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Updated on September 2, 2009

Aesthetics is the name given to the science or philosophy which is concerned with the beautiful and attempts to establish the principles and theories upon which works of art are based. The word is derived from the Greek aisthetikos (that which concerns feeling or perception), and it was in Greece that theories of aesthetics were first propounded. However, in its modern sense the term was first used by Baumgarten. The importance attached to this subject by the philosophers of classical antiquity is indicated by the attention devoted to it by Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle, in his discourse on the theory of art in poetry contained in his Poetics, contributed to aesthetic literature the most important work in antiquity. His canons of criticism include the assertion that beauty is the mean between two extremes. Plato's teaching on the subject is in keeping with his general theory of an absolute and perfect ideal behind all appearance. From this it follows that beauty in finite things arises from their correspondence to their ideal archetype. This doctrine is expressed by the poet Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Um, in the oft-quoted lines, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, the father of modern aesthetics.
Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, the father of modern aesthetics.

Subjective and Objective

The science of aesthetics has been divided into subjective and objective. The objective side deals with topics such as the relationship of art to nature, the classification of the several arts, and the definition of their functions and limitations. Subjectively the question is largely one of psychology and an attempt to determine the nature and origin of aesthetic judgment or taste; and this department of the science is further subdivided into consideration of the conditions of artistic production and of artistic appreciation or perception.

The modern study of aesthetics may be said to have been inaugurated by the publication in Frankfurt at about the middle of the 18th century of Aesthetics, a book by Baumgarten, who was a disciple of the German philosopher Christian Wolff. In this work, which made him the father of modern aesthetics, Baumgarten differentiates between truth, which is apprehended by reason, and the beautiful, which is perceived by sense; sense, he maintains, is on a lower plane of intellect. Following Baumgarten came a whole host of German philosophic writers, of whom only the most famous can be mentioned here. Winckelmann developed Baumgarten's theories and Lessing in his Laocoon defined the spheres of poetry, painting, and sculpture. Schiller, the poet, who by influencing Goethe influenced the current of European thought, defined the secret of art as the supersession of the matter by the form. Kant denied the possibility of a strict science of beauty, for he regarded it as subjective. Fichte and Schelling, Herbart and Schopenhauer also considered aesthetics as part of their philosophic concerns; the place of art was particularly exalted in Schopenhauer's philosophy. But Hegel dominates all, his Lectures on Aesthetics being the chief work on the subject. English writers on aesthetics include Hume, Burke, Ruskin, Clive Bell, Sir Herbert Read, and Lord (Kenneth) Clark. Diderot in France and Croce in Italy also made important contributions.


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