The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method

Although some feeling for beauty is perhaps universal among men, the same cannot be said of the understanding of beauty. The average man, who may exercise considerable taste in personal adornment, in the decoration of the home, or in the choice of poetry and painting, is at a loss when called upon to tell what art is or to explain why he calls one thing “beautiful” and another “ugly.” Even the artist and the connoisseur, skilled to produce or accurate in judgment, are often wanting in clear and consistent ideas about their own works or appreciations. Here, as elsewhere, we meet the contrast between feeling and doing, on the one hand, and knowing, on the other. Just as practical men are frequently unable to describe or justify their most successful methods or undertakings, just as many people who astonish us with their fineness and freedom in the art of living are strangely wanting in clear thoughts about themselves and the life which they lead so admirably, so in the world of beauty, the men who do and appreciate are not always the ones who understand.

Very often, moreover, the artist and the art lover justify their inability to understand beauty on the ground that beauty is too subtle a thing for thought. How, they say, can one hope to distill into clear and stable ideas such a vaporous and fleeting matter as Aesthetic feeling? Such men are not only unable to think about beauty, but skeptical as to the possibility of doing so,–contented mystics, deeply feeling, but dumb.

However, there have always been artists and connoisseurs who have striven to reflect upon their appreciations and acts, unhappy until they have understood and justified what they were doing; and one meets with numerous art-loving people whose intellectual curiosity is rather quickened than put to sleep by just that element of elusiveness in beauty upon which the mystics dwell. Long acquaintance with any class of objects leads naturally to the formation of some definition or general idea of them, and the repeated performance of the same type of act impels to the search for a principle that can be communicated to other people in justification of what one is doing and in defense of the value which one attaches to it. Thoughtful people cannot long avoid trying to formulate the relation of their interest in beauty, which absorbs so much energy and devotion, to other human interests, to fix its place in the scheme of life. It would be surprising, therefore, if there had been no Shelleys or Sidneys to define the relation between poetry and science, or Tolstoys to speculate on the nature of all art; and we should wonder if we did not everywhere hear intelligent people discussing the relation of utility and goodness to beauty, or asking what makes a poem or a picture great.

Now the science of aesthetics is an attempt to do in a systematic way what thoughtful art lovers have thus always been doing haphazardly. It is an effort to obtain a clear general idea of beautiful objects, our judgments upon them, and the motives underlying the acts which create them,–to raise the aesthetic life, otherwise a matter of instinct and feeling, to the level of intelligence, of understanding. To understand art means to find an idea or definition which applies to it and to no other activity, and at the same time to determine its relation to other elements of human nature; and our understanding will be complete if our idea includes all the distinguishing characteristics of art, not simply enumerated, but exhibited in their achieved relations.

How shall we proceed in seeking such an idea of art? We must follow a twofold method: first, the ordinary scientific method of observation, analysis, and experiment; and second, another and very different method, which people of the present day often profess to avoid, but which is equally necessary, as I shall try to show, and actually employed by those who reject it. In following the first method we treat beautiful things as objects given to us for study, much as plants and animals are given to the biologist. Just as the biologist watches the behavior of his specimens, analyzes them into their various parts and functions, and controls his studies through carefully devised experiments, arriving at last at a clear notion of what a plant or an animal is–at a definition of life; so the student of aesthetics observes works of art and other well-recognized beautiful things, analyzes their elements and the forms of connection of these, arranges experiments to facilitate and guard his observations from error and, as a result, reaches the general idea for which he is looking,–the idea of beauty.

A vast material presents itself for study of this kind: the artistic attempts of children and primitive men; the well-developed art of civilized nations, past and present, as creative process and as completed work; and finally, the everyday aesthetic appreciations of nature and human life, both by ourselves and by the people whom we seek out for study. Each kind of material has its special value. The first has the advantage of the perspicuity which comes from simplicity, similar for our purposes to the value of the rudimentary forms of life for the biologist. But this advantage of early art may be overestimated; for the nature of beauty is better revealed in its maturer manifestations, even as the purposes of an individual are more fully, if not more clearly, embodied in maturity than in youth or childhood.

Yet a purely objective method will not suffice to give us an adequate idea of beauty. For beautiful things are created by men, not passively discovered, and are made, like other things which men make, in order to realize a purpose. Just as a saw is a good saw only when it fulfills the purpose of cutting wood, so works of art are beautiful only because they embody a certain purpose. The beautiful things which we study by the objective method are selected by us from among countless other objects and called beautiful because they have a value for us, without a feeling for which we should not know them to be beautiful at all. They are not, like sun and moon, independent of mind and will and capable of being understood in complete isolation from man. No world of beauty exists apart from a purpose that finds realization there. We are, to be sure, not always aware of the existence of this purpose when we enjoy a picture or a poem or a bit of landscape; yet it is present none the less. The child is equally unaware of the purpose of the food which pleases him, yet the purpose is the ground of his pleasure; and we can understand his hunger only through a knowledge of it.

The dependence of beauty upon a relation to purpose is clear from the fact that in our feelings and judgments about art we not only change and disagree, but correct ourselves and each other. The history of taste, both in the individual and the race, is not a mere process, but a progress, an evolution. “We were wrong in calling that poem beautiful,” we say; “you are mistaken in thinking that picture a good one"; “the eighteenth century held a false view of the nature of poetry"; “the English Pre-Raphaelites confused the functions of poetry and painting"; “to-day we understand what the truly pictorial is better than Giotto did"; and so on. Now nothing can be of worth to us, one thing cannot be better than another, nor can we be mistaken as to its value except with reference to some purpose which it fulfills or does not fulfill. There is no growth or evolution apart from a purpose in terms of which we can read the direction of change as forward rather than backward.

This purpose cannot be understood by the observation and analysis, no matter how careful, of beautiful things; for it exists in the mind primarily and only through mind becomes embodied in things; and it cannot be understood by a mere inductive study of aesthetic experiences–the mind plus the object–just as they come; because, as we have just stated, they are changeful and subject to correction, therefore uncertain and often misleading. The aesthetic impulse may falter and go astray like any other impulse; a description of it in this condition would lead to a very false conception. No, we must employ a different method of investigation–the Socratic method of self-scrutiny, the conscious attempt to become clear and consistent about our own purposes, the probing and straightening of our aesthetic consciences. Instead of accepting our immediate feelings and judgments, we should become critical towards them and ask ourselves, What do we really seek in art and in life which, when found, we call beautiful? Of course, in order to answer this question we cannot rely on an examination of our own preferences in isolation from those of our fellow-men. Here, as everywhere, our purposes are an outgrowth of the inherited past and are developed in imitation of, or in rivalry with, those of other men. The problem is one of interpreting the meaning of art in the system of culture of which our own minds are a part. Nevertheless, the personal problem remains. Aesthetic value is emphatically personal; it must be felt as one’s own. If I accept the standards of my race and age, I do so because I find them to be an expression of my own aesthetic will. In the end, my own will to beauty must be cleared up; its darkly functioning goals must be brought to light.

Now, unless we have thought much about the matter or are gifted with unusual native taste, we shall find that our aesthetic intentions are confused, contradictory, and entangled with other purposes. To become aware of this is the first step towards enlightenment. We must try to distinguish what we want of art from what we want of other things, such as science or morality; for something unique we must desire from anything of permanent value in our life. In the next place we should come to see that we cannot want incompatible things; that, for example, we cannot want art to hold the mirror up to life and, at the same time, to represent life as conforming to our private prejudices; or want a picture to have expressive and harmonious colors and look exactly like a real landscape; or long for a poetry that would be music or a sculpture that would be pictorial. Finally, we must make sure that our interpretation of the aesthetic purpose is representative of the actual fullness and manysidedness of it; we should observe, for example, that sensuous pleasure is not all that we seek from art; that truth of some kind we seek besides; and yet that in some sort of union we want both.

This clearing up can be accomplished only in closest touch with the actual experience of beauty; it must be performed upon our working preferences and judgments. It must be an interpretation of the actual history of art. There is no a priori method of establishing aesthetic standards. Just as no one can discover his life purpose apart from the process of living, or the purpose of another except through sympathy; so no one can know the meaning of art except through creating and enjoying and entering into the aesthetic life of other artists and art lovers.

This so-called normative–perhaps better, critical–moment in aesthetics introduces an inevitable personal element into every discussion of the subject. Even as every artist seeks to convince his public that what he offers is beautiful, so every philosopher of art undertakes to persuade of the validity of his own preferences. I would not make any secret of this with regard to the following pages of this book. Yet this intrusion of personality need not be harmful, but may, on the contrary, be valuable. It cannot be harmful if the writer proceeds undogmatically, making constant appeals to the judgment of his readers and claiming no authority for his statements except in so far as they find favor there. Influence rather than authority is what he should seek. In presenting his views, as he must, he should strive to stimulate the reader to make a clear and consistent formulation of his own preferences rather than to impose upon him standards ready made. And the good of the personal element comes from the power which one strong preference or conviction has of calling forth another, and compelling it to the discovery and defense of its grounds.

In so far as aesthetics is studied by the objective method it is a branch of psychology. Aesthetic facts are mental facts. A work of art, no matter how material it may at first seem to be, exists only as perceived and enjoyed. The marble statue is beautiful only when it enters into and becomes alive in the experience of the beholder. Keys and strings and vibrations of the air are but stimuli for the auditory experience which is the real nocturne or etude. Ether vibrations and the retina upon which they impinge are nothing more than instruments for the production of the colors which, together with the interpretation of them in terms of ideas and feelings, constitute the real picture which we appreciate and judge. The physical stimuli and the physiological reactions evoked by them are important for our purpose only so far as they help us to understand the inner experiences with which they are correlated. A large part of our work, therefore, will consist in the psychological analysis of the experience of art and the motives underlying its production. We shall have to distinguish the elements of mind that enter into it, show their interrelations, and differentiate the total experience from other types of experience. Since, moreover, art is a social phenomenon, we shall have to draw upon our knowledge of social psychology to illumine our analysis of the individual’s experience. Art is a historical, even a technical, development; hence the personal enjoyment of beauty itself is conditioned by factors that spring from the traditions of groups of artists and art lovers. No one can understand his pleasure in beauty apart from the pleasure of others.

In so far, on the other hand, as aesthetics is an attempt to define the purpose of art and so to formulate the standards presupposed in judgments of taste, it is closely related to criticism. The relation is essentially that between theory and the application of theory. It is the office of the critic to deepen and diffuse the appreciation of particular works of art. For this purpose he must possess standards; but he need not be, and in fact often is not, aware of them. A fine taste may serve his ends. Not infrequently, however, the critic endeavors to make clear to himself and his readers the principles he is employing. Now, on its normative side, aesthetics is ideally the complete rationale of criticism, the systematic achievement, for its own sake, of what the thoughtful critic attempts with less exactness and for the direct purpose of appreciation. It is beyond the province of aesthetics to criticize any particular work of art, except by way of illustration. The importance of illustration for the sake of explaining and proving general principles is, however, fundamental; for, as we have seen, a valuable aesthetic theory is impossible unless developed out of the primary aesthetic life of enjoyment and estimation, a life of contact with individual beautiful things. No amount of psychological skill in analysis or philosophical aptitude for definition can compensate for want of a real love of beauty,–of the possession of something of the artistic temperament. People who do not love art, yet study it from the outside, may contribute to our knowledge of it through isolated bits of analysis, but their interpretations of its more fundamental nature are always superficial. Hence, just as the wise critic will not neglect aesthetics, so the philosopher of art should be something of a critic. Yet the division of labor is clear enough. The critic devotes himself to the appreciation of some special contemporary or historical field of art–Shakespearean drama, Renaissance sculpture, Italian painting, for example; while the philosopher of art looks for general principles, and gives attention to individual works of art and historical movements only for the purpose of discovering and illustrating them. And, since the philosopher of art seeks a universal idea of art rather than an understanding of this or that particular work of art, an intimate acquaintance with a few examples, through which this idea can be revealed to the loving eye, is of more importance than a wide but superficial aesthetic culture.

In our discussion thus far, we have been assuming the possibility of aesthetic theory. But what shall we say in answer to the mystic who tells us that beauty is indefinable? First of all, I think, we should remind him that his own thesis can be proved or refuted only through an attempt at a scientific investigation of beauty. Every attempt to master our experience through thought is an adventure; but the futility of adventures can be shown only by courageously entering into them. And, although the failure of previous efforts may lessen the probabilities of success in a new enterprise, it cannot prove that success is absolutely impossible. Through greater persistence and better methods the new may succeed where the old have failed. Moreover, although we are ready to grant that the pathway to our goal is full of pitfalls, marked by the wreckage of old theories, yet we claim that the skeptic or the mystic can know of their existence only by traveling over the pathway himself; for in the world of the inner life nothing can be known by hearsay. If, then, he would really know that the road to theoretical insight into beauty is impassable, let him travel with us and see; or, if not with us, alone by himself or with some one wiser than we as guide; let him compare fairly and sympathetically the results of theoretical analysis and construction with the data of his firsthand experience and observe whether the one is or is not adequate to the other.

Again, the cleft between thought and feeling, even subtle and fleeting aesthetic feeling, is not so great as the mystics suppose. For, after all, there is a recognizable identity and permanence even in these feelings; we should never call them by a common name or greet them as the same despite their shiftings from moment to moment if this were not true. Although whatever is unique in each individual experience of beauty, its distinctive flavor or nuance, cannot be adequately rendered in thought, but can only be felt; yet whatever each new experience has in common with the old, whatever is universal in all aesthetic experiences, can be formulated. The relations of beauty, too, its place in the whole of life, can be discovered by thought alone; for only by thought can we hold on to the various things whose relations we are seeking to establish; without thought our experience falls asunder into separate bits and never attains to unity. Finally, the mystics forget that the life of thought and the life of feeling have a common root; they are both parts of the one life of the mind and so cannot be foreign to each other.

The motive impelling to any kind of undertaking is usually complex, and that which leads to the development of aesthetic theory is no exception to the general rule. A disinterested love of understanding has certainly played a part. Every region of experience invites to the play of intelligence upon it; the lover of knowledge, as Plato says, loves the whole of his object. Yet even intelligence, insatiable and impartial as it is, has its predilections. The desire to understand a particular type of thing has its roots in an initial love of it. As the born botanist is the man who finds joy in contact with tree and moss and mushroom, so the student of aesthetics is commonly a lover of beauty. And, although the interest which he takes in aesthetic theory is largely just the pleasure in possessing clear ideas, one may question whether he would pursue it with such ardor except for the continual lover’s touch with picture and statue and poem which it demands. For the intelligent lover of beauty, aesthetic theory requires no justification; it is as necessary and pleasurable for him to understand art as it is compulsive for him to seek out beautiful things to enjoy. To love without understanding is, to the thoughtful lover, an infidelity to his object. That the interest in aesthetic theory is partly rooted in feeling is shown from the fact that, when developed by artists, it takes the form of a defense of the type of art which they are producing. The aesthetic theory of the German Romanticists is an illustration of this; Hebbel and Wagner are other striking examples. These men could not rest until they had put into communicable and persuasive form the aesthetic values which they felt in creation. And we, too, who are not artists but only lovers of beauty, find in theory a satisfaction for a similar need with reference to our preferences. [Footnote: Compare Santayana: The Sense of Beauty, p. 11.]

More important to the average man is the help which aesthetic theory may render to appreciation itself. If to the basal interest in beauty be added an interest in understanding beauty, the former is quickened and fortified and the total measure of enjoyment increased. Even the love of beauty, strong as it commonly is, may well find support through connection with an equally powerful and enduring affection. The aesthetic interest is no exception to the general truth that each part of the mind gains in stability and intensity if connected with the others; isolated, it runs the risk of gradual decay in satiety or through the crowding out of other competing interests, which if joined with it, would have kept it alive instead. Moreover, the understanding of art may increase the appreciation of particular works of art. For the analysis and constant attention to the subtler details demanded by theory may bring to notice aspects of a work of art which do not exist for an unthinking appreciation. As a rule, the appreciations of the average man are very inadequate to the total possibilities offered, extending only to the more obvious features. Often enough besides, through a mere lack of understanding of the purpose of art in general and of the more special aims of the particular arts, people expect to find what cannot be given, and hence are prejudiced against what they might otherwise enjoy. The following pages will afford, I hope, abundant illustrations of this truth.

Finally, aesthetic theory may have a favorable influence upon the creation of art. Not that the student of aesthetics can prescribe to the artist what he shall or shall not do; for the latter can obey, for better or worse, only the inner imperative of his native genius. Yet, inevitably, the man of genius receives direction and cultivation from the aesthetic sentiment of the time into which he is born and grown; even when he reacts against it, he nevertheless feels its influence; a sound conception of the nature and purpose of art may save him from many mistakes. The French classical tradition in sculpture and painting, which is not merely academic, having become a part of public taste, prevented the production of the frightful crudities which passed for art in Germany and England during the present and past centuries. By helping to create a freer and more intelligent atmosphere for the artist to be born and educated in, and finer demands upon him when once he has begun to produce and is seeking recognition, the student of aesthetics may indirectly do not a little for him. And surely in our own country, where an educated public taste does not exist and the fiercest prejudices are rampant, there is abundant opportunity for service.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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By Dewitt H. Parker
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