16.10.2006 Aesthetics

Term defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the philosophy or theory of taste, or of the perception of the beautiful in nature and art’. It was first used about the middle of the 18th cent. by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-62), who applied it to the theory of the liberal arts or the science of perceptible beauty. The scope and usefulness of the term have been much discussed, and in Gwilt’s Encyclopaedia of Architecture (1842), it was still described as a silly pedantic term’ and one of the useless additions to nomenclature in the arts’ which had been introduced by the Germans. In the 20th cent. there is no general agreement about the scope of philosophical aesthetics, but it is understood to be wider than the theory of fine art and to include the theory of natural beauty and non-perceptible (e.g. moral or intellectual) beauty in so far as these are thought to be susceptible of philosophical or scientific study.

The study of the concepts of ‘beauty’ and ‘art’. Aesthetics attempts to give an account of the human reaction to beauty and art, to define the words, to explain how men perceive the ‘beautiful’ or the ‘artistic’, to decide whether the concepts have any other than a subjective meaning and to explain what happens when a man stands before a ‘beautiful’ sight or a work of ‘art’ – what kind of experiences he has and in what way he is able to ‘experience’ anything. Although the writings of Plato and Aristotle contain observations on the subject matter of aesthetics, the word was first used by the 18th-century German philosopher A. G. Baumgarten. Some of the most prominent theoreticians in aesthetics since the 19th century include Winckelmann, I. Kant, Lessing, J. Schiller, G. Hegel, J. G. Herder, F. Schelling, Ruskin, Baudelaire, Taine, F. Nietzsche, Croce, Worringer and Gombrich.

Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb (1714 – 1762), German philosopher, a follower of Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and Leibniz. In 1740, he became professor of philosophy at Frankfurt-am-Oder. He invented the term aesthetics and his Aesthetica (1750) is a pioneering work on that subject.

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