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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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4. The Subjective Approach to Beauty.
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4. The Subjective Approach to Beauty.

As observed
by several historians of aesthetics, a decisive shift of
perspective in the analysis of beauty occurred towards
the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the
eighteenth century. Beauty is no longer self-subsistent,
an essence, an objective nature, or a relation. Its foun-
dation is in the response of our feelings, emotions, or
our mind. The starting point of our reflections on
beauty is in our experience of a particular kind of
agreeableness. Two statements by David Hume show
this approach in its extreme form:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely
in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind
perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive
deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every
individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without
pretending to regulate those of others

(Hume, Essays...,
I, 266).

And “pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only nec-
essary attendants of beauty and deformity, but consti-
tute their very essence” (Hume, 1886). But these
pseudo-precise pronouncements were not Hume's last
words on the matter. On the other hand it must be
said that pronouncements of this sort have obscured
the fact that the subjective approach may consist sim-
ply in a careful analysis and description of the nature
and causes of our aesthetic feelings and the way the
effect is achieved, without any claim being made that
there is nothing outside of us which corresponds to
the effect produced.

The subjective approach was to all probability pre-
pared by the emphasis on emotional appeal in works
of art, an emphasis which is one of the manifestations
of the currents of sensibilité in the eighteenth century.
Already Fénelon associated the beautiful with the
moving when he observed in his Letter to the Academy

According to Horace, it is little for a poem to be beautiful and brilliant; it must be moving, pleasing, and consequently simple, natural and passionate.
Non satis est pulchra esse poemata; dulcia sunto.
Et quocumque volent, animum auditoris agunto.
The beautiful which is only beautiful, that is, brilliant, is but partly beautiful. It must be an expression of the passions in order to inspire them. It must take hold of the heart in order to turn it toward the rightful aim of a poem.
The criticism of the merely brilliant occurs repeatedly
in the aesthetics of classicism. In this passage it is con-
nected, however, with a stress on the moving and
emotive power of poetry. Still, we should not overlook
the connotations of simple, pleasing, and natural in
Fénelon's statement, nor that the passage appears in
a criticism of bel esprit and contrived style.

The logical, rational, and metaphysical components
of the idea of beauty, as well as the corresponding
notions of formal relationships, proportion, objectivity
(adequatio rei), of perfection, goodness, truth, of variety
and unity, all of which are intellectually perceived,
are gradually replaced by beauty's direct appeal to our
sentiments, affections, and passions. In order to distin-


guish the specific aesthetic appeal from the general
effect, some authors have recourse to the conception
of a special inner sense. The most consequential and
influential statements on the identity of the beautiful
and the moving, as well as on the aesthetics of feeling,
are to be found in the Réflexions critiques sur la poésie
et sur la peinture
(1719) of the abbé Jean-Baptiste Du

The fact that the discussion of beauty is often con-
nected in the eighteenth century with that of taste is
a consequence of the subjective approach. This con-
nection had, however, a curious result: several authors,
who are ready to assert that beauty is a subjective
impression, are reluctant to do so in the case of taste.
The objective criteria which they defend in the latter
case are no longer based on reason, but on consensus
and on history (e.g., the universal and continuous ac-
knowledgment of the art and literature of classical
antiquity). It is this recognition which in many cases
leads to conflicts with the subjective approach to
beauty and thus to revisions of this approach.

In a more general way one might see in the shift
to the subjective approach an example of the passing
of aesthetic speculation from a method of synthesizing
ideas (Truth, Good, Beauty, Perfection, Unity, Har-
mony, Proportion), fitting them together, unifying,
systematizing, and objectifying them to a disjunctive
method of dissociating ideas and reflecting on their
origin in sense perceptions and in the working of the

“Aesthetic” is used intentionally in connection
with the subjective approach. The term was introduced
only in 1750 by A. G. Baumgarten, who rooted the
new “science” of aesthetics in psychology and epistemol-
ogy, but the notion existed already at the beginning of
the eighteenth century and is the result of the shift in
perspective we have mentioned. When our respon-
siveness to beauty became the center of interest, both
the faculty and the nature of responsiveness were made
the subject of analysis. We find a striking example of
this in Joseph Addison's articles in The Spectator (1712)
on “The pleasures of the imagination.” Addison was
conscious of the novelty of his approach when he set
off imagination as the proper organ of the response,
distinguishing it from that of the senses and the under-
standing, and observed that the “pleasures” were elic-
ited not only by what is beautiful but also by that
which is great and novel or uncommon (The Spectator,
Nos. 409, 412, 415), and that the causes for the pleasure
were to be found in nature, literature, and the repre-
sentative arts; in history, the sciences, and even in the
activity of the mind. Such latitude was clearly incom
patible with the traditional criteria of beauty. More
important still was the fact that the new values of the
sublime and the picturesque were put next to beauty
or were esteemed more highly than beauty. Even ugli-
ness ceases to be simply a negation of beauty and finds
a place in aesthetics. Its relationship to beauty is no
longer antithetical, but becomes dialectical, when the
subjective responses of pleasure—pain, pleasing—
displeasing were substituted for the objective opposi-
tion: beautiful—ugly. Edmund Burke shows that pain
and sorrow can become agreeable sensations and that
the ugly, when it is “united with such qualities as excite
strong terror” (Burke, 1958), evokes the feeling of the
sublime. Using one of the most fruitful principles in
the analysis of pain and pleasure, viz., conversion,
Hume demonstrates how the feelings of distress, terror,
and anxiety are transformed into pleasing emotions
(“Of Tragedy”).

It is not surprising that Burke, when he developed
in his essay on the sublime and beautiful a coherent
theory of the sublime, attacked and ridiculed the tradi-
tional principles of beauty: proportion, fitness, har-
mony, and perfection. He also opposed the close con-
nection between or unity of the True, the Good, and
the Beautiful and attributed beauty wholly to qualities
in objects: smallness, smoothness of surface, variety of
outline, delicacy and brightness as well as softness of
color, qualities which act mechanically through the
senses. Beauty had clearly lost its supremacy. Even
when its former criteria were maintained, as in William
Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty (1753), variety was con-
sidered to be the most important one and to include
the others. The line of beauty was the serpentine line,
which by its curves delighted the eye and gave play
to the imagination.

The conception of beauty also profited, however,
from the subjective approach, above all in the inquiries
into the working of the human mind, when it is faced
with aesthetic experience. The rapid development of
British empirical psychology in the eighteenth century
played the major role in these inquiries. Particularly
fruitful were the studies of the role which the mind's
capacity for association and transference played in
generating the feeling of beauty. By the analysis of the
response of our faculties to order, symmetry, succes-
sion, as well as to the interplay of uniformity and
variety, and by the study of the mental connections
which are provoked by resemblance, contiguity in
space or time, and repetition (or parallelism) in cause-
effect relations, a link was established again between
the operations of our mind and the conception of
objective beauty. Archibald Alison's inquiry into the
associations connected with angular and curved forms,


and his observation that the combination of uniformity
and variety is a natural tendency of our mind and is
represented by the winding line (Essays on the Nature
and Principles of Taste,
1790), and Henry Home's (Lord
Kames) discussion of the beauty of different geometri-
cal forms and the relation between the beauty of mo-
tion and the flow of our perceptions are examples of
associationalist responses to form.

Inasmuch as Kant deals with the phenomenon of
beauty not directly, but in the perspective of the foun-
dation and validity of our aesthetic judgment, his ap-
proach is subjective; he considers only the relation in
which the object stands to us. On the other hand, his
search for an a priori principle of the faculty of pleas-
ure and pain leads him to a criticism of the subjective
elements in the theories of his predecessors and to a
new conception of subjectivity, objectivity, and uni-
versality. In his methodological starting point Kant is
close to Home's statement: “Beauty which for its exist-
ence depends on the percipient as much as on the
object perceived, cannot be an inherent property of
either” (Home, 1788). He rejects the notion that beauty
is a power in the object and distinguishes the aesthetic
pleasure, which is disinterested, from other kinds of
pleasure. A pure aesthetic judgment is possible only
when we are free from the compulsion of want or need
and indifferent with regard to what is serviceable in
actual life, i.e., when we are at play. Kant also dissoci-
ates the idea of perfection from that of beauty and
states that the beautiful is not subject to a rationally
definable end.

Beauty created by art is free; it is not bound by the
rules of understanding nor by those of practical reason.
On the other hand, beauty does not give us knowledge
of things in themselves, i.e., of the transcendental world
of Reason.

And yet, Kant observes, we seem to perceive a
certain purposefulness in beauty; the objects of our
aesthetic judgment seem to be designed to stimulate
our faculties of apprehension to harmonious inter-
action, to unify understanding and senses in the work-
ing of imagination. Out of this harmonious cooperation
of our faculties springs the feeling of beauty. In the
judgment on beauty, there is also contained the idea
that others will concur with our feeling of beauty. This
conception of a universal voice has nothing to do with
empirical or statistical evidence; it can be fully
achieved only in the ideal. It is a postulate based on
the fact that all men share the same faculties, and it
is an imperative to transcend the subjectivity of pleas-
ure and the mixture of the good and the beautiful, and
to free ourselves from individual limitations. Here Kant
transforms the former objective universality of beauty,
which was rejected by empirical psychology and is
incompatible with his transcendental method, into a
subjective one.

His distinction of free and dependent beauty, often
criticized in the nineteenth century, may have a re-
newed meaning in the modern period: free beauty
exists only in idyllic nature, in flowers and in ara-
besques, i.e., in the purposeless play of forms; depend-
ent or appendant beauty presupposes the concept of
what the object should be in its perfection.

Kant's ideas on the significance of our aesthetic
judgment for the mediation of the sensuous and the
intelligible, the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, on
the role of imagination, and on the free play as well
as harmony of our faculties, exerted a deep influence
on Goethe, Schiller, and German romanticism and
idealism. The two schools of thought, in turn, contrib-
uted many ideas to English and French writings on
beauty. Kant's denial of the cognitive function of
beauty was rejected, however, by several of his follow-
ers. F. W. J. Schelling was one of the first to claim
that beauty gives to us a symbolic knowledge of the
world of the Mind and is the presentation of the Abso-
lute in the sensuous particular, an idea which is at the
root of later theories concerning the higher insights
granted to us by beauty.

Friedrich Schiller places the question of beauty into
the perspective of the harmonious development of
human nature and the formation of our “true human-
ity.” The beautiful does not result from the effect of
objects upon us, nor does it exist as a quality outside
of us; its origin is within us. One might say that Schiller
considers beauty to be an imperative, something which
we must achieve. Only after having fulfilled this task,
can we receive beauty. However, we cannot fulfill it
once and for all; there remains an “ideal” of beauty
as well as of achievement. Beauty is the result of the
harmonizing of the demands of man's sensuous and
rational nature, of the two fundamental motive im-
pulses, the material drive (Stofftrieb) and the form drive
(Formtrieb); or, to put it differently, beauty is neither
mere life nor mere form, but living form. The experi-
ence of living forms was decisive in the development
of Schiller's idea of beauty; it pointed to a recon-
ciliation of the realm of nature and that of freedom.

Schiller uses the term “drive” intentionally, for as
long as reason is taken to be a pure intellectual faculty
and to be radically different from the senses, no media-
tion is possible, whereas a sensuous and a rational drive
can act reciprocally. When they work in harmony, a
new impulse, the play impulse, results.

Play, a state in which we are free from the straining


of our will and from all pursuits that are directed
towards a specific goal, is of all man's conditions the
one that unfolds both sides of his nature at once and
makes him whole (Schiller, 1967). The realm of play
is not that of reality, but of semblance (Schein), a realm
in which man creates his own world, that of beauty
and the arts. (This presupposes that not only the prac-
tical world, but also reality and the metaphysical con-
notation of beauty, truth, are dissociated from beauty.)
We might say that beauty has its origin in and is the
object of the Spieltrieb, the aesthetic play-drive, in-
asmuch as the latter is the balanced unity between the
material drive and the form drive. Although play pre-
supposes a state of superfluity in man as in society,
its great import in man's life saves it from becoming
a sign of luxury and frivolity.

The refinement and ennoblement of the senses, the
connection of the idea of freedom with our aesthetic
formation, and the harmonization of man's faculties,
a harmonization which we achieve through our striving
for beauty and which in turn we receive from beauty,
have their effect also on ethics (by disposing us toward
moral conduct) and on our relationship to others.
Schiller's idea of the aesthetic education of man could
easily be extended to the unfolding of our feelings of
sympathy and social affections. This broader appli-
cation exists already to a certain extent in the last of
Schiller's letters on aesthetic education.

Herbert Spencer adopted Schiller's idea of the
play-impulse and transformed it to mean a new outlet
of man's energy in the state of leisure, after the use
of man's energy in maintaining life and the race has
been satisfied. Play of all kinds is for Spencer “this
tendency to superfluous and useless exercise of the
faculties that have been quiescent” (Spencer, 1887).

Charles Darwin also was interested in the play im-
petus and in the ethical as well as social connotations
of Schiller's idea of beauty. However, Darwin regards
play and beauty as natural phenomena, whereas
Schiller relates them to the world of freedom. Spencer
and Darwin, moreover, reject the limitation of the
sense of beauty to the world of human beings and find
this sense also among the animals.

The ideas on aesthetics of Hegel and Schiller have
in common the method of dialectical reconciliation of
opposites, the method of historical-philosophical con-
struction in their exposition of the realization (succes-
sion and development) of individual art forms of
beauty, and the principle of identity; as far as the idea
of beauty is concerned, both place beauty in art above
beauty in nature, in the same way as they place mind
above nature. For Hegel beauty in nature is, however,
only a dialectical moment in the development of the
ideal of beauty in art; one might say that natural beauty
is the reflection of beauty of mind, and that it is art
which gives to phenomenal appearances a higher real-
ity, i.e., a reality born of mind. This conception (as
also Schelling's idea that the beautiful is a symbolic
representation of the infinite) confirmed the “romantic”
dissociation of the world of art and beauty, from the
finite world, the world of our common experience,
which became the prosaic, trivial world, deficient in
all beauty and poetry.

In the unfolding of the absolute spirit (the identity
eternally subsisting in itself and returning to itself), art
is the contemplation of the absolute spirit and comes
before religion and philosophy; however, art is ulti-
mately surpassed by the two others. One notices,
moreover, in the early stages of Hegel's account of the
process of unfolding, a close relationship between the
development of art and religion, as well as the presence
of religious meaning in the working out of the particu-
lar aesthetic concepts.

In the process of the Absolute passing into self-
manifestation, beauty is the realization of the Absolute
in the relative; beauty discloses itself in the manifold
development of a formative power and in the life that
animates a perfectly developed form. In Hegel's dis-
cussion of the forms which beauty assumes, we find
again the principles of fitness of relation, definiteness
of proportion, and unity of the manifold. Yet beauty
in art is not for Hegel the expression of abstract ideas,
of a relationship, or of laws, but a concrete idea. In-
asmuch as the degree of beauty depends upon the
degree to which an object expresses the presence of
the Spirit and not merely the relationship to a subject,
Hegel can be said to reintroduce the conception of
an objective and definite existence of beauty.

Hegel's conception of beauty as a creation of the
Geist (“Mind” or “Spirit”) transcended the difference
between beauty as objectively founded and beauty as
resulting from a response of our faculties. The way was
open to consider beauty as a manifestation in objective
sensory form of man's mind and consciousness, or, more
generally, of his creativity and his deep-seated uncon-
scious forces. Beauty is defined as the complete expres-
sion of and participation in the fullness of life. In
dialectical materialist aesthetics this rather compre-
hensive notion is made more specific by the theory that
beauty is a product of historical and social forces. As
an outcome of the former, it will have a different
content in different periods and will reflect given his-
torical conditions; being the creation of man as a social
being, beauty will express changing social conditions
and play a decisive educational role in society. The
objective and productive character of beauty is stressed
in this conception, and is identified with the idea of


realism. Although beauty will still be manifested pre-
dominantly in works of art and artistic images, it will
also be expressed in life itself (as the realization of the
creative capabilities of all men) and in the creation
of social and economic conditions (in the revolutionary
reconstruction of society) which will permit to all a
full ability to appreciate and enjoy beauty. In this
conception the view that art is more perfect than life
is reversed; compared to the inexhaustible wealth of
life and its creativity, art is a poor second and can
be justified only inasmuch as it becomes one of the
expressions of this life.