Empiricism and Rationalism in the Origin of Modern Aesthetics

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

Establishing a starting point for the aesthetic tradition of the eighteenth-century is inevitably difficult, as every starting point has a precedent.  Still, in general it is the philosophy of Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) written in the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth century, which is usually taken as the historical starting point for a form of aesthetic inquiry, which leads into Kant’s aesthetics, and the discipline of philosophical aesthetics as it is now known.   Shaftesbury’s first book, Inquiry Concerning Merit (in Shaftesbury 1999), was published in an unauthorised form in 1699, just nine years after John Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke 1975).  Shaftesbury’s grandfather, also named Anthony Ashley Cooper, was Locke’s patron and the philosophical Shaftesbury was Locke’s friend.  In addition to these biographical links, Shaftesbury’s philosophy developed from the empiricism of Locke.  Cooper makes claims which are unLockean, like suggesting innateness of our sense of beauty, but he also suggests that we think of that in terms of instinct.  He emphasises the power of the mind in beauty, and that is something that builds on Locke’s work on the complexity and productivity of the mind.

The other major texts of eighteenth century English language philosophy clearly follow on from that empiricism.  That means the British Enlightenment work of Hutcheson, Hume and Burke.  Hutcheson’s book of 1725 An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Hutcheson 2008) is the first classic philosophical book since Aristotle’s Poetics, to be in large part concerned with aesthetics.   That work is  followed up in various essays and passages in David Hume from 1740 in A Treatise of Human Nature onwards; and then in Burke’s 1757 treatise A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin or Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  In parallel we have the word aesthetic being given its modern meaning of philosophy of beauty and art, in the German Enlightenment in Alexander Baumgarten’s in his Aesthetica of 1750.  The arguments of the Aesthetica go back to the 1735 text Reflections on Poetry [Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertitentibus] (Baumgarten 1954), which relies on Leibnizian arguments about complexity and degrees of representation.  Baumgarten is concerned with the fullness of representation in poetry.  Clarity and determination ranks above confusion in an ideal state of perception.  Baumgarten’s more direct references to Leibniz (Baumgarten 1954, 46) emphasise the didactic purpose of poetry rather than the qualities unique to poetry from an aesthetic point of view, but this in itself rests on Leibniz’s view of the world and its divine machines as demonstrating God’s justice and wisdom.  The perfection Leibniz looks for in the world as God’s creation is what Baumgarten looks for in a work of poetry.

What is also apparent in Baumgarten is the importance of Leibniz’s view of ideas and of perception.   According to Baumgarten, stronger impressions are clearer than weak impressions, so that poetry should bring about the strongest affects (Baumgarten 1954, 48).  There is some ambiguity about the role of completeness and complexity in Baumgarten’s poetics.  A complete representation may lack in some way the force of a simple representation.  The part image may give a concept (a didactic concept) more force through the complexity in which it stands for the whole, as Baumgarten suggests in comments on Horace (Baumgarten 1954, 49).  Some remarks by Baumgarten suggest that the highest status of poetry is to become like a weak sensation, so that poetry is ontologically secondary in relation to the world of perception of objects which are objects rather than depictions of objects (Baumgarten 1954, 52).   Baumgarten argues for the superiority of poetry to pictorial art through a version of Leibniz’s ontology.  The poem is not restricted to a flat plane and so is capable of a more full kind of representation (Baumgarten 1954, 52-53).  A representation of the wonderful is more poetic than a representation of the more ordinary, because it attracts more attention and is therefore a clearer representation (Baumgarten 1954, 53-54).  Baumgarten explicitly recognises conflicts and exceptions to rules are present in poetry.  Wonder is both more and less poetic.  Baumgarten suggests that it is less poetic, because where there there is wonder there is less confusion of representation.  As we have just seen a kind of confusion, expressed in the substitution of part for whole, gives poetic complexity according to Baumgarten.  Baumgarten finishes by referring to poetry and rhetoric as representations of sensate representations.  They are distinguished by the perfection of poetic representations and the imperfection  of rhetorical representations (Baumgarten 1954, 78-79).



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