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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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3. Experimental Psychology. The systematic exper-
imental study of aesthetic responses is generally re-
garded as having been initiated by Gustav Fechner,
in his Vorschule der Aesthetik (Leipzig, 1876). He has
been followed by a large number of investigators,
among whom Richard Müller-Freienfels and Max Des-
soir are especially noteworthy. Psychological aestheti-
cians have studied reactions to elements of visual,
musical, and verbal design (colors, lines, sounds of
words), and to combinations of elements (rhythm,
meter, pictorial balance); they have used the “method
of paired comparisons” to discover what kinds of object
certain people call beautiful, and what kinds of people
call certain objects beautiful—and why. They have
learned a great deal about preferences in these matters,
e.g., that it is not the Golden Rectangle, but propor-
tions close to it, that are preferred in playing cards,
etc.; that the popularity of red among American chil-
dren declines after age six; that British children find
beauty in nature before they become aware—about age
ten—of beauty in art; that when photographs of several
men or women are superimposed to produce a “pro-
file-picture,” it is judged more beautiful than the origi-
nals. Much of this work is reviewed in A. R. Chandler,
Beauty and Human Nature (New York and London,
1934), and C. W. Valentine, The Experimental Psychol-
ogy of Beauty
(London, 1962).

It is not always clear at what point psychological
aesthetics casts light on the nature of beauty. Valentine
holds—and offers experimental evidence (in Chs. 7 and


213

13) to show—that the appreciation of beauty is not
the same as the enjoyment of pleasure, though typically
accompanied by it; yet “It has been found more con-
venient in such psychological experiments to ask per-
sons the question, 'Do you like this, and if so, why?'
or 'Do you find this pleasing?' rather than “Do you
think this beautiful, and why?'” (p. 6). But different
questions, however convenient, are likely to evoke
different answers (cf. H. J. Eysenck, Sense and Non-
sense in Psychology,
Baltimore [1957], Ch. 8).

The problem of explaining our perception of beauty
(or our experience of kalistic pleasure) has tempted few
psychologists, and is generally thought to remain un-
solved. During the first decades of this century, the
Empathy Theory was widely accepted. First ex-
pounded by Theodor Lipps in his Aesthetik (2 vols.,
Hamburg and Leipzig, 1903-06), the theory was de-
veloped and popularized by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget),
in The Beautiful (Cambridge and New York, 1913) and
Herbert S. Langfeld, The Aesthetic Attitude (New York,
1920). The primary purpose of the Empathy Theory
was to explain the expressiveness of visual forms in
terms of the unconscious transference of the perceiver's
activities to the object (something in the mountain as
seen activates our tendency to rise, and so we see
mountain as “rising”); when the empathic response is
highly unified and quite uninhibited and unchecked,
beauty is experienced. The hypothesis was never veri-
fied, and serious difficulties were raised as a result of
some experiments. The satisfaction taken in perceiving
ordered patterns of visual stimuli has been explained
by the Gestalt psychologists in terms of phenomenal
“requiredness” and “good gestalts” (see, for example,
Kurt Koffka, “Problems in the Psychology of Art,” in
Art: A Bryn Mawr Symposium, Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1940);
but Gestalt psychologists have generally not given
special attention to beauty.