History of Aesthetics - Why Study History?
Hello Aesthetics People!
I’ve launched the History of Aesthetics Project, which you can read more about at this link. Before jumping into the volcano, I thought it might be worth exploring (and advocating for) why learning the history of aesthetics (and philosophy) is worthwhile. After all, we probably don’t care how surgeons performed open heart surgery 50 years ago, we want the most current versions of procedures of this kind. (By the way, did you know the first successful open heart surgery was performed by an African-American surgeon named Daniel Hale Williams? I just learned that.)
But philosophy and aesthetics are different. Everyone philosophizes and everyone experiences aesthetics. Not everyone performs heart surgery. Let me explain. Consider these questions:
Does God exist?
What does it mean to be good?
What is justice?
What counts as evidence for scientific experiments?
Why is one object art and another similar object not art?
Is there a meaning to life?
If you have asked any of these questions (or similar ones), you’ve participated in philosophy. When you focus on questions about whether beauty is objective or subjective, whether there is good or bad taste, or whether artworks can be sublime, then you have already concerned yourself with philosophical aesthetics. But that still doesn’t answer why we should be invested in the history as opposed to just looking to recent philosophy and aesthetics.
Here are five reasons for exploring the history of aesthetics:
Because the ideas of aesthetics—beauty, taste, experience, and so on—pervade human experience all over the world and throughout history, we can engage with insights that are still relevant today. The history of open heart surgery might be interesting, but the procedure has gotten better than those early days. They might be interesting, but you want the new methods. With philosophy, you can explore the developments and debates, learning how people moved. This hones your own thinking about a topic.
Some ideas, concepts, or activities gain popularity for a time, and then dissipate into the past. Aesthetics, art, and beauty have not only stood the test of time, they have dominated discussions in many eras and continue to generate important and interesting research that can be applied to different practices.
Art and beauty, among other ideas, are flexible terms. They need to allow for new developments to be integrated into their fold. Photography and digital art, for example, could not be considered art prior to the technology that allowed them to exist in the first place. And music was once connected to math more than art, but there have also been technology (like the electric guitar) or new styles (like rap) that are now candidates for art and beauty. Understanding how aesthetics weaves through history and adapts to new technologies and situations can help us see how new things continue to fit into the overall story.
When we only consider our current times and context, it’s easy to find a narrower view of something like beauty. It is through being exposed to different ways of thinking about beauty that we expand our understanding. When we consider the different notions of taste, whether it is an innate sense, connected to one’s virtue, or developed by reason, it helps us think through and fine-tune our thoughts.
It’s fun! That’s right. Exploring the insightful, diverse, and even strange ideas of the past is enjoyable in itself.
If you’re reading this, then I assume you think the history of aesthetics is at least somewhat valuable (hopefully more than somewhat!). So, what is your motivation? Why do you think the history is important? Have I left out a reason to learn it?
In his recent book, The Entanglement, philosopher Alva Noë challenges us to think about how art and philosophy help us understand ourselves. And that this is not an accident, it is part of human nature. In explaining philosophical problems, Noë writes: “We don't get answers, or settled conclusions, at the end of our research is, but we do come to see things differently; things are brought into a new focus.” Philosophy helps reorient us, in this case, toward aesthetics.
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