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Can we ever define the aesthetic?

There is a long standing inability by the world’s most eminent and distinguished thinkers to find agreement on a definition of beauty/aesthetics. By contrast most people, when asked, believe that there is such a thing as a ‘commonly held view’ or standard of beauty that we all share. For example many would see beauty in a sunset but not in a toad or in a group of numbers.

On close inspection it appears that not only has there never been a commonly held agreement about aesthetics but in fact many views are held in passionate opposition to each other. The little that is agreed, is that aesthetics comes from the Greek word αισθητική meaning a perceiver or sensitive, and that aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty. The word aesthetics was first used as we now ‘understand’ it by German philosophers/theologians: A, G, Baumgarten 1714 –1762 & K. F. E. Trahndorff 1782 – 1863. Their work helped to establish the study of aesthetics as a separate philosophical field of study. As to who gets credited is also strongly debated – my money is on Baumgarten.

The word aesthetic can be used as a noun meaning "that which appeals to the senses." However, soon after that agreement starts to come 'undone' when we compare eminent thinkers throughout the ages, mathematicians and philosophers, such as Pythagoras (about 569 BC - 475 BC) through to great writers like Shakespeare (1564 -1616), Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) and later day philosophers/novelist like Voltaire - François-Marie Arouet - (1694 - 1778), Hume (1711 - 1776) Ralph W Emerson (1803 - 1882) Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) Henry James (1843 to 1916) Hermann Hesse (1877 –1962) and Russell (1872 - 1970) - the list just goes on and on - have all had inspirational views on how and where to find aesthetic beauty, however, these deep thinkers all failed to find agreement on a standard definition of beauty.

Pythagoras’ view on beauty is much the same as Russell’s – measurable and definable - but precedes Russell by over two and a half centuries. Russell proposed “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.” Russell, B. (1918).

In contrast there is the belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: “Ask a toad what beauty is, .... he will answer you that it is his toad wife..........”. Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary.

I consider that a loose but elegant arrangement engaging both polarized views (a.) measurement approaches (learnt knowledge of assessing) and (b.) non-measurement approaches (instinctive knowledge by using personal judgment) can be used to identify the existence of beauty/aesthetic: “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye, Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues”. Shakespeare, W., Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Shakespeare is acknowledging the necessity for an awareness of one’s own instinctive experience of the aesthetic. However the aesthetic value should not be based solely on the views of others or just one’s own. The polarities in the historical debate, the measurable or the non-measurable, misses the point. As everything is connected, wholeness is at the root of everything. “I am large, I contain multitudes” Whitman, W., When feeling at one with everything, the debate regarding measurable or non-measurable becomes meaningless.

I would suggest that you let ‘intention’ be your guide when experiencing the aesthetic, ask yourself what was the artist’s intention and look at your own intention when being creative.

“Be curious, not judgmental.” Whitman, W.  

“I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha. He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.” Hesse, H., Siddhartha.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” Emerson, R,W., Emerson's Essays.

Frank H. McClean MA

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