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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 339-341

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An Introduction to "Aesthetics and the Disciplines"

Peter Fenves

Aesthetics has been the source of controversy since its inception. In 1750, when Alexander Baumgarten, who invented the term some fifteen years earlier, published the first volume of his massive, incomplete, and rarely read treatise entitled Aesthetica, he anticipated the tone that much of the controversy would adopt: "The following objections can be raised against our science: 1) it is so widely conceived that it cannot be exhausted in a single book, a single lecture course"--and a fortiori a single issue of a scholarly journal. After conceding the point, Baumgarten immediately responds: "But something is better than nothing [Sed praestat aliquid nihilo]." 1 The philosopher--whose largely inconspicuous wit occasionally interrupts his often-tedious analyses--can take the superiority of existence over nothingness for granted. The editor of a journal cannot. It is by no means clear that aesthetics is something in the strong sense of the term: some one thing, the various parts of which constitute integral elements of a unified entity, structure, or project. Baumgarten is doubtless aware of this concern--it forms the substance of the next series of objections discussed in the "Prolegomena" 2 --but he remains confident that, after all, aesthetics will remain a single science, regardless of how many traditional disciplines it may ultimately encompass. There is at least one reason for his confidence: as the "science of sensory cognition [scientia cognitionis sensitivae]" (§ 1), aesthetics, for Baumgarten, can guarantee its coherence and unity by defining the goal of sensory cognition as such. Its name is beauty: "The goal of aesthetics [aesthetices finis] is the perfection of sensory cognition, which is what is meant by 'beauty'" (§ 14). Aesthetics is defined--and guaranteed to be a finite enterprise--by virtue of the immanent aim of its internal object. Philosophical science, as rational cognition, grasps the forms and principles by which sensory cognition comes to perfection. [End Page 339]

The ten essays in this special issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies take issue with this goal and thereby pose once again--and from a variety of perspectives--the implicit question with which Baumgarten begins his Aesthetica: Is aesthetics something after all? The alternative is not, of course, that aesthetics is nothing but that it is a plurality of programs, the function of which is determined in each instance anew by the aims an aesthetic inquiry seeks to accomplish--or tries to thwart. Jonathan Kramnick, drawing on previous discussions of disciplinarity in Eighteenth-Century Studies, sets the agenda for the issue by examining the manner in which literary criticism sought to solve the problems of independent disciplines, which, as such, cannot be contained by the kind of systematic scientific enterprise that philosophers like Baumgarten belatedly tried to complete. Gabrielle Starr takes aim at an undeniable tendency of aesthetics, which can even be found in Baumgarten's own effort to secure the status of his new endeavor by presenting beauty as "the perfection of sensory cognition": the pleasure associated with the perception of beautiful things does not easily or happily stand alone but must, instead, be made to work for ulterior aims--those of cognition or ethics, for example. Tom Huhn's investigation can also be understood in terms of what Baumgarten's definition of beauty leaves unspoken: like other investigations into the theory of the liberal arts in the eighteenth century, it makes scant reference to mimesis or imitation. Suspecting that appearances in this case are deceptive, Huhn tracks down the function of these concepts in Burke's now-classical exposition of the beautiful and the sublime. David Porter goes in the opposite direction, so to speak: not toward the invisible lineaments in a much-analyzed treatment of beauty but toward definitely non-classical yet highly visible form of aesthetic delight in the eighteenth-century Britain, namely "the Chinese taste." David Marshall completes this foray into strictly British aesthetics by analyzing a form of beauty--neither classical nor non-classical--where the lines that distinguish art from nature are effectively erased; by making this distinction...


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