We could begin by suggesting that aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty. We could add that it is also the philosophy of the sublime and the philosophy of art, but let’s stick for now with our very minimal definition. This definition instantly raises a question. Why employ the term ‘aesthetics’ if we could just as easily and more straightforwardly refer to the philosophy of beauty? Of course a similar objection can be made to other major strands of philosophy. Why not speak of the philosophy of knowledge rather than ‘epistemology’? Why not speak of the philosophy of being rather than ‘ontology’? Why employ these additional technical philosophical terms?
It is worth observing at the outset that these terms, despite their Ancient Greek etymology, are relatively new. They have developed currency in the last few centuries. The field of aesthetics was delineated by the German philosopher Alexandre Baumgarten in the mid-18th century. The field of epistemology was first named by the Scottish philosopher James Ferrier in 1856, while the field of ontology has a longer history, linked to strands of early modernist metaphysics from the 17th century. Overall aesthetics, epistemology and ontology emerge within the context of modern efforts to evolve clearly specified academic disciplines and fields of study. They shift the focus from beauty, knowledge and being per se to the capacity for these notions and phenomena to be conceived in a rigorously differentiated philosophical manner. They provide a means of highlighting the systematic study of particular orders of experience and understanding.
In this sense, to accept that there are distinctly determined fields of aesthetics, epistemology and ontology (as well as, of course, ethics, etc.) is to accept a certain partitioning of experience, feeling and thought that is associated with the modes of rationalisation of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thought. These categorical distinctions take all manner of tangible cultural forms, while most clearly shaping the nature and scope of specific fields of philosophical enquiry.
At one level, this work of determination has a positive aspect. It enables us to recognise something substantial. At another level, however, this positive aspect includes a crucial negative dimension. Aesthetics gains meaning because it is the study of beauty and NOT the study of knowledge, being or ethics. This negative definition, however crude and inadequate, nonetheless has a vital force. It informs how we conceive aesthetics as engaging an attitude of reflective distance from ordinary practical concerns. It is very often linked to heightened modes of experience in which life achieves a felt, integral meaning.
Our difficulty lies then in making sense of aesthetics without necessarily having recourse to the whole network of exclusions that lend the term its immediate and profoundly relational meaning. Ultimately I wish to argue that the concept of aesthetics is elusive and has very wide philosophical relevance, but it seems better not to immediately confuse matters by offering denials and cryptic hints. So let us retain, for now, our focus on aesthetics as the philosophy of beauty. Let us attempt to work through this apparently positive definition towards something less clearly defined but more critically productive.
Another question then emerges. Why this thorough concern with beauty? Why devote a whole branch of philosophy to clarifying the nature of beauty, rather than for instance ugliness, horror or humour? What is it that enables beauty to stand alongside truth and ethics as the central themes of the Western philosophical tradition? This question actually very quickly leads us away from beauty as such to more general problems. We begin to see that beauty is less the essential focus of aesthetics than an exemplary instance of a wider space of dilemma and imaginary resolution.
Within the Western philosophical heritage, beauty figures precisely as a space of reconciliation, in which the world of material things discovers a mysterious and vital alignment with the world of rational ideality and human freedom. Underlying the aesthetic then is the sense of a divided world. On the one hand we have the blindness and determinism of physical nature and on the other the abstract clarity of logical thought and free human ethical action. The role of beauty, within the classical Kantian conception of aesthetics, is to mediate between these two. Rather than regarding the world solely through the austere lens of logic and the moral imperative, beauty demonstrates, within the texture of things, a natural correlation between our sensible, rational and ethical selves. Beauty in this sense represents a space of natural symbolism and metaphor. It manifests within the particular the nature of the universal. So the beauty of natural phenomena, for instance, provides a metaphor for the order and symmetry of rational cognition and ethical law.
In these terms then, beauty is not really the key issue. The key issue is the underlying division and the necessity that it be reconciled. Beauty provides a means of mediating between two radically different aspects of being. Indeed, beauty is not alone in its capacity to do this. There is also, for example, the sublime, which through the presentation of the frightening and the infinite ends up providing an evocative mirror, according to Kant, of our own inner infinite capacities; in the same motion threatening and reassuring us. As well, there is the field of art, which in its suspension of practical instrumental goals, resistance to concepts and status as an ‘end in itself’, provides the active human context for the beautiful and the sublime. Art is important precisely because it represents a socially ground for the mediation of our higher and lower selves – between on the one hand ideality and moral vision and on the other materiality, sensation, tacit knowledge and imagination. So ultimately the role of aesthetics is less to describe the character and machinations of beauty, sublimity and art specifically than to conceive and discover effective forms of reconciliation wherever available.
A paradox of the aesthetic. The more clearly aesthetics comes to delineate the beautiful, the more elusive beauty becomes and the wider its implications. But it is not just beauty (or sublimity or art) that is affected. Aesthetics itself becomes more opaque the more clearly it is perceived, as what seemed to be concerned solely with the substantive identity of beauty, sublimity and art, reveals a much broader and radically indeterminate focus.