1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Defects in the Theories of the Beautiful

(Part 4)

Defects in the Theories of the Beautiful

What strikes one most, perhaps, in these discussions is the vagueness due to the great diversity of conception as to the real extent of the Beautiful -- the number of objects it may be supposed to denote. While one class of writers appears to limit the term to the highest and most refined examples of beauty in nature and art, others have looked on it as properly including the lower and more vulgarly recognized instance. There is certainly a great want of definiteness as to the legitimate scope of aesthetic theory. It will be seen, too, how closely this point bears on the question of the relativity of aesthetic impressions, whether there is any form of beauty which pleases universally and necessarily, as Kant affirms. The true method of resolving this difficulty would appear to be to look on aesthetic impressions more as growth, rising, with the advance of intellectual culture, from the crude enjoyments of sensation to the more refined and subtle delights of the cultivate mind. The problem of the universal and necessary would then resolve itself into an inquiry into a general tendency. It would be asked what kinds of objects, and what elements of sensation, idea, and emotion, tend to become conspicuous in aesthetic pleasures, in proportion as the mind advances in general emotional and intellectual culture. Another defect in nearly all the theories of the Beautiful that have been proposed, refers to the precise relation of the intellectual element in the aesthetic impression.

In opposing the narrow view, that the appreciation of beauty is a purely intellectual act, a cold intuition of reason, writers have fallen sometimes into another narrowness, in resolving the whole of the effect into emotional elements, or certain species of pleasure. Unless beauty is, as Hutcheson affirmed, a simple property of objects like colour, the perception of it as objective, which all must allow to be a mental fact, can only be explained by means of certain intellectual activities, by force of which the pleasurable effects come to be referred to such a seemingly simple property.

The solution of this point would doubtless be found in a more complete discussion of the perceptive or discriminative and assimilative activities of the intellect which are invariably called into play by complex objects, and which correspond to the attributes of proportion, unity in variety, &c., on which so much stress has been laid by the intuitivists.

Not only so, but any theory of aesthetic operations must be incomplete which does not give prominence to those more subtle and exalted intellectual activities that are involved in the imaginative side of aesthetic appreciation, as in detecting the curious half-hidden implications which make up the essence of a refined humour, in constructing those vague yet impressive ideas which enter into our intuition of sublimity and infinity, and even in appreciating such seemingly simple qualities as purity of colour and tone, or the perfectly graduated blending of two adjacent colours. Such activities of the mind constitute, among other things, the symbolic aspect of the Beautiful, and give, as Mr. Mill suggests, a basis of truth to such seemingly fanciful notions respecting the meaning of beautiful qualities as one finds in the works of Mr. Ruskin.

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