the term "aesthetics." He is also important for everyday aesthetics in that Richard Shusterman has recently argued for revival of some of his ideas.  Winklemann is important as the father of Art History.  

My theme here will simply be Beiser’s list of the fundamental propositions held by the rationalists.    They are

1.    “The central concept, and subject matter, of aesthetics is beauty.
2.       Beauty consists in the perception of perfection.
3.       Perfection consists in harmony, which is unity in variety.
4.       Aesthetic criticism and production is governed by rules, which it is the aim of the philosopher to discover, and reduce to first principles.
5.       Truth, beauty, and goodness are one, different facets of one basic value, which is perfection.”  

There are ways in which I can see all of these as true, although interpreted in a manner way different from that of the Rationalists.  

(1)  I take the central concept of aesthetics to be “aura” (as described in my book  The Extraordinary in the Ordinary) and I take this to be the replacement concept for “beauty” which itself is still a paradigm of aura.  I would, however, not want to limit aura to things that are harmonious. There are many more things that have aura that are not particularly harmonious.  For example, something can be "new" in an aesthetic sense, and thus have aura, and yet lack any obvious harmony...for example the early works of a revolutionary rock band.     

(2)  I was not, at first, inclined to think of beauty as perception of perfection.  For one thing, perfection seems incredibly rare in this world.  However, when I think of the word "perfection" I think of something like a perfectly straight line, i.e. one in which no mathematical point deviates from straightness.  Such perfection is not even available in our world: only in the world of mathematics and logic.  

Yet this may be an overly narrow view of perfection and there may be other sorts of perfection.   Or, to put it differently, one should not necessarily reject everything associated with a word, such as the word "perfection," given that it may be used to do many sorts of things.  

Think of the experience of perfection on drinking a really great cup of coffee.   You take the first sip and say "Perfect!" “Exactly right” may be part of the experience, but the perfection of the cup of coffee is more than that.  Perhaps it is just ineffable.  In any case, it is very unlike the perfection of a perfectly straight line.  It it more like a perfectly aligned door or perfectly placed piece of furniture. Of course what we are talking about here may have a larger subjective element than what we find in mathematics:  "looks perfect" is perhaps the aesthetic quality we are really looking for here.    

(3)  The idea that perfection is "unity in variety" really surprised me.  Although I would agree that there is unity in variety in experiences and works of art that are organic wholes, one of the main problems with this phrase is that it seems to allow too many things to be beautiful.  It cannot be that every unity is beautiful. That would mean basically that every thing is beautiful, which is implausible.  The phrase "unity in variety" even seems redundant, since to have unity you must already have many different things that are unified.  What exactly is the force of adding the "variety" part?  This may be our clue to resolving the problem of limiting unity in variety.   Perhaps what is suggested is that beauty comes when there is unity of parts that are more different from each other than one would normally expect.  Here is another solution.  Websters says that unity in variety is "a principle that aesthetic value or beauty in art depends on the fusion of various elements into an organic whole which produces a single impression." Perhaps beauty is apprehension of unity in variety in objects that are not just unified but are also organic wholes.  This would still be too broad, however, since it is arguable that almost all works of art are organize wholes, and yet only some can be judged as beautiful. If, as another option, we add that there must be a feeling of perfection then we lose the economy of identifying perfection with unity in variety.   All of these parts of the conceptual field must fit together for the idea to work, but I do not know how.

Yet it strikes me that there is a lot in common between the early German rationalists and my hero, John Dewey.  His idea of a pervasive quality that dominates our experience of something in “an experience” seems to fit the idea of "unity in variety."  Sure, there can be beauty in imperfection, as the Japanese followers of wabi-sabi insist.  But is there beauty without the pervasive quality?   Perhaps the perfection referenced here is consistent with the Japanese notion of imperfection.   

Some everyday aestheticians have criticized Dewey for stressing the harmony of "an experience" too much.  I agree that there should be some things that count as "an experience" that are lacking in harmony, and that there are some things that should count as "aesthetic" that are not examples of "an experience."   So, harmony, unity in variety, and perfection, are not required for the aesthetic. But perhaps they still indicate an ideal.   

(4)  Of course both aesthetic criticism and production are governed by rules, e.g. when they are academic or when they exhibit a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation.  And yet they are also, it seems, not governed by rules, i.e. in the ways they are creative.  So, in one aspect or way they are, and in one aspect or way they are not, governed by rules.  Yet, Kant, who agreed that rules are important in fine art, also asserted that in fine art the genius gives the rule to art.  So, for Kant, the creative genius is someone who makes her own rules.  This would not be inconsistent then with the fourth principle.  Perhaps we can have rules that are not explicit. Another acceptable possibility would be that we do have rules but they are quite general and vague, for example "A work of art should have some sort of unity."  The existence of such rules would be no great constraint on creativity.  

(5)  One of the things I have never been happy with about Kant is his radical separation of truth, beauty and goodness.  This is one of the things that gives rise to his famous idea that art is autonomous.   There is something to the notion that truth, goodness and beauty are one, although I am not sure how that plays out. The idea goes back to Plato, particularly in his Symposium, although it might have first been explicitly stated by the Renaissance philosophy Ficino.  A similar idea, that Unity, Truth, and Good are one was promoted by Aquinas.  See this Wikipedia article on transcendentals.,  

Here, the Rationalists are followers of Plato, but also seem to be in line with the Pragmatists!   Dewey would not radically separate truth, beauty and goodness.  Sure, you can say that not all truths are beautiful, or even pretty, and not all beautiful things purvey or encourage the truth.  Sure, you can say that not all good things are beautiful or even pretty and also that not all beautiful things promote the good.  But the idea here is that there is a deep inner connection between the three.  I think there is, although it would be awfully hard to express.   

What if judgments of beauty that disagree with the good and judgments of the good that disagree with beauty are just problematic?  What if we could just assume that there is something wrong happening when beauty, good and true disconnect?  What if intuition of essences gives an experience of beauty which is here, also, truth?  What if intuition of essences gives us the good in a thing too?  My intuition is that there could be an identification of beauty, good and truth.  

With regards to Pragmatism, isn't it interesting that there is a quote from Peirce that goes "Logic follows Ethics and both follow Aesthetics." Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Hartshorne C. and Weiss P. (Harvard University Press, 1931), Vol. 1, p. 311  [I owe this reference to the above cited Wikipedia article.]  If we took that quote seriously, wouldn't that upset the entire apple-cart of philosophy?  
Here are some other ideas from Beiser or from the philosophers he discusses and my thoughts about them.

Here is Beiser on Baumgarten:

"Following Wolff, Baumgarten's central thesis is that beauty consists in the intuition of perfection.  Much careful thought went into that definition.  Every feature of it is strategic, accounting for some aspect of aesthetic experience or some desideratum of aesthetic judgment.  Such a thesis attempt to explain both the subjective and objective aspects of beauty.  In making perfection essential to beauty, it makes beauty partially objective.  If there were no unity-in-variety in the object, there would be no beauty. But in making intuition also crucial to beauty, it also makes beauty subjective.  If there were no sensible perception of perfection, there also would be no beauty.  The advantage of the objective component of beauty is that it is possible to justify aesthetic judgment, to give some reasons for it, where these reasons point to some features of the object itself, chiefly features of its formal structure." (145)  He also observes that Baumgarten recognizes that "we cannot precisely identify and determine what it is that makes an object so pleasing or appealing."  (145) So, for Baumgarten, "As a direct awareness of a particular, intuition has an extensive clarity and liveliness that cannot be fully elaborated or explained by concepts."  (146)  That seems about right. 

See my follow-up on this here.

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