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  • Toward a Comprehensive Interpretation of Aesthetics
  • Walter B. Gulick (bio)

I. Introduction: A Cursory Historical Preview

What is the nature and scope of aesthetic sensibility and thought? Answers to this question have varied greatly over the centuries. In recent decades, however, there have been few attempts to describe the nature and scope of aesthetics within the ambiance of a far-reaching context that takes account of contemporary developments in relevant disciplines. My intention in this essay is to sketch out the contours of such a comprehensive theory.

Toward that end I will first offer a brief impressionistic account of the varied ways aesthetic qualities of experience have been treated during the unfolding of Western thought. In Plato's Symposium, the loving attention devoted to facets of beauty interprets them as but varied expressions of the objective Form of Beauty. Experiences of this Form are presented as central to meaningful existence. Subsequent to the attention accorded aesthetics in classical times, derivative versions of aesthetics as an independent reality lingered until the seventeenth century. Then gradually, concomitant with the rise of modern philosophy, with its increased attention to epistemology, aesthetic judgments became interpreted by such thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume as subjective matters of taste, in contrast to the objectivity promised in mathematics, science, and technology. By consigning aesthetics to the subjectivity of taste, these philosophers in effect consigned aesthetics to the arbitrary and evanescent. In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant admitted that aesthetic experience is grounded in a subjective response of taste, but he also noted that "the judgement of taste also claims, as every other empirical judgment does, to be valid for all men."1 As will be indicated shortly, Kant developed a robust theory of aesthetics that must be taken into account by any comprehensive theory.

Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century only a partial version of Kant's broad understanding of aesthetics attracted attention. Disinterested discernment of beauty in the arts came to define (and constrain) the nature of aesthetics, a tendency that reached its climactic expression in aestheticism at the [End Page 151] end of the century. American philosophers in the pragmatic and process traditions attempted with some success in the first third of the twentieth century to reveal the broad reach of aesthetics. Charles Sanders Peirce, the originator of the pragmatic tradition, granted aesthetics the privileged position among the normative sciences. Peirce's view of aesthetics, in addition to Kant's, will be featured in this essay—Kant because of the influence of his comprehensive theory, Peirce because his thought is arguably the most insightful of any American philosopher and because he claims that aesthetics is foundational for normative thought.

The importance the classical American philosophers accorded aesthetics tended to be cast aside as the twentieth century proceeded. Positivist influences shaped Anglo-American analytic thought. Aesthetics was again narrowly tethered to the philosophy of the arts and tended to focus on subjective matters of taste. Discussion of the nature and limits of aesthetic language about the arts became prominent at the expense of a more fully embodied understanding of aesthetics.

In recent decades, an expanded understanding of aesthetics has again been voiced by a varied group of often disconnected philosophers. Thinkers as diverse as Arnold Berleant, Emily Brady, Frank Burch Brown, Allen Carlson, Robert Corrington, Catherine Elgin, John Kaag, Mark Johnson, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Thomas Leddy, Yuriko Saito, and Richard Shusterman have authored works that address how cognitive and noncognitive aspects of aesthetics are dispersed throughout human thought and behavior. Some of these philosophers focus on aesthetic experience, some on aesthetic judgments of various types, some on the role of aesthetic elements in ordinary life, and so on. Little has been done to integrate the expanded appreciations of aesthetics with predecessor versions to create a comprehensive whole.2 In this essay I sketch out a theory of situational aesthetics as an attempt to reinstitute such systemic vision.

What presuppositions and biases do I bring to this attempt? I believe a comprehensive theory adequate to our current understanding of human interaction [End Page 152] with a complex world must incorporate the following features: it must be naturalistic in its approach (in contrast to being limited by such...


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