Abstract

Abstract:

Focusing on Joseph Addison's influential Spectator papers, this essay examines the emergence of modern aesthetic theory in the context of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century science. Rather than arising as compensatory form of spirituality in a newly disenchanted world, as is often thought, aesthetics came into being at a time when science understood itself to be doing theological work, uncovering (however provisionally, however incompletely) the divine order of things. These scientific investigations contributed to a vibrant and sophisticated discourse of world contemplation, which, I argue, provided the inspiration and intellectual underpinnings for modern aesthetic theory. First, the new science reinvigorated the classical idea that humans are born to contemplate the cosmos—a project it recast in its own mechanical and physico-theological terms—making a cogent case for the value of world gazing and supplying Addison with a fundamental orientation toward the world: the world is an exquisitely constructed machine, divine in origin, that not only invites and rewards but even demands our reverential attention. Early aesthetics and early science diverged not over metaphysics but over how each contemplated this self-same world, which brings us to science's second crucial contribution to modern aesthetics. Keen to establish itself, the new science highlighted what was distinctive about its mode of contemplation: rather than simply marveling at God's creation, it pried beyond nature's surface to understand its inner workings. Addison, fully persuaded by natural philosophy's distinction between the micromechanical reality of things and their phenomenal appearances, framed aesthetic experience wholly in terms of the latter. Aesthetics, in other words, would concern itself not with things themselves but with the looks of things. What Gadamer decried as Kant's "radical subjectivization" of aesthetics thus didn't need to wait for Kant. It was one of the founding moves of modern aesthetics, what distinguished aesthetic from scientific world contemplation from the very start.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. 639-659
Launched on MUSE
2020-10-03
Open Access
No
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