Aesthetics emerges as a distinct field within the context of European Enlightenment efforts to develop a coherent overall philosophical system that can account for all aspects of existence and human experience. It is conceived initially, in the work of German philosopher Alexandre Baumgarten, as an afterthought, and partial corrective, to the excesses of Leibnizian rationalism. While very much subscribing to Leibniz’s overall metaphysical scheme, Baumgarten describes a lower level space of sensibly situated experience and thought. It is cast ostensibly as the inferior double of properly logical, abstract thought. Yet, precisely due to its sensuous character and rich and confused materiality, the aesthetic begins to appear less as simply inferior than as something other and valuable in itself.
This thinking of aesthetics as an afterthought – as a remainder that is only considered once everything else in the system is in place – persists through Enlightenment thought. Kant, for example, deals with aesthetics only once he has already characterised the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, and the gulf between the mechanically determined sphere of mute matter and the freedom of the human subject. The aesthetic appears as a sphere of mediation and reconciliation once the ground of philosophy and its various fissures and rifts have been described. In this sense, the aesthetic represents a doubling of the initial impulse towards system – ensuring, in a belated manner, the latter’s coherence and holistic integrity.
It is worth saying a bit more about this overall effort towards system, before addressing the realm of the aesthetic more specifically. Although, I should note as a qualification that the notion of the aesthetic almost always forces a thinking beyond its notional specialisation. As as an apparently secondary feature and mediating factor it enters into complex relation with every other element in the system. Lacking any integral sphere of its own, conceived entirely in terms of motions of transition, play and exchange, it cannot be thought apart from the overall system, even as it is portrayed, at least partly, as a marginal afterthought.
The thinking of systems represents an effort not only to distinguish particular features, but also to see everything all at once. It follows a tricky double course of logical differentiation and global explication and integration. Nobody any longer envisages writing a whole philosophy of metaphysics, psychology, nature, morality and aesthetics. This has been replaced by the fatalistic recognition that knowledge advances in specialised fields through minor increments that will never be adequately and integrally conceived. We have, in short, given up on systems, or at least the global character of systems, while still permitting systems to become indefinitely further differentiated. The rational play of systems persists, if not their capacity to make us wise – to see things as a whole. In this sense, our systems, the motion of our systems, has become a work of unconsciousness and loss.
Perhaps the continuing relevance of the aesthetic lies in this rejection of systemic blindness and disintegration – this insistent effort to discover, even within the tissue of the unrecoverable and the particular, dimensions of the whole?