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  • ‘‘The Delight and Torment of the World’’ — Aesthetics and its History
  • Endre Szécsényi
A History of Modern Aesthetics, 3 vols, by Paul Guyer. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014. xii, 578 pp.; vi, 478 pp.; x, 658 pp. $335.00 US (cloth).

‘‘Beauty has been the Delight and Torment of the World ever since it began. The Philosophers have felt its Influence so sensibly, that almost every one of them has left us some Saying or other, which has intimated that he too well knew the Power of it.’’—Richard Steele remarked wisely in 1711 (The Spectator, No. 144). Though he did not have the faintest idea about a new philosophical discipline exploring the beautiful, the sublime, the novel and the like, he was one of the first authors who supported its emergence. In his Vorschule zur Ästhetik of 1804, Jean Paul already complained that aesthetes were incredibly numerous. And, finally, when Nicolai Hartmann was writing the chapters—for example, about the ‘‘menschliche Schönheit als Erscheinung’’—of his monumental Ästhetik in a Berlin cellar during the carpet-bombing raids of the Allies, that could be regarded as a symbol of the agony of systematic ‘‘philosophical aesthetics.’’ (Two of these three authors are not even mentioned in the 1,714 pages which are being reviewed.)1

The word ‘‘aesthetics’’ was coined by Alexander von Baumgarten as late as 1735 (his Latin Aesthetica came to light only in 1750), still the first history of aesthetics was published as early as 1799 by Joseph Koller, though it is rather an annotated bibliography. Nevertheless it lists the major authors of this new discipline including Baumgarten, Lord Kames, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Schiller who have become inevitable figures of the subsequent series of the histories of aesthetics.2 Robert Zimmermann, later professor of philosophy in Vienna, wrote the first elaborated history of aesthetics in the middle of the nineteenth century (beginning with Socrates and presenting history as a ‘‘historic-critical’’ story that concludes into the [End Page 333] author’s own aesthetic theory published in a separate volume).3 Since then several influential narratives have been published. It is worth mentioning at least the classical works of Max Schasler from 1872, Menéndez y Pelayo from 1883–89, K. Heinrich von Stein from 1886, Benedetto Croce from 1902, Alfred Baeumler from 1921, and Ernst Cassirer from 1932.4 Only some of the newer historical interpretations of modern aesthetics or philosophies of art are briefly discussed by Guyer in a single footnote.5 Of course, a huge literature has simultaneously been written on the history of rhetoric and literary theory, of criticism, and of art theory, but aesthetics has somehow preserved its relative independence, probably by means of its intimate connection with philosophy; thus, for example, the poet Samuel T. Coleridge with his philosophical attitude and interest is almost an indispensable figure in the histories of aesthetics, while such significant critics with otherwise profound theoretical inclination as John Dryden, John Dennis, Samuel Johnson, or Matthew Arnold usually do not receive due attention (sometimes, they are not even mentioned). In the Anglo-American part of the academic world, the last comprehensive history of [End Page 334] aesthetics was written by Beardsley in 1966,6 and the previous one was first published in 1939.7 Paul Guyer made his contribution to this tradition of historiography and signed up to this list of illustrious historians in 2014.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that Paul Guyer’s three-volume history is a respectable enterprise; only a few scholars are capable of completing such a gigantic work. It must have required heroic efforts and an extremely high endurance for years of writing and researching. No doubt, every future reader will learn, as I also did, a lot from these volumes. Generations will come to consult them with satisfaction; and personally, I would have been glad, as an undergraduate in Aesthetics at Pécs in the late 1980s, had I had a similar set of volumes to overview the history of modern aesthetics.8 The first deals with the eighteenth century from Lord Shaftesbury to Immanuel Kant, the second with the nineteenth century from the early...


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