What is Aesthetics in Philosophy? - Definition & History

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  • 0:00 Understanding Aesthetics
  • 1:09 Classical Philosophy
  • 1:50 Other Schools Of Thought
  • 2:49 Aesthetics As Philosophy
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Sweeney

Michael has taught college Art and secondary English and Social Studies. He has a Master of Fine Arts and a Masters of Library and Information Science.

Many people disagree about definitions of beauty and art. In this lesson, you will learn how philosophers have approached the concept of beauty and its relationship to ideas about art.

Understanding Aesthetics

Different philosophers categorize the issues of philosophy, well, differently. Like all disciplines, the study of philosophy has branches. One of these branches is known as aesthetics and is concerned with the nature of art and making judgments concerning beauty.

Aesthetics is sometimes considered to be part of a larger philosophical category called Axiology. Axiology is an area of philosophy that studies values and value judgements. Whether someone spends millions on a single painting or says that a sculpture is priceless, he or she is making an axiological judgment. As in ethical decisions, aesthetics tries to define the principles that make us value one thing over another. At its core, aesthetics asks what is valuable in life, what is valuable beyond mere survival, and specifically, how art and beauty are defined.

Ideas about aesthetic value are really judgments about what art, beauty, and good taste are. It isn't a coincidence that the word 'taste' refers to one of our five senses, because aesthetics rely on the sensitivity of our senses in order to make judgments and decisions about art and beauty.

Classical Philosophy

When many of us think of philosophy, we stereotypically think of bearded men in togas in ancient Greece. These classical philosophers did consider aesthetic issues. Classical philosophy presents systems for explaining the world based on intellectual assumptions and beliefs and the analysis of experience.

Connecting to issues of aesthetics, Plato's Allegory of the Cave presented ideas about the nature of perception and reality, but also raised questions about its representation that are still discussed today. Plato expressed an interest in connecting beauty to proportion, harmony, and unity, while Aristotle focused his universal elements of beauty as order, symmetry, and definiteness.

Other Schools of Thought

Throughout history and diverse cultures, different views of aesthetics have influenced the arts. For example, Western medieval art was funded by the Church and focused on Christian religious subjects, since artistic skill was a gift from God, given with the intention of revealing his will. By comparison, Western Renaissance art returned to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of aesthetics.

In Chinese culture, Confucius (who lived from 551 - 479 B.C.) stressed that the arts, both visual and musical, served to broaden human nature, but later, on Mozi argued that the arts served only the rich and had no benefit to the common man. In Islam, art made by human beings is seen as flawed and inferior to the work of Allah, limiting the forms pursued. Indian art has developed with a focus on spiritual and philosophical states of mind, either through symbolism or with the intent of instilling these states in the audience.

Aesthetics as Philosophy

It's important to note that aesthetics as a defined branch of philosophy is relatively new. Prior to 1712, the topic of aesthetics had limited discussion, primarily to the harmonious relationships shared by proportion and form in architecture and music. In 1712, Joseph Addison published an article called 'The Pleasures of Imagination,' in The Spectator, which some believe marked the beginning of aesthetics as an area of philosophy on its own. As leisure activities became more prevalent in the 18th century, consideration of a larger range of aesthetic issues expanded.

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