[Report] The Birth of Aesthetics as a Philosophical Discipline

14 June, 2010 Mark ROBERTS, KOBAYASHI Yasuo, KONDO Gaku, Visiting Speaker Series

On June 4, Jacqueline Lichtenstein gave a presentation entitled "La naissance de l’esthétique comme discipline philosophique" (The Birth of Aesthetics as a Philosophical Discipline). Starting from its appearance in Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century, Lichtenstein charts the importation of the notion of aesthetics to France, and its gradual acceptance as a philosophical concept.

【Jacqueline Lichtenstein: Université Paris IV-Sorbonne】

As a point of departure, Lichtenstein draws attention to the ambiguous boundaries of the field of aesthetics, and the effect of this ambiguity on its institutionalization since the mid-eighteenth century. In the present, aesthetics is generally seen as a branch of philosophy, but historically there was great resistance to this. As a Latin neologism coined by A. G. Baumgarten around 1750, “aesthetics” [aesthetica] is a hybrid term. Part Greek [aisthetikos], part Latin (the language of Baumgarten's text), the word passes into German as “ästhetik”. Originally conceived as a form of "inferior" knowledge (in the Leibnizian sense), Baumgarten proposes aesthetics as a form of inquiry with three broad goals: aesthetics would be simultaneously a science of sensory knowledge; a theory of beauty; and a theory of the liberal arts [beaux arts]. In a sense, the primordial ambiguity of Baumgarten’s notion with respect to the then-existing discourses on taste, beauty, sense, and the beaux arts accounts for the contradictory nature of aesthetics as we understand it today.

Following Baumgarten, the term “ästhetik” quickly gains currency in Germany. Between Herder and Kant, it enters into academic discourse, and soon acquires a self-reflexive dimension, i.e. that the nascent discipline of aesthetics also attempts to take stock of itself, measuring its own limits. Nevertheless, the value and suitability of the term ästhetik was also a subject of debate in Germany. Schlegel, for example, was opposed to this neologism, proposing the term “doctrine of art” [Kunstlehre] instead. Doubtless, Kant is the most important critic of the notion of aesthetics, though it is worth noting the evolution of the term in his own work: the “transcendental aesthetic” of the First Critique is distinct from the meaning of the aesthetic in the Third.


The resistance to both the word and the concept of “aesthetics” was even more pronounced across the Rhine. In the early nineteenth century, a translation of Schiller appears in France with the word “ästhetik” systematically expunged. An entry for l'esthétique was not included in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, nor in the Encyclopédie until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century. When an entry did finally appear in the latter, it was simply a translation of a German article, added as part of a supplement to the original publication. The word, like the discipline and the concept it represented was clearly marked as being of foreign origin. Translations of Kant and Hegel would have brought the notion of aesthetics into greater circulation in France, but these occurred relatively late.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, l’esthétique begins to have some currency in France, but it remains a fundamentally German concept, more a metaphysical question than a theory of art. It is not until 1864, that a "Professeur d'histoire de l'Art et d'esthétique" first appears at the École des Beaux-Arts (the post was granted to Hippolyte Taine). Similarly, the Collège de France established a chair of Aesthetics and Art History in 1878. By the early twentieth century, the École had reconceived the discipline as “the psychology of the plastic arts”. For its part, the Sorbonne finally created a chair of Aesthetics in 1921, for Victor Basch.


For Lichtenstein, the question becomes: what accounts for this resistance? Since the middle of the seventeenth century, discourses on art, beauty, taste and sensibility had been taken up more seriously in France, so it is curious that the notion of the aesthetic was not met with greater receptivity. Theorists and critics of art in France had discussed classic works, though it is worth noting the distinction between the criticism of practicing artists and that of those who were only spectators. It is perhaps more significant that the tradition of art criticism in France, though it gains force around the same time as the concept of ästhetik appears in Germany, was essentially non-philosophical. The existence of this tradition, encompassing both a theory or art and art criticism, accounts for the distance given to the notion of aesthetics in France. Madame de Staël, for example, praises the sensibility and achievements of Schiller, but adds that she finds “too much metaphysics” [il y a trop de métaphysique] in his Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man.

In Japan, incidentally, the term "aesthetics" was introduced in 1883 by Nakae Choumin, whose translation of Eugène Véron's L'esthétique (originally published in 1878) served to establish the rendering of the word l'esthétique as bigaku in Japanese. A best-seller in its day, cited enthusiastically by Huysmans, Signac, Tolstoy and others, Véron's book was subsequently forgotten. Lichtenstein discovered it completely by chance at a bouquiniste. (Today a new edition aspires to restore Véron's place in the history of art and aesthetics).

By the mid-twentieth century, critics and philosophers in France no longer consider aesthetics to be a foreign concept or tradition. It gradually gains acceptance as a theoretical enterprise, and is developed in relation both to art history and more scientific discourses on art. Nevertheless, even in the present, the fundamental ambiguity in the term l’esthétique has not disappeared.

(Report: M. Roberts)


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