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Inventing the Aesthetic: A Historic-Theoretical Approach

Final Report Summary - INVENTING AESTHETIC (Inventing the Aesthetic: A Historic-Theoretical Approach)

By “the aesthetic” the researcher means a radically modern phenomenon emerging in the second half of the 17th and early 18th centuries, and not an adjective referring to the common set of philosophies (metaphysics) of beauty and / or theories of (fine) arts in general. He considers it rather as a new perspective, sensibility or attitude—i.e. a new type of experience—without precedent in Antiquity or even the Renaissance, which plays a constitutive part in the formation of modern European culture (manners, communication, education, institutions, etc), and which, by virtue of its ever closer connections to social and moral issues, also has a great and profound political relevance. It is a special modern European experience of interconnection between the sensible and the transcendental, in which the former is not a disposable “means” toward, but an indispensable and constitutive “frame” for the latter; and this new form of experience can and does reconfigure and shape both the “nature” of transcendence, and the self of the beholder. The research focused on its genealogy in the period between the 1630s and the 1730s.
The researcher distinguished the relevant discourses (including the discovery of new texts and authors still not integrated into this subject), to reconstruct intellectual models and spiritual attitudes on the basis of and through the interpretation of mainly theoretical texts written during that 100-year span. This period is generally considered as the pre-history of modern aesthetics, and most narratives treat it as a history of criticism or of theories of fine arts, as a series of problems of Baroque and Neo-Classical art-theories, or as an infirm preparation for the 18th century philosophical aesthetics written by A. Baumgarten or I. Kant. The researcher’s approach differs from most of these narratives in the following ways. (1) His usage of the term “the aesthetic” is not that of a universal something which has always existed and taken different forms of expression during the history of mankind, but is as a something which had to be invented, developed, and, finally, formed into a philosophical discipline during (and interwound with) the emergence of modernity in Europe. (2) He argues that the emerging modern aesthetic had much less to do with fine arts and criticism than is usually supposed, so it is far from sufficient to study aesthetics as consisting of a definite corpus of art and philosophical reflections on it; and (3) it was only a late 18th-century sequel that replaced aesthetics with the philosophy of art, and it meant a significant reduction in the scope (and meaning) of earlier aesthetics for the sake of the autonomy, of the genius artist, of the work of art for its own sake. (3) “The aesthetic” was a result of the interaction and interference of several discourses; this process was multidisciplinary, having to do with theology, moral philosophy, natural sciences, rhetoric, epistemology (psychology), philosophical anthropology, conversational literature. Therefore its birth was not due to an individual inventor, nor did it belong to a particular philosophical school or work, but it was a multinational and multidisciplinary enterprise. The modern aesthetic was invented as a promise to humans that they would be able to regain the harmony or compatibility between the worldly and celestial, between the human and the divine, between the individual and society, between felicity and virtue in a re-shaped form fitted to the radically new spiritual, intellectual and cultural climate.
Within this two-year project the researcher concentrated on three major topics, and has written separate studies and talks about them (simultaneously with the chapters of his monograph): (1) about the concept of gustus spiritualis and its interpretations and applications in the theological language of the late 16th and the 17th centuries. This approach proved to be fruitful in many respects for reconstructing new attitudes to “sensual” transcendence, and it also cast new light on the issue of secularization. Generally speaking, it is thought that certain theological concepts were transformed into aesthetic ones through a broad secularization (Entzauberung) process in Europe. These scheme might explain some important shifts in the meaning and usage of key-terms and conceptions, such as the transformation of the traditional concept of gustus spiritualis into the (aesthetic) taste discussed and elaborated in social-moral-cultural context, or the traditional mystical experience into the aesthetic experience of (natural) sublime. It turned out, however, that at least there was also a contrary intention (in B. Gracián, D. Bouhours, or in the Protestant meditation literature), that is, getting worldly taste spiritualised by means of, or patterned on the example of, devotional exercises, instead of making spiritual taste secularised (or merely profane).
(2) Joseph Addison’s essays and essay-series especially on wit, on cheerfulness, on the pleasures of the imagination, of “moral and divine” proved also fruitful in exploring the multidisciplinary nature of emerging aesthetic experience. From a philosophical point of view Addison’s essays are quite eclectic, but the very genre of the essay made it possible for him to grasp and put together many of those discourses and ideas which would play significant roles in the emergence of modern aesthetics in the 18th century. Amongst the traditions Addison exploited were physico-theology, devotional literature (especially, Protestant meditations since the time of J. Hall) and, of course, J. Tillotson’s Latitudinarian theology. At the same time, Addison, as a man of letters, also integrated his Neo-Classical poetical (and rhetorical) criticism with that new type of experience of nature which was inherently religious, was expressed in the terms of “innocent pleasures”, and which can retrospectively be called “aesthetic”. Addison’s essays proved a fertile focal point in mapping the theoretical potentials of the emerging “aesthetic”, this is why the researcher chose him as the subject of the first chapter of his monograph. Hence this approach also offers new viewpoints for the clarification of the complicated relationship and interactions between the new “aesthetic” and the traditional “poetic” or “rhetorical” – which is an important scientific result of this research, since this relationship is not very well discussed in the scholarship.
(3) F. Hutcheson’s Inquiry of 1725, more exactly its first treatise was the earliest (philosophical) aesthetics in Europe which inspired an impressive number of authors to treat this subject in the 18th century. I insisted on an approach which differs from the mainstream in the scholarship: Hutcheson can fruitfully be studied as an end point or as a synthesising figure. His aesthetic thoughts, in a sense, represent more theoretical achievements accumulated in different discourses of the last 100 years than A. Baumgarten’s famous dissertation in which he coined the term “aesthetics.” Despite the richness and manifoldness of Hutcheson’s Inquiry, originated from the doctrines and manners of Lockeian epistemology, Shaftesburian conversational philosophy, rhetoric, Latitudinarian theology, or natural sciences, Baumgarten’s thoughts became more successful at least in the process through which “the aesthetic” was transformed into a philosophical discipline with an autonomous field of study. Yet I would like to present Hutcheson’s aesthetic conception as a valid theoretical alternative to the aesthetics formulated in Leibnizian, Wolffian philosophical language.
The main results of the research are the following: six conference- or workshop-talks, three articles (one of them is a feature review) in peer-reviewed academic journals, another article (in Hungarian) in a collection of studies, an edited special issue of the Journal of Scottish Thought, two organized symposia at the University of Aberdeen, and four chapters of the monograph. The reception of the published articles and also the special issue on F. Hutcheson’s aesthetics is quite good, several academics (from the United States to Romania) in the scholarship of the history of aesthetics and early modern intellectual history utilize those new viewpoints and insights which the researcher has raised, and prospectively the monograph (to be published in early 2017) is going to strengthen the impact of the researcher’s achievements on the scholarship.