1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Herbert Spencer on Aesthetics

(Part 32)


Herbert Spencer

An interesting turn has been given to the psychology of aesthetic by Mr. Herbert Spencer. In some of his essays, as the one entitled "The Origin and Function of Music," and more fully in the concluding chapter of his Psychology (second edition), on the Aesthetic Sentiments, he offers a new theory of the genesis of the pleasures of beauty and art, based on his doctrine of evolution.

He takes up Schiller’s idea of the connection between aesthetic activity and play, only he deals with this latter not as an ideal tendency, but as a phenomenal reality, seeking to make it the actual starting-point in the order to evolution of aesthetic action. Play or sport is defined as the superfluous and useless exercise of faculties that have been quiescent for a time, and have in this way become so ready to discharge as to relieve themselves by simulated actions.

Aesthetic activities yield to the higher powers of perception and emotion the substituted exercise which play yields to the lower impulses, agreeing with play in not directly subserving any processes conductive to life, but being gratifications sought for themselves only.

This point of affinity between the two classes of pleasures is a valuable addition to aesthetic theory, and helps one to understand how the artistic impulse first arose. At the same time it is doubtful how far all present aesthetic pleasures, as the passive enjoyments of colour and tone, can be interpreted as substituted activities in Mr. Spencer’s sense. They seem rather to be original and instinctive modes of gratification not dependent on any previous exercises of life-function, except so far as the structure and functions of the senses as a whole may be viewed as the product of multitudinous life-processes in animal evolution.

Mr. Spencer, moreover, forms a hierarchy of aesthetic pleasures, the standard of height being either the number of powers duly exercised, or what comes to the same thing, the degree of complexity of the emotional faculty thus exercises. The first, and lowest class of pleasures, are those of simple sensation, as tone and colour, which are partly organic and partly the results of association. The second class are the pleasures of perception, as employed upon the combination of colours, &c. The highest order of pleasures are those of the aesthetic sentiments proper, consisting of the multitudinous emotions ideally excited by aesthetic objects, natural and artistic.

Among these vaguely and partially revived emotions Mr. Spencer reckons not only those of the individual, but also many of the constant feelings of the race. Thus he would attribute the vagueness and apparent depth of musical emotion to associations with vocal tones, built up during the course of vast ages. This graduated scheme is evidently dictated by the assumption that the higher the stage of evolution, the higher the pleasure.

Yet Mr. Spencer admits that this measure of aesthetic value will not suffice alone, and he adds, that the most perfect form of aesthetic gratification is realized when sensation, perception, and emotion, are present in fullest and most pleasurable action.

Mr. Spencer’s supposition, that much of the pleasure of aesthetic emotion is referable to transmitted experience, offers a very ingenious, even if not very definite, mode of explaining many of the mysterious effects of tone, and even of colour.

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