What is beauty? How to tell what is art from what art is not? These are the two fundamental questions if aesthetics. The first one concerns beauty in its most general form, thus not only artifacts, but also beauty as encountered in a landscape, a sunset, a stone, or a flower. What is it that makes something beautiful? Is beauty always one and the same property, exemplified by entities of radically different sorts?
The second question pertains to that subfield of aesthetics called Philosophy of Art, whose goal is understanding what is it that makes a certain object or event an artwork.
The Origins of Aesthetics
Aesthetic is a relatively recent philosophical discipline. Its birth is mostly a German affair. Among the precursors we find philosophers such as Leibniz and Christian Wolff (1679-1754). But it is German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (July 17, 1714 – May 26, 1762), who could benefit of Wolff’s teachings, to be typically considered as the first figure to have founded the autonomy of this branch of philosophy. Baumgarten’s major work, Aesthetica, published in two volumes between 1750 and 1758, is the first volume to contain the name of the discipline as a title.
In section 14 of the Aesthetica Baumgarten writes that "the aim of aesthetics is the perfection of sensible cognition as such, that is, beauty, while its imperfection as such, that is, ugliness, is to be avoided." Baumgarten, who was building on Wolff’s teachings, sees questions of taste as closely related to sensory knowledge. Although in part this trend has been continued to these days, the exact role of the senses in the appreciation of beauty rests one of the major terrains of disputes in the field. Not only, indeed, it seems that purely rational considerations may deeply influence sensory perceptions; but also, the possibility of art expressing beauty in highly "intellectualized" forms seems to suggest that the senses may not even be necessary to have an aesthetic experience.
Despite the importance of the questions that lie at its core, and the general interest that art and beauty find among society at large, aesthetics is to date one of the most underrepresented fields in academic philosophy in the English speaking world. It is not rare to find departments that have at best one offering in the field and scholars in this branch of philosophy do struggle to find a position.
The peculiar condition of aesthetics today may depend on its historical relationship to other disciplines. Even if the main problems of aesthetics should be of interest also to those working in metaphysics, theory of knowledge, and philosophy of language, because aesthetics developed at a later stage and in a specific philosophical context, the ways in which it has addressed its main topics do not directly ally with the classical positions defended in the other fields. In other words, the dialogue between those working in aesthetics and those working on possibly cognate branches has not been easy, due to a lack of share of a common ground for discussion. The hope is that, in the future, the situation will change.
Further Online Sources
- The entry on Aesthetics at the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online.
- The entry on 18th Century German Aesthetics at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The American Society for Aesthetics website, containing news and information on the topic.
- The British Society of Aesthetics website, which "aims to promote study, research and discussion of the fine arts and related types of experience from a philosophical, psychological, sociological, historical, critical and educational standpoint."
- The British Journal of Aesthetics, one of the leading journals in the field.
- The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, one of the leading journals in the field.
- A survey on the status of Aesthetics in the Academy, conducted in 1998 by the American Society for Aesthetics.