History of Aesthetics - Introduction
Introduction to Philosophical Aesthetics
It’s a simple fact about human beings that we invest our time, money, and energy pursuing experiences of varying degrees of aesthetics. At different stages in intellectual history, people have focused more or less on understanding ideas, objects, motivations, cultures, and actions that connect with our aesthetic drive or sensibilities. Recently, there has been a revival among people interested in science, business, architecture, and other professions and disciplines into how we are affected by aesthetics.
Have you ever had a great idea only to learn that someone else already said it? (And they may have even said it better.) That’s what it’s like sometimes when reading the history of ideas from a particular discipline. Whether art, science, or philosophy, many ideas are not completely new. Or at least we can find the seeds of them in thinkers of the past. This is one reason it’s important to gain a familiarity with history.
The History of Aesthetics Project
I write, speak, or collaborate with people in particular contexts: fashion, beauty industry, architecture, art, and business. While many people in practice may have developed aesthetic sensibilities, instincts, or ideas, most are not aware of the historical origins, debates, and evolution of core ideas in aesthetics. For example, it feels unremarkable today to say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But the idea behind this cliché is recent when compared to the history of human thought. Most past discussions about beauty have grounded it outside of the human mind (e.g., in nature or God), while not denying human feelings or perceptions.
When we study the history of these ideas, we begin to sharpen our own understanding as we see some things that we still agree with and others we have moved beyond. But my main goal here is to bring the history into our current understanding and practice. I hope to introduce and reinvigorate the history of aesthetics by showing how these ideas are still relevant for practical contexts and pursuits.
Why not just write a book?
I could opt for that, but there are some advantages to using a digital format instead. First, it takes a lot of time before you see any of the results with traditional publishing (sometimes years). But also, it’s an all-or-nothing process; the whole book gets published at once. A giant history of aesthetics would be formidable. (Plus, there are many good single and multi volume books on the History of Aesthetics already.) This History of Aesthetics project will be published piece by piece, so it’s less daunting for both writer and reader, not to mention instant gratification.
Second, writing online allows for communications with readers in a way that a traditionally published book does not. You can (and I hope you do!) comment, raise questions, ask for immediate clarifications, and challenge my thinking. This can easily become more communal than a hardcopy volume allows. And it will be accessible for a broad audience, not only specialists. It’s not better or worse; it’s a different medium and process. And for this project, the online medium and community are better-suited.
Origin of Aesthetics
Questions and ideas about aesthetics go back further than the word in itself (in its current usage). Early writings in philosophy discuss beauty and art. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that Alexander Baumgarten coined the term “aesthetics” and inaugurated our current usage of the word. As science was becoming more prominent in the modern era, Baumgarten didn’t want to lose sight of knowledge people get other ways. While the higher faculties of reason, logic, and science provide knowledge, people also gain understanding about the world through sense perceptions and feelings.
I take a different approach to the distinction between these two faculties or ways of knowing the world. Not everyone receives special training in science, math, logic, or other specialized fields of knowledge. Specialist knowledge comes about after years (even decades) of training and research, so not everyone attains these specific types of knowledge. And even if you achieve expert-level knowledge of physics, for example, you are not thereby also an expert of biology, history, sociology, and so on. This knowledge exists in a small (or at least smaller) sub-group of human beings worldwide.
What is common to all people? Sense perception and aesthetics (probably some other things too). We learn through seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, and hearing. In its most general definition, aesthetics comes from Greek and means sense perception. Aesthetic experience is common. People gain knowledge about the world but also experience the beauty of nature, the harmony of music, and the radiant colors on a painted canvas. We do not all have access to the same level of scientific understanding, but we have all had some kind of aesthetic experience. And this is one reason that aesthetics (and its history) are so important. Aesthetic experiences unite us as human beings, even though we may disagree about the particulars.
Welcome to the History of Aesthetics Project!
I invite you to come along on this exploration with me as we navigate through the concepts, arguments, examples, and even some bizarre notions from the history of aesthetics. I will present information with the hopes of enlivening it before your very eyes like a verbal magician. Maybe that’s a bit over-hyped, but I don’t want to merely present ideas. I want to show that these historical ideas still matter today, and wrestling with them is worth the effort.
I have turned on the paid subscription feature on Substack, but you will still be able to receive many things without one. However, this is a large project, and I hope you might consider supporting me financially, if you are able.
Thank you so much!
Michael, your guide through the history of aesthetics
For other articles and information, please check out Aesthetics Research Lab.
Contact me for speaking engagements at email@example.com