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Aesthetics: a new philosophical discipline?

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

A look into ‘Aesthetica’—book by Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten, a brief review for transcendent experiences

By Nilou Nezhad

Image courtesy of Seán Mackey via Flickr

Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten tries to sketch the way the human knowledge is organised. He is interested in how humans create knowledge; how can we know anything? What is our basis for knowledge? Baumgarten argued that there is mainly one thing responsible for knowledge in humans and that is reason (ratio). He also argued that there is a second faculty in which we know things, that is not only reason but that ‘for insight into the concordances among things, thus sensible wit’. That our senses also have senses.

In other words, what he argues is that we don’t just know things because we reflect on them with our brain, but that we also have an innate, precognitive way of knowing things merely by sensual perception, and that sensual perception is similar to reason. That means,

take vision alone for example, by just looking at something, by appreciating something with our eyes, and before we start even thinking about, it allows for us greatly important insights into the world.

And that can be turned, and has been turned in aesthetics afterwards, as a real legitimisation for art as a more abstract concept. There is a distinct form of knowing, knowing things aesthetically that has nothing to do with rational reflection. Enter the philosophy of art.

This idea was further developed by Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgement 1794, he argued that there are not only two things of knowing but consequently also two things of beauty. What he calls ‘free beauty’ and ‘accessory beauty’.

Free beauty he argues, ‘does not presuppose a concept of what the object is meant to be’,

they are ‘self-subsistent beauties of objects that you just look at and appreciate because they have something completely useless but beautiful about them and that you appreciate that in a complete disinterested way’.

Something important emerges here, and that is the idea that something useless and beautiful is important in its own right. And that allows us of a higher form of being, ‘when we judge free beauty (according to mere form) then our judgement of taste is pure’.

A golden age for art?

These new ideas about what art is (something free, beautiful, something to merely look at…) can be seen as almost a story of a loss as a story of a gain.


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