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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The History of Form A. Words which the ancient
Greeks used to name beauty etymologically meant
pattern or proportion of parts. For visible beauty, for
works of architecture or sculpture, symmetria, that is,
commensurability, was the principal term; for audible
beauty, for musical works it was harmonia, that is,
consonance. The word taxis, that is, order, had a similar
meaning. Such were the ancient synonyms of form A,
the disposition or order of parts. These terms were not
accidental: the Greeks used them because they were
convinced that beauty—particularly of the visible and
audible kind—consists in an arrangement and propor-


tion of parts, in form. This was their great contribution
to aesthetic theory.

This aesthetic theory, as testified by Aristotle, origi-
nated among Pythagoreans, probably in the fifth cen-
tury B.C., and claimed that beauty consists in a well-
defined simple proportion of parts. Strings produce
harmonious sounds when their length is in proportion
to the relatively simple ratio of one to two (octave)
or two to three (fifth). A portico of a temple is perfect
if its height, width, and the arrangement of columns
are computed according to the accepted module (in
the Doric temples architects regarded five to eight as
the correct ratio of the width of columns to the space
between). A man, as well as a monument, is beautiful
when his proportions are correct; sculptors observed
the one to eight ratio of the head to the body and
one to three of the forehead to the face.

The Pythagoreans, convinced that beauty depends
on proportions, expressed this in a very general for-
mula: “order and proportion are beautiful and useful”
(Stobaeus IV, 1, 40). “No art comes about without
proportion. All art therefore arises through number.
So there is a certain proportion in sculpture and also
in painting. Generally speaking, every art is a system
of perceptions, and a system implies number; one can
therefore justly say: things look beautiful by virtue of
number” (Sextus Empiricus VII, 106).

The Pythagoreans, point of view was maintained by
Plato: “It is always beautiful and virtuous to preserve
measure and proportions” (Philebus 64E). “Ugliness
means simply a lack of measure” (Sophist 228A).
Aristotle's view was similar: “Beauty consists in mag-
nitude and ordered arrangement” (Poetics 1450b 38).
Just as the Stoics thought: “Bodily beauty is the pro-
portion of limbs in their mutual relation and in relation
to the whole; so is it the case with the beauty of the
soul” (Stobaeus II, 62, 15). Cicero thought similarly:
“Harmonious symmetry of limbs engages the attention
and delights the eye” (De officiis I, 28, 98). Of the six
qualities of architecture that Vitruvius recognized as
many as four (ordinatio, dispositio, eurythmia, sym-
) consist in the correct arrangement or disposi-
tion of parts (De architectura I, 2, 1). It is rather unusual
for a general theory to meet with such a universal
acceptance over so long a period of time. A nine-
teenth-century historian of aesthetics, R. Zimmermann,
maintained that the principle of ancient art was form
(Zimmermann, p. 192). This view is correct, and refers
to the meaning of form as an orderly disposition and
proportion of parts.

The privileged position of form as orderly disposition
was not called in question until Plotinus, at the close
of antiquity in the third century A.D. While agreeing
that the proportion of parts is the basis of beauty he
disputed whether proportion is regarded as its only
basis (Enneads I 6, 1; VI 7, 22). Had that been the
case, only composite things could then be beautiful,
whereas there are things which though simple are yet
beautiful, e.g., the sun, light, gold. Beauty therefore,
as Plotinus said, lies not only in proportions but in the
luster of things as well. Since that time the position
of form A, although still privileged in the theory of
art, has ceased to be exclusive.

In the Middle Ages aesthetics had appeared in not
one but two varieties. According to the one which was
true to the ancient Greek tradition, beauty and art
consisted in form alone. Saint Augustine supported and
unheld this theory: “Every thing pleases only by
beauty; in beauty, by shapes; in shapes, by proportions;
and in proportions, by numbers” (De ordine II 15, 42).
No Greek in classical antiquity ever expressed this old
Hellenic idea more emphatically than this Father of
the Church. “There is no ordered thing which is not
beautiful” (De vera religione XLI, 77). And again:
“Beautiful things please us by their number” (De
VI 12, 38). And lastly: “The more measure,
shape, and order there is in all things, the more they
have that is good” (De natura boni 3). This triad
(modus, species, ordo) became the formula of medieval
aesthetics and survived a thousand years. It was re-
peated literally in the thirteenth century by the great
scholastic compendium Summa Alexandri: “A thing is
said to be beautiful in the world when it observes the
proper measure, form, and order—modum, speciem, et
” (Quaracchi ed., II, 103). Taken together they
were synonyms of what we call form.

In the Middle Ages the principal term for form A
was figura (from the Latin fingere, to shape). Abélard
defined it as a disposition of the body (compositio
), both of the model and of the work of art
(ed. Geyer, p. 236). However, the term forma was also
used in this meaning. As early as in the sixth century
Isidore of Seville composed both terms figura and
forma (Differentiae, Ch. 1). In the twelfth century
Gilbert de la Porrée wrote: “Form is used in many
meanings; also in the meaning of the figure of bodies”
(Porretanus, p. 1138). The treatise Sententiae divini-
(ed. Geyer, p. 101), dating from the same century,
stressed the distinction between the conceptual form
(form D) and visual form (form A). Clarembaldus of
Arras defined form (A) as follows: “Form is the appro-
priate arrangement of parts in material things” (ed.
Jansen, p. 91). Alain of Lille considered as synonyms:
form, shape (figura), measure, number, connection
(Patrologia Latina, Vol. 210, col. 504). The ancient
symmetry, harmony, proportion was called form.

This usage lasted until the end of the Middle Ages.
As Duns Scotus formulated it: “Form and figure are


the external disposition of things” (ed. Garcia, p. 281).
Also, in the works of Ockham it was part of their
regular terminology: form was on a par with figure
(ed. Baudry, p. 225 and p. 94).

The adjective formosus was, fairly early, incorpo-
rated into the language of art. This adjective meant
the same as shapely, well-proportioned, beautiful; it
conveyed a favorable aesthetic judgment, and was a
sign of the appreciation of form in the Middle Ages.
Then followed the noun formositas (“shapeliness”),
which meant the same as beauty. The negative adjec-
tive deformis (“shapeless,” “ugly”) was also used. In
Bernard of Clairvaux we find a play on the words
formosa deformitas and deformis formositas which he
used to describe the art of his time (Patrologia Latina,
Vol. 182, col. 915).

In its second variety, medieval aesthetics followed
Plotinus with his dualistic conception: beauty consists
in form but not exclusively in form. Just as Augustine
championed the first conception, Pseudo-Dionysius
advocated the second (De divinis nominibus IV, 7). He
is the author of the dual criterion of “proportion and
luster” (proportio et claritas), a conception of beauty
which also had many followers. Robert Grosseteste
described beauty as proportion, but concerning the
beauty of light he maintained that “it is based not on
number, not on measure, and not on weight or anything
else like that, but on sight” (Hexaemeron 147 v). The
second conception won the support of Saint Thomas
Aquinas in his early commentary on In divina nomina
(Ch. IV, lect. 5), and in his Summa theologica (II-a
IIae.180 a.2 ad3): “Beauty consists in a certain luster
and proportion” (Pulchrum consistit in quadam
claritate et proportione

Both trends in aesthetics, with their different ap-
proaches to form A, persisted during the Renaissance.
The line advocated by Pseudo-Dionysius was kept alive
by the Platonic Academy in Florence. Its head,
Marsilio Ficino remarked: “Some regard beauty as an
arrangement of component parts, or to use their own
words, commensurability and proportion.... We do
not accept this view because this kind of arrangement
occurs only in composites and, therefore, no simple
thing can be beautiful. However, pure colors, lights,
separate sounds, the glitter of gold and silver, knowl-
edge, the soul, are all called beautiful and are all pure
and simple” (Convivium V 1). This was in agreement
with the beliefs of Plotinus and his medieval followers.
Pico della Mirandola's pronouncements were similar.
However, the representatives of this dualistic concep-
tion were in a minority during the Renaissance.

It was the classical theory which again became pre-
dominant; namely, that beauty consists exclusively in
the disposition and proportion of parts, in form (A).
This was the case in Alberti's treatises which formu
lated the Renaissance theory of beauty and art: “Beauty
is a harmony of all the mutually adapted parts” (De
re aedificatoria
VI 2); “... beauty is a concordance
and mutual attunement of parts.” The consonance of
parts determining beauty was called by Alberti con-
serto, consenso, concordantia, corrispondenza,
and par-
ticularly concinnitas. Following Alberti the last term
was most commonly used in the Renaissance to de-
scribe perfect form. Nevertheless, Alberti used other
names too: ordine, numero, grandezza, collocatione e
(ibid., IX 5).

Alberti had followers. In 1525 Cardinal Bembo
wrote: “The body is beautiful when its members are
in proportion to each other, just as with the soul whose
virtues are in mutual harmony” (Gli Asolani I). The
great Palladio saw the excellence of architecture in
forme belle e regolate (Palladio, I, 1, p. 6). And the
philosopher-mathematician Cardano explained once
more that beauty depends on simple proportions (De
p. 275).

This conception of art based on form persisted in
seventeenth-century France. It is most clearly stated
by Nicolas Poussin. It appears also in the French
Academy, where a particular stress was placed on the
rules which govern form. We find it in the writings
of the academic theorists André Félibien, Abraham
Bosse, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, Henri Testelin
(Tatarkiewicz, Historia Estetyki, III, 389, n. 471). The
classical conception was advanced by François Blondel,
author of a classic work on architecture; according to
him, in a building the following are essential: “l'ordre,
la situation, l'arrangement, la forme, le nombre, la
proportion” (Blondel, p. 785).

The supremacy of form—if form is understood as
a simple, conspicuous disposition of parts which can
be defined in numbers—declined in the eighteenth
century under the spell of romanticism. Nevertheless,
it soon revived, in the neo-classicism of the end of the
century, in the writings of Johann Joachim Winckel-
mann and Quatremère de Quincy. De Quincy (p. 66)
proclaimed true beauty to be “geometrical.” And in-
dependently of all artistic trends, of classicism and
romanticism, Kant declared in 1790 that “in all the
fine arts the essential element consists, of course, in
form” (Kritik der Urteilskraft, sec. 52).

In the first half of the nineteenth century idealische
(“ideal Beauty”) distracted aestheticians
away from form but only briefly. The term embodying
the concept of form A reappeared in J. F. Herbart's
aesthetics and especially in the writings of his disciple,
R. Zimmermann, whose entire aesthetics was conceived
as Formwissenschaft (“science of form”), precisely in
the sense of form A, that is, of the interrelation of

The recognition of the importance of formal rela-


tions in the arts is not a modern achievement; formal
relations were the foundation of Greek aesthetics. On
the other hand, it is indeed true to say that in certain
trends in art and art theory, the twentieth century has
again brought form to the fore in several meanings of
the term, including that of form A. Stanislaw I.
Witkiewicz and the adherents of “formism” and pure
form defended form A in Poland, Clive Bell and Roger
Fry in England. Emotions connected with figurative
art, Fry said, quickly evaporate and those which remain
spring from a purely formal relation: “what remains,
what never grows less nor evaporates, are the feelings
dependent on the purely formal relation.

Twentieth-century artists and theoreticians concur
on this point even when some of them use different
terminology. Instead of “form” Charles Jeanneret (Le
Corbusier) said “invariants” (esprit Nouveau, 1921). He
also said: la science et l'art ont l'idéal commun de
généraliser, ce qui est la plus haute fin de l'esprit
ence and art share the common ideal of generalizing,
which is the highest goal of the mind”).

Among those who in the twentieth century have
been concerned with the problem of form in art some,
like E. Monod-Herzen, give it a purely geometrical
interpretation, and others, like M. Ghyka, a mystical
one. The ancients, especially the Pythagoreans, were
familiar with both interpretations. While the whole
ancient theory of art attached particular importance
to form, the twentieth century sees only some move-
ments in art theory doing the same, but in a more
radical way.

A noted contemporary American aesthetician, Karl
Aschenbrenner, has offered the following solution to
the controversy over form: form alone (meaning form
A) does not determine the aesthetic impact of a work
of art, which is also composed of elements, but only
form can be analyzed adequately and is, therefore,
alone fit to be the subject of aesthetic theory. This view
is a new solution to the old problem.

Surveying two thousand years of the history of form
A, we notice another point; namely, form used to mean
either any arrangement of parts or more exclusively,
a correct, beautiful, harmonious, and orderly arrange-
ment; synonyms of this narrower sense of form A were
symmetria, concordantia, concinnitas. Particularly with
the Pythagoreans and Augustine, form used to mean
an arrangement or order which is rational, regular, and
expressible by numbers; this more specific meaning
explains the Greek and scholastic synonyms of form,
e.g., numerus and ordo. A more thorough analysis will
therefore distinguish any arrangement (form A) from
a harmonious or regular order (a subspecies, form A1).

The narrowing of the concept of form A to the more
specific form A1, in the sense that only an outstanding
form is worthy of its name, may be illustrated in many
fields. In Latin paleography, from the thirteenth to the
fifteenth century, a certain style of writing was called
litteraformata, but only when it was used for the
copying of important, biblical and liturgical texts, and
had a ceremonial character. Furthermore, in ordinary
everyday handwriting, litteracursiva, a refined variant
appeared around 1400 and was called cursiva formata.

“Structure” is an often used term in recent years,
and its meaning is close to that of form A. However,
it usually refers only to nonaccidental forms created
by inner forces or internal drives. Consequently it
applies rather to biological or geological structures;
but recently, the term and concept of structure have
been adopted in the theory of art. This usage expresses
the tendency to regard forms of works of art as
products of natural processes. If we are to include
structures in the “family” of forms, they may be con-
sidered closely related to form A, particularly to form
A1, but sui generis are a second subspecies, form A2.