1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > "Aesthetics" - Definition. Two Approaches to Aesthetics.

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"Aesthetics" - Definition. Two Approaches to Aesthetics.

AESTHETICS (American spelling: Esthetics) is the term now employed to designate the theory of the Fine Arts – the science of the Beautiful, with its allied conceptions and emotions. The province of the science is not, however, very definitely fixed, and there is still some ambiguity about the meaning of the term, arising from its etymology and various use. The word aesthetic, in its original Greek form (aisthetikos, Gk.)), means anything that has to do with perception by the senses, and this wider connotation was retained by Kant, who, under the title Transcendental Aesthetic, treats of the a priori principles of all sensuous knowledge. The limitation of the term to the comparatively narrow class of sensations and perceptions occupied with the Beautiful and its allied properties is due to the Germans, and primarily to Baumgarten, who started from the supposition that, just as truth is the end and perfection of pure knowledge or the understanding, and good that of the will, so beauty must be the supreme aim of all sensuous knowledge. Yet, spite of these sources of vagueness in the subject and its name, some considerable part of the theory can be looked upon as pretty clearly defined, and it may be possible, by mean of careful reflection on this ascertainable quantity, to indicate, roughly at least, the extent and boundaries of a complete system of aesthetic doctrine.

A very brief survey of what has been written under the name aesthetics is sufficient to show that it includes, as its first and foremost problem, the determination of the nature and laws of Beauty, including along with the Beautiful, in its narrower signification, its kindred subjects, the Sublime and the Ludicrous. To discover what it is in things which makes them beautiful or ugly, sublime or ludicrous, is one constant factor in the aesthetic problem. Intimately connected with this objective question is the subjective and psychological inquiry into the nature of the feelings and ideas that have beauty for their object. Further, it will be found that all attempts to construct a complete aesthetic theory aim at determining the highest ends of the Fine Arts (which obviously concern themselves largely, if not exclusively, with the Beautiful), and at marking out the distinctions and tracing the dependencies of natural and artistic beauty. All this part of the field of aesthetic inquiry seems fairly agreed on, and it is only when we approach other sides of the Fine Arts that the precise scope of the science appears obscure. But while there is this measure of agreement as to the proper subject matter of aesthetics, we find two diametrically opposed methods of approaching it, which distinctly colour all parts of the doctrine arrived at, and impose different limitations to the boundaries of the subject. The first is the metaphysical or a priori method; the second the scientific or empirical method. The one reasons deductively from ultra-scientific conceptions respecting the ultimate nature of the universe and human intelligence, and seeks to explain the phenomena of beauty and art by help of these. The other proceeds inductively from the considerable of these phenomena, as facts capable of being compared, classified, and brought under certain uniformities. At the same time, it must not be supposed that either method is customarily pursued in complete independence of the other. The most subtle exponent of transcendentalism in art appeals to generalizations drawn from the facts of art; nor have the professedly scientific critics often abstained from introducing conceptions and hypotheses of a metaphysical character.

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