The Birth of Aestheticism in Early Modern Rationalism and Empiricism.

(from work in progress on the philosophy of literary judgement)

Why should the empiricism of Locke, following on from Hobbes and Bacon, and the rationalism of Leibniz following on from Descartes and Spinoza, both lead into a revival of the philosophy of art and beauty, and the establishment of a new philosophical branch of aesthetics?  Using the terms more familiar to the principles, why should both the philosophy of sensation and experience, and the philosophy of metaphysics and reason, both establish the possibility of a branch of philosophy concerned with taste, judgement, pleasure, and beauty?

Both philosophical trends are concerned with complexity of a kind that did not concern the ancient and medieval philosophers.  That is the scientific complexity of an infinite universe, calculus, biological organisms with a cell structure that could be seen with a microscope; along with the social complexity of a human world which was now seen in terms of the interaction of self-referring individuals rather than unitary social substance.  In Locke we get some early elements of economics, a subject also developed by Hume, and given a foundation in Hume’s Scottish Enlightenment friend Adam Smith.

The reemergence of aesthetic philosophy coincides with the rise of the novel, a new understanding of history, theories of sympathy, and the rise of political economy.  It  follows on from an interest in complexity, and the harmony of diversity in science and metaphysics.

This all goes back to Renaissance Humanist interests in the difficulties of interpretation and the restlessness of the human self.  The Renaissance thought, into the philosophy of Descartes, refers back to an antique ethic.    Even in the mid-Eighteenth century Hume can group antique ethics together in a favourable contrast with Medieval religious thought.  Hume finds the claims of antique ethics to rationalism to be excessive and misleading, but is still appealing to a something like a more flexible version of Stoicism.  The element that is present in Hume that is not present in antique thought is some sense of the multiplicity of sensation, the actions of the mind, and the perspectives of perception.  Both Locke and Leibniz undermine the idea of a reason that controls passions through the will.  Perceptions are outside the control of reason, and motivate human reasoning.  Locke has a view of ideas of good and evil as emerging from pain and pleasure.  There is something like that in antique Epicureanism, but original Epicureanism (as opposed to seventeenth century neo-Epicureanism, or the popular meaning of Epicurean) still pulls that influence of pleasure and pain back into the orbit of reason, which aims for the absence of pain rather than the pursuit of pleasure.

Leibniz’ ethical vision is connected with a theodicy in which God creates the best possible world, which brings in compossibility, and choice of compossibles, between an uncounted number of possible worlds.   Our perceptions are contingent and variable.  They do not give us full knowledge of substances.  All predicates belong to substances by necessity, but our limited perceptions and mind cannot grasp the complex chain of links, which show that the predicate is in the subject.  Both Locke and Leibniz argue that perception does not give us access to the perceived object.  There are previous doubts about how far are perceptions are reliable, but not the claim of a distinction between substance or object, and perceptions in the mind which is epistemological and ontological.  All of these issues feed into the re-emergence of philosophy of art, and beauty, in aesthetic philosophy and philosophy of taste.  The idea of an object of perception, distinct from the inner physical object, is decisive for the idea of an autonomous sphere of aesthetics in which we grasp aesthetic objects, or the aesthetic aspect of objects, as distinct from the knowledge, or reality of objects.  The appreciation of the complexity of perception feeds into the appreciation of art as complex.

There is a dominant mode of thinking, which leaves beauty and art as very constrained within a structure in which reason is dominant, maybe guided by Plato’s forms, or something like them as in Christian thought about God.  Plato’s thought about beauty and art gives them interesting but limited, and sometimes negative, roles as secondary or instrumental aspects of truth and morality, which may fall too much under the sway of unfixed opinion and desire.  While Aristotle places poetry as closer to philosophy than history, it still occupies a small part of his philosophy.  A part in which the highest poetic form, tragedy, is strong linked with the dangers of losing reason losing control, of being overwhelmed by misjudgement and bad luck.  Art is a way of structuring what threatens our most important capacities in order to control them, rather than serving a source of value and perception itself.  We can certainly read into Plato and Aristotle, powers and values in art going beyond these constraints, but those readings would have seemed strange to them.


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