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Aesthetics over the centuries 18th–19th

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Immanuel Kant(Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).)

Kant is said to have given aesthetics its autonomy as a proper domain of art, but in reality autonomy concerns only the “aesthetic subject” and is related to knowledge and morals. Transcendental aesthetics in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) designates the science of intuition, of the a priori concepts of space and time from the point of view of knowledge. Aesthetics is the science of the “sensible” as opposed to logic, which is the science of the “intelligible”. Kant remarks that only the Germans use the term aesthetic in the sense of criticism of taste, of which there is no question for him. In the Critique of the Faculty of Judgment (1790), Kant analyzes the question of the judgment of taste in relation to the beautiful and the sublime, but also the question of teleology in nature. He distinguishes the faculty of judging as a faculty independent of understanding or reason and then integrates aesthetics in the sense of theory of taste, beauty and art in the field of transcendental philosophy.

Questioning the nature of the aesthetic feeling, Kant observes that for the perception of the pleasant, each person recognizes that this feeling has value only for his own person, and that it is not possible to dispute the pleasure felt by the other: “When I say that the wine of the Canary Islands is pleasant, I willingly suffer being corrected and being reminded that I must only say that it is pleasant to me.” By this, he comes to think that “everyone has his own particular taste.” The case of beauty would be different, however, since if he judges a thing as beautiful: “I attribute to others the same satisfaction” and “I judge not only for myself, but for everyone, and I speak of the beauty as if it were a quality of things (…)”. He thus demonstrates that the beautiful is not the pleasant. The judgment of beauty is not made according to personal taste: “So we cannot say here that everyone has their own particular taste”.


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel(Hegel)

In Hegel’s philosophical system, aesthetics is defined as a philosophy of art, and the purpose of art is to express truth. The beautiful is the Idea in a sensible form, it is the Absolute given to intuition. Art is an objectification of consciousness by which it manifests itself to itself. It is therefore an important moment in its history. Reflection on art is linked to the end of art, in the sense that this end is an overcoming of the sensitive element towards pure and free thought. This surpassing takes place in religion and philosophy. For Hegel, the worst of man’s productions will always be superior to the most beautiful of landscapes, because the work of art is the privileged means by which the human spirit realizes itself.

For Hegel, the history of art is divided into three, according to the form and content of art:

  • symbolic, oriental, sublime art, where form exceeds content;
  • classical, Greek, beautiful art, which is the balance of form and content;
  • romantic, Christian, true art, where the content withdraws from the form.

Hegel also develops a system of fine arts, which is divided into five main arts according to space (architecture, sculpture, painting) and time (music, poetry).

In France (19th century)

Baudelaire by Nadar(Baudelaire by Nadar (1855).)

The aesthetic term, which is absent from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, found its first occurrence in French in 1743. But it did not take hold in France until around 1850, when the great texts of Kant, Hegel and Schelling were translated or transposed by Jules Barni and Charles Magloire Bénard. Bénard remarked, in 1845, that aesthetics was cultivated with ardor in Germany, but that it was not known in France. The delay is due to national issues. The science of aesthetics is perceived as German and does not find philosophical recognition until late. Many works are published, of course, throughout the 19th century, which relate to aesthetics as the science of beauty. Aesthetics is also the subject of teaching among the disciples of Victor Cousin such as Théodore Simon Jouffroy or Charles Lévêque (1861) from a Platonic and spiritualist perspective. But the first university chair devoted to the teaching of aesthetics was created at the Sorbonne for Victor Basch only in 1921.

Aesthetics also develops outside the philosophical institution in the field of art criticism. In 1856, Charles Baudelaire entitled Bric-à-brac esthétique his study devoted to the Salons of 1845 and 1846. He gave it its definitive title of Curiosités esthétiques in 1868. In his article on the Universal Exposition of 1855, he criticizes the “professors of aesthetics,” the “doctrinaires of the beautiful,” locked in their system, and who do not know how to grasp correspondence. He theorized the advent of modernity in his major article Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863).

In Germany (19th century)

Friedrich Nietzsche(Nietzsche)

In the 19th century, the Kunstwissenschaft or “science of art” was formalized around a historical approach to art, known as historicism (around the principles of individuality and evolution), in particular through the work of the historian Jacob Burckhardt. The ambition is that of a scientific study, far removed from philosophical idealism and literary criticism. The “science of art” is not clearly distinguished from the history of art. The emergence of this movement is influenced by the writings of Winckelmann (1717-1768), who determined art by a historical approach, and assimilated the history of art to the history of civilization. Hegel’s Lessons in Aesthetics similarly justified the importance of the historical approach, as well as the systematization of knowledge.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is directly influenced by Kant, but he reconnects with the thoughts of Plato and Plotinus. For Schopenhauer, art is a direct knowledge of Ideas (beyond reason), which themselves refer to an ultimate aspect: the will. It also presents the archetype of genius, capable of overcoming human subjectivity and accessing ultimate knowledge (and revealing it to men). He sets up a classification of the arts, which refers to Platonism (or medieval thought). It profoundly influences the dramas and theoretical writings of Richard Wagner.


Friedrich Nietzsche thus sets himself the objective of overthrowing Platonism. If Plato posited that the truth was intelligible (and therefore supersensible) and the real as an illusion and an error, Nietzsche argues that this is proof of Plato’s nihilism and hostility towards concrete, real life.

Nietzsche opposes the pessimism of Schopenhauer, with an aesthetic attitude, the Dionysian, which he opposes to the Apollonian. Reversing the platonic hierarchy, the sensible becomes a fundamental reality: “art is more valuable than truth”. Criticizing the principle of objective values ​​as the fruit of decadence, Nietzsche places the artist as the creator of his own singular values, proposed to other men, to stimulate their “will to power”, that is to say their life force and joy. “Art is the great stimulus.” According to Nietzsche the function of art is not to create works of art, but “to beautify life”. “The main thing in art is the celebration, the blessing, the deification of existence”.

Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu

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