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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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II. MODES OF PERCEPTION AND RESPONSE
  
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II. MODES OF PERCEPTION AND RESPONSE

The last section of this article, dealing with man's
inner disposition towards beauty, with the faculties that
perceive beauty, and with the effect of beauty, is re-
lated to the preceding section. Some of the points
discussed before will be touched upon again; they will
be placed, however, into a different context. We limit
ourselves, as previously, to the fundamental positions.

1. Metaphysical Foundation.

The most famous and
influential account of the apprehension of beauty is
in Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus. The primary
theme of the former work is love, and beauty is dis-
cussed in this perspective. Plato describes the way in
which the love of beauty is kindled and how it develops
in a sequence of steps. He seems to think that to
proceed in a sequence is essential. At the beginning
is the admiration of beauty in a human body; one
advances to the love of inward beauty, from there to
the contemplation of the beautiful as it appears in
observances, laws, and knowledge, and thence to the
study of the beautiful itself, “so that in the end he
comes to know the very essence of beauty” ( Sympo-
sium
211), which is absolute, always the same, and of
which the multitude of beautiful things partakes. In his
Phaedrus Plato speaks of the “kind of madness which
is imputed to him, who, when he sees the beauty of
the earth is transported with the recollection of the
true beauty,” which he saw once, before passing into
the form of a human being (249-50). This reminiscence
is the reason for our yearning after beauty and explains
the awe and reverence we feel in the perception of
beauty. Love seeks beauty, and beauty in turn inspires
love, so that love becomes creative of beauty.

The ideas of a right process and of an ascent in our
knowledge of love (Plato uses the image of the ladder
which we climb, leaving the lower rung beneath us),
of a state of rapture and frenzy accompanying the
intellectual vision of the highest beauty, and of the
essential creativity of the love of beauty have formed
a powerful tradition; we find the themes again and
again, either singly or together, either in their original
form or modified, in later theories of beauty. In the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the renewal and
transformation of Plato's ideas in Shaftesbury's thought
is of fundamental importance.

For Shaftesbury the conditio sine qua non of our
response to beauty is that our perception be disinter-
ested, i.e., unselfish and without bias. Our knowledge
of the beautiful is contingent—as in Plato—on the
ascent from sensuous to intellectual perception; the
process is stated, however, in different terms and is
connected, in sharp contrast to Plato, with art.

The artist who wishes to bring perfection into his
work must have “the idea of perfection to give him
aim.” He must be above the world “and fix his eye
upon that consummate grace, that beauty of Nature,
and that perfection of numbers [harmony] which the
rest of mankind, feeling only by the effect whilst igno-
rant of the cause, term the je ne sçay quoy, the un-
intelligible...” (Advice to an Author, in Charac-
teristics
..., I, 214).

In The Moralists the steps of ascent are defined; from
the admiration of beautiful objects we rise to the in-
sight that it is art, the beautifying, which is beautiful;
from the love of beautiful bodies we pass to the recog-
nition that their beauty is founded not in the body qua
body, but in a forming power (or inward form), in
action and intelligence, i.e., in the mind. Ultimately,
we understand that the mind, in turn, is fashioned by
the principle which is the very source and fountain
of all beauty (ibid., II, 132-33).

Among the kinds of beauty formed by man are also
his sentiments, resolutions, principles, and actions.
Beauty, in turn, provokes and furthers our social and
sympathetic emotions, quickening a pulsation of bal-
anced, harmonious feelings.

Shaftesbury's emphasis on beauty as a creative force
in man, an emphasis which is even stronger than in
Plato, the strong bond which he establishes between
our feeling for beauty and the forming of the person-
ality of the “virtuoso,” the fact that he relates the
principles of order, harmony, and proportion on which
beauty is founded to the principles of the new mathe-
matical sciences, as well as the link between these ideas
and the “high strains” (II, 129) of creative enthusiasm,
make Shaftesbury's conception of our apprehension of
beauty and the effect of beauty on our life a unique
and highly influential combination of the ancient and
the modern.

The idea of the harmonizing effect of beauty has
been developed further by several thinkers and linked
with the inner state achieved in the contemplation of
Being: the restlessness and uneasiness of our inquiring,
searching mind, the strain and intricacy of discursive


206

thinking, our volitions and desires, all are resolved and
come to rest when we behold beauty. In its contem-
plation our faculties are attuned in free and harmonious
interplay; we find fulfillment in self-forgetfulness and
abandon.

2. Immediate Perception.

The frequent occurrence
of the idea that beauty is perceived immediately can
be attributed probably to the common observation that
both the effect of and the response to natural beauty
are direct and are not based on the recognition of
prolonged application and preparation, or of achieve-
ment and action as is the case with virtues and abilities.
To some extent this observation holds true even for
the response to beauty in art. In aesthetic speculation
immediacy is, however, interpreted and justified in a
variety of ways.

According to empirical theory the eye and ear per-
ceive beauty as soon as the object or color, shape, and
sound are presented to them. The theory varies, how-
ever, as to whether beauty is placed into the object
itself or is considered to be the result of our sense
perception. There is further divergence in the expla-
nation of the process leading to the result. We find
the empirical conception occasionally even in meta-
physical theories of beauty; the perception is then
considered to apply to simple natural beauty (a faint
shadow of true beauty) and to be the first unreflected
step in our knowledge of beauty. The immediate per-
ception may be also an intuition ascribed to a special
sense or faculty, or to direct (not analytical or discur-
sive) knowledge.

The direct response to beauty is accounted for also
in terms of inner causation, as in the rousing of subcon-
scious, latent, deep-seated forces or emotions, whcih
cannot be analyzed. The argument of immediacy,
moreover, is used polemically against theories that
beauty is no primary datum, but is the result of sec-
ondary factors, such as utility, education, habit, or
custom.

3. The Process of Knowledge.

Opposed to the argu-
ment of immediate apprehension is the theory that the
notion of beauty is the result of a cognitive process,
in which quantity, quality, modality, and relation have
to be determined by comparison, by determination of
size and distance, and by the use of judgment. The
factors involved in the process vary according to the
conception of beauty. The faculty of judgment is pre-
dominant when norms, rules, and conformity form the
basis. Most of those who maintain the argument of
rational knowledge, posit a basic, direct response of
pleasure and emotion, which precedes, stimulates, and
accompanies the forming of knowledge.

There exists finally the opinion that owing to pro-
longed exercise of our aesthetic faculties and appli-
cation as well as cultivation of talent, the cognitive
process escapes notice, and we or others believe our
apprehension of beauty to be immediate.