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Metaphysical Problems in Aesthetics

Metaphysical speculation is aesthetic centres about the objective nature of beauty, and arises somewhat in the following manner: - The appreciation of the Beautiful is a mode of perception. In estimating a beautiful landscape or a beautiful statue, the mind perceives the beauty as a property of the object. It is, moreover, a single property; the name beautiful always denoting the same essential thing, whatever this may be. Now we find that it is a simple property of matter known through one particular class of sensations, as colour; and the question arises, what it really is in itself, whether inherent in and inseparable from matter, or something superior to it, and if so, how revealed through it. The directions of this inquiry have been almost as numerous as the systems of metaphysical thought. On the supposition of a real substance matter, independent of all intelligence, human or divine, writers have attempted to discover the essential principle which beautifies it. It has been universally considered by metaphysicians that matter in itself is devoid of beauty, if not positively ugly, and the only question arises as to the extraneous principle which imparts beauty to it. This has been conceived either as a simple force distinct from matter, yet setting it in motion, vivifying it, and reducing it to forms, as by Leveque; or as a divine being, whose volition directly invests material objects with all their beautiful aspects, as by Reid; or, lastly, as self-existent forms or ideas superinduced upon matter, which are in truth the beauty of objects, as by Plato and his modern followers.

In the prevailing German systems of aesthetics, which are based on an ontological idealism, the independent existence of matter has been denied. These writers conceive an absolute Though or Idea as the ultimate reality, of which matter and consciousness are but the two sides. Matter is conceived as the negative or limiting principle in the action or self-movement of the Absolute. The problem of objective beauty becomes on this hypothesis the determination of the particular mode in which the Beautiful is a manifestation of the supreme thought; for the Good and the True are equally revelations of the Unconditioned, and it is necessary to mark off beauty from these. Various definitions of the Beautiful, based on this mode of conception, may be found in the systems of Hegel, Weisse, and the Hegelians. The second great problem in the metaphysics genus, namely, the Beautiful (in its narrow sense), the ugly, the Sublime, and the Ridiculous. This has been undertaken by the Hegelians, and their attempts to construct what they call the dialectics of aesthetics are among the most curious products of metaphysical thought. It being assumed that there is some one ontological process running through every manifestation of the aesthetic Idea, these writers have sought to determine how each of the subaltern notion is related to this process. The last problem in the scheme of metaphysical aesthetics relates to the nature and functions of Art, looked at on one side as reproduction in altered form of the beauty of Nature, and, on the other, as the conscious product of aesthetic intuition in the human mind. First of all, the arts are appreciated and classified according to the several modes in which they body forth the Idea to our minds. Secondly, since the Absolute may be spoken of as revealing itself to human intelligence, so human intelligence may be looked on as groping through long ages after the Absolute, and thus the historical evolution of art finds its place in a complete metaphysic of aesthetic. In concluding this preliminary sketch of the metaphysical systems, it should be added that they can be adequately estimated and criticized only in connection with the whole systems of thought of which they are organic parts. Within the scope of a purely scientific criticism it is only possible to point out any inconsistencies in the application of these ideas to beauty and art, and to show how much or how little they effect, as hypothetical instruments, in helping us more clearly to understand the phenomena.

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