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What Really Happened in the Eighteenth Century: The Modern System Re-examined (Again)

Peter Kivy
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There is much in James I. Porters recent critique of Kristellers Modern System of the Arts that is true and enlightening. But somethingsome thingsof great moment in the history of aesthetics and philosophy of art transpired in the age of the Enlightenment, as badly described, and, no doubt, in some ways as badly misdescribed, as they may have been by Kristeller in his account. And it would be a grave disservice to the history of philosophy to reject the whole package rather than to try to salvage what can be salvaged or repaired. It is that salvage job that I attempt in the present article.

1. Introduction
In 195152, writes James I. Porter, Paul Oskar Kristeller published an article in the Journal of the History of Ideas that proved to be a classic, The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics.1 By the time I commenced my work on eighteenthcentury British aesthetics and philosophy of art, in the 1960s, it had become, as Porter rightly avers, no longer . . . an academic thesis, and not even an orthodoxy, but . . . a dogma.2 I am as guilty as anyone else in so accepting it then, and for a long time thereafter. So I welcome Professor Porters recent critique of Kristellers dogma, from which I have quoted above, as a long overdue re-examination of what really did (or did not) happen in the eighteenth century as to our conceptions of aesthetics and the fine arts. There is much in his critique that is true and enlightening. Butthere is always a but!we must not, to trot out yet again that old clich, throw out the baby with the bathwater. Somethingsome thingsof great moment in the history of aesthetics and philosophy of art, transpired in the age of the Enlightenment, as badly described, and, no doubt, in some ways as badly misdescribed, as they may have been by Kristeller in his account. He was on to something: to some things. And it would be a grave disservice to the history of philosophy to reject the whole package rather than to try to salvage what can be salvaged or repaired. In the following, then, I am going to defend five claims about what really happened in the eighteenth century. What we think of as the fine artsalthough we do not necessarily agree fully on the listwere first grouped together as a self-contained entity, the fine arts (in English) in the eighteenth century.
1 2 James I. Porter, Is Art Modern? Kristellers Modern System of the Arts Reconsidered, BJA, 49 (2009), 1. Ibid., 2.

British Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 52 | Number 1 | January 2012 | pp. 6174 DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ayr046 British Society of Aesthetics 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email:


In the eighteenth century the fine arts, so understood as a self-contained entity, gained their autonomy. Again, it was in the eighteenth century that the task of defining the fine arts, giving them something like a necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition, albeit tentatively and gradually, became a philosophical project. It was, as well, at the end of the eighteenth century, that the concept of the aesthetic, and, of course, the word itself, began to emerge as a philosophical problem, and the concept of aesthetic disinterestedness, vital to future philosophical speculation, was first framed in recognizable form, although not so named. And, finally, it was in the eighteenth century that aesthetics and philosophy of art, as a separate branch of the discipline of philosophy, emerged and became firmly established. All five of these momentous developments were causally entwined, one with the other, in an intricate way that makes it, I think, impossible to say, specifically, which caused what. For any of them to be in place, all the others must also have to have been in place. That, at any rate, is how I construe the matter. Now a reader familiar both with Kristellers original two-part article, and Porters recent critique, might well have concluded that in defending the above five theses I intend to offer a blanket defence of Kristeller against Porter. But that is far from the truth. On the contrary, I believe that a good deal of what Porter has to say in criticism of Kristeller is spot on and well taken. Furthermore, the theses I defend are not Kristellers; rather Kristellers theses as reformulated in light of Porters criticism. Before, however, I get on with my business, I deem it only fair to warn the reader of my limited qualifications for the task I have set myself. First, I have no Greek, and thus know the relevant Greek texts only in translation. Furthermore, the texts that I do know are limited to the few familiar ones: the relevant Platonic dialogues, Aristotles Poetics, and the pseudo-Longinian treatise On the Sublime. Thus anything I say about art-theoretic matters in classical antiquity must be taken with these limitations in mind as the proverbial grain of salt. And if, in the event, ancient texts are adduced to contradict what I have said, I will gladly stand corrected. Second, although I have the right to claim somewhat more impressive credentials as a commentator on eighteenth-century aesthetics and philosophy of art, I have limitations in that regard as well: most of my historical work has been devoted to the British writers, from Shaftesbury to Dugald Stewart, with a soupon of Kant thrown in. In short, I am no classicist or historian of philosophy, but a philosopher of art with a more than casual regard for the history of my discipline. Forewarned is forearmed. And so I move on to the business at hand.

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2. The Fine Arts

It is the major thesis of Kristellers essay that what he called the modern system of the arts was first established in the eighteenth century. Professor Porter advances a number of objections to this thesis. To have these before us first will help us be clear about what Porter takes Kristeller to be claiming and how his thesis might be modified to meet them.


Kristeller enumerates the members of the modern system of the arts thus: [T]he term Art comprises above all the five major arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry. These five constitute the irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts, on which all writers and thinkers seem to agree.3 In response to this claim, Porter writes, as to the question whether the system of fine arts ever stabilized as an agreed upon entity as such and in a universally acknowledged form, as Kristeller claimed it did, the answer is, according to Porter:
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On the contrary, it looks as if there was in fact no canonical nucleus, but only a loosely defined and ever-changing grab-bag of items that fell under the newly discovered rubric of fine arts during this era.4 Again, Porter writes: While the terms beaux arts or fine arts and, the list of five (or so) associated arts are passed on, in what sense do they get passed on as a system? Or are they merely a list?5 In the same vein Porter objects: There is no reason to deny that the concept of fine art existed or that it arose sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century. That it ever attained the dignity of a system is disputable.6 And finally: DAlembert added to Batteuxs list not only architecture but engraving.7 What are we to make of all this? For starters, it is clear that Porter has glommed onto the term system in Kristellers thesis, and made pretty heavy weather of it. Did a system of the fine arts come into being in the eighteenth century? Well, to get a handle on the question we will first have to get clear what might be meant by a system in the first place. Here is my proposal. Let us take as two paradigms of a system the Underground, or Tube system of London, and our planetary system. I will say that what characterizes them both for present purposes is that they are what I will call epistemically closed but metaphysically open. The London Tube system is epistemically closed in that at any given time, there is complete consensus (or a way to achieve it) as to what its elements are: how many lines, where they go, where they intersect, and so on. But it is metaphysically open in that how it is presently constituted is not necessarily how it was constituted or how it will be. There are more lines and more Tube stops now than in 1920; and there may be more (or less) of both in the future than there are now.

3 4 5 6 7

Paul O. Kristeller, The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics (I), in Peter Kivy (ed.), Essays on the History of Aesthetics (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1992), 4. Porter, Is Art Modern?, 13. Ibid. Ibid., p. 14. Ibid.


Likewise, our planetary system is epistemically closed in that at any given time there is complete consensus (or a way to achieve it) as to how many planets there are, how they are related one to another, and so on. However, it is metaphysically open in that, for example, the number of planets thought to constitute our system was eight before the discovery of Pluto, nine afterwards, and eight again after the demotion of Pluto to the rank of asteroid (or whatever). Of course the difference between the two systems is that the former is a human artefact, the latter a natural system. Hence the first changes through human intervention, the latter through human discovery. Now the conclusion of this little cautionary tale is that the fine arts, as first conceived of in the eighteenth century, and as conceived of now, are not a system in the sense explicated above. The word system was a singularly ill-chosen one on Kristellers part. And I take it that that is what Porters objections, quoted above, have quite convincingly demonstrated. If they were a system, then there could no more be disagreement over whether dance or architecture are fine arts than whether Goodge Street is a Tube stop on the Northern Line or whether Mars is a planet. The fine arts are both epistemically and metaphysically open. They are not and never were a system. So Kristeller is totally wrong. Totally wrong? But wait a bit. Let us not be over hasty. The system is the bathwater. Isnt there, though, a baby? Let me redescribe what happened in the eighteenth century. What was formulated was not the modern system of the arts but, rather, what I will call the modern grouping of the arts: epistemically and metaphysically open, to be sure; not, however, a gallimaufry; and assuredly not, as Porter describes it, merely a list, or only a loosely defined and everchanging grab-bag of items. There is a middle way between Scylla and Charybdis. The evidence Porter adduces for his claim that the group of fine arts, as formulated in the eighteenth century, was a mere ever-changing grab-bag, a completely amorphous collection hardly establishes that. What would establish it would be examples (say) of theorists wanting to include juggling, acrobatics, fly-tying, tightrope walking, conjuring, among the fine arts. However, no such examples are adduced or in the offing.What philosophers of art were not in accord about were totally in-the-ballpark candidates such as landscape gardening, dance, architecture, yes, engraving, and, of course, the most difficult and controversial one of all, pure instrumental music, which, as late as Kant and Hegel, was still not firmly established as a member in full standing. But note well the real significance of the disagreement and dispute over whether dance or architecture or music was one of the fine arts. There could only be such a disagreement and dispute if the concept of the fine arts, the modern grouping, was in place. As I read the ancient texts, no such disagreement and dispute ever took place or could have taken place in classical antiquity.You cannot disagree or argue over whether something is a member of a group unless you believe there is such a group and have some general idea as to what the qualifications for membership might be. Thus the evidence Porter adduces against the existence of a modern system of the arts in the eighteenth century is convincing enough. It fails, however, to be evidence against what I have been calling the modern grouping of the arts in the eighteenth century. On the contrary, it turns out to be evidence in favour. Surprisingly, despite his claim to the effect that the fine arts had a grab-bag quality in the eighteenth century, Porter, it seems to me, comes very close to recognizing the very same

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phenomenon I have characterized as the modern grouping of the fine arts, where he writes, as quoted above, that: There is no reason to deny that the concept of fine art existed [in the eighteenth century] or that it arose sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century and, again, that the terms beaux arts or fine arts and the list of five (or so) associated arts are passed on [in the eighteenth century]. If you admit this much you have, it appears to me, recognized that something of very great importance transpired in the age of Enlightenment. The fine arts became recognized as a group of entities, albeit a group epistemically open, hence not a system, as described by Kristeller, and a group not arbitrary in character, but susceptible of a necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition. That, I propose, is one of Kristellers babies that we do not want to throw out with Porters bathwater. I will now move on to the next.

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3. Art Autonomy
Both Kristeller and Porter make very heavy weather of what is sometimes called the autonomy of the arts, the former insisting that it became established doctrine in the eighteenth century, as a result of the formation of the modern system, the latter vigorously denying it. I think this conflict can be adjudicated by distinguishing between two senses of artistic autonomy, the one that Kristeller assumes in his claim that artistic autonomy became established doctrine in the eighteenth century, which is, as well, the one that Porter assumes in his quite convincing argument to the contrary, and the other, a sense of artistic autonomy that, if assumed, makes eminently plausible the claim that artistic autonomy did indeed become established doctrine in the age of Enlightenment. I think I can best explicate the first sense of artistic autonomy by contrasting two of the most famous definitions of the fine arts to be proferred in the first half of the twentieth century: Clive Bells formalist definition and R. G. Collingwoods expression theory. Early in the century, Bell famously proposed what he called significant form as both necessary and sufficient condition for being a work of the fine arts. And the infallible evidence of its presence was the aesthetic emotion that it produced.8 All and only works of fine art, on his view, possess significant form; all and only works of fine art, therefore, produce the aesthetic emotion. Whatever other features they may possess, whatever other responses they may produce, are irrelevant to them qua art works. The fine arts are absolutely unique in what they possess as their defining feature, significant form, and absolutely unique in what response they produce, the aesthetic emotion. Bells formalism, for that of course is what it amounts to, is a definition of fine art that makes it completely autonomous. I will call this absolute artistic autonomy. Here is another example of the beast. In The Principles of Art (1938), R. G. Collingwood famously defined art as expression of emotion.9 That may sound like a complete nonstarter since my expression of anger, in kicking the cat, seems hardly to qualify as a work of fine art. But, of course, readers of Collingwood well know that he defined expression in such a way as to exclude my kicking the cat, and other like expressions of emotion,
8 9 Clive Bell, Art (New York: Capricorn Books, 1958), passim. R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), passim.


normally so-called, and to be of such a specialized and unique kind, that it became plausible to claim that all and only works of fine art were, in this special, unique sense, expressions of emotion, and anything that was an expression of emotion in this special, unique sense was a work of fine art. This is an example, perhaps the most distinguished example, of the expression theory of art, and is a definition of the fine arts that makes them out to be autonomous in the absolute sense. I turn now to a definition of the fine arts that comes out of what is arguably the most powerful philosophy of art to be produced in the second half of the twentieth century. I refer to Arthur Dantos tripartite definition, in his Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1961), which, expressed briefly, goes like this: (1) Works of fine art are about something (or the question of what they are about may legitimately arise).10 (2) [I]t is analytical to the concept of an artwork that there has to be an interpretation.11 (3) Works of [fine] art, in categorical contrast with mere representations, use the means of representation in a way that is not exhaustively specified when one has exhaustively specified what is being represented.12 Each condition is necessary, and the three together necessary and sufficient. But note that in sharp contrast to the definitions of Bell and Collingwood, Danto does not make of the fine arts completely autonomous entities; rather, they possess, qua works of art, characteristics that they importantly share with other human artefacts. Philosophy texts, moral treatises, political speeches, news reports, and so on, possess aboutness, have subject matter, and are subject to interpretation. And works of art, qua artworks, can have philosophical or political or moral content. That is why, of course, the third condition is necessary to complete the definition, and mark artworks off from the rest. The definition is a traditional necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition of the fine arts. But it does not imply the absolute autonomy of the fine arts, as do the defintions of Bell and Collingwood (and others). It does, however, uniquely define them as a class. And that is a form of autonomy. I shall call it definitional autonomy. Kristeller seems to be claiming that, in the eighteenth century, the fine arts came to be seen as exhibiting absolute autonomy, mainly through the emerging concept of the aesthetic. Porter has roundly criticized him for this, and rightly so: While [Kristellers] essay offers itself as a straightforward descriptive and historical account (and has widely been so received), it remains emphatically partial to aesthetic autonomy in its modern form, inasmuch as it stresses that the progress of the arts involved their steady emancipation from their background contexts, which is to say, their becoming autonomous from religion, morality, and other structures.13 Porter is right on the money here. I cannot but think that any philosopher or critic writing about the fine arts in the age of Enlightenment would be utterly dumbfounded by the suggestion that the fine arts were autonomous in the absolute sense: that they were devoid
10 11 12 13 Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 82. Ibid., 124. Ibid., 147148. Porter, Is Art Modern?, 19.

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of religious or moral or philosophical content. The idea would have seemed to them absurd, as it would have to the ancients (and to me for the matter of that). Again, though, there is a baby as well as bathwater here. The bathwater is, of course, the notion that philosophy of art in the eighteenth century was aiming at the establishment of the fine arts as autonomous in the absolute sense; and that we can throw out, as Porter is indeed arguing. There is, however, definitional autonomy: that is the baby. Lets give it a bath, by all means. But then put it to bed. I am urging, then, that what was established for the fine arts in the eighteenth century was definitional autonomy. That the fine arts came to be grouped together as an autonomous, separated-off class of entities naturally generated the question of what constituted their membership in that class and excluded from membership other possible candidates. In other words, what was wanted was a definition of the fine arts in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Now I am not suggesting that the task of defining the work of art became immediately explicit with the modern grouping of the fine arts, which was already in place in the early eighteenth century. It did not spring, fully armed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but developed gradually. My own reading of events is that we do not find a really out-front definition of the fine arts until the very end of the century, when Thomas Reid came very close to producing something like an expression theory of art,14 and Kant produced, in the third Critique a definition of fine art heavily emphasizing form, although not an out-and-out formalism.15 But I want to concentrate here for a moment on the case of Batteux, who plays a prominent role both in Kristellers account and in Porters critique of it. For, in short, although Kristeller may perhaps overestimate his importance, I think Porter errs in the opposite direction. And in this regard I am rather more in Kristellers camp than in Porters. In 1746 the Abb Batteux published his Les beaux arts rduits un mme principe, which I will construe as the fine arts reduced to a single principle. But what project does that really signal? The single or same principle is, of course, the principle of imitation, or mimesis, or, better, representation. And Batteux, clearly, is at least saying that it is common to all of the fine arts; as well, presumably, at least a necessary condition. Porter writes of what Batteux has done in this regard: True, Batteux does organize the fine arts around a principle (the imitation of nature) and he does limit membership in their club by virtue of the same principle. . . . Even so, there is nothing remarkably modern about these claims, which are explicitly drawn from Aristotle, Horace, and Plutarch.16 But pace Porter, there is something remarkably modern about this claim that Porter has missed. Of course there is nothing new in characterizing poetry, painting, sculpture, and
14 15 16 On this see Peter Kivy, Reids Philosophy of Art, in Terence Cuneo and Ren Woudenberg (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, (Cambridge: CUP, 2004). On this see Peter Kivy, Antithetical Arts: On the Ancient Quarrel Between Literature and Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009), ch. 2. Porter, Is Art Modern?, 8.

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the rest as representations of beautiful nature. That is ancient history. It is how Batteux uses the concept that, I would argue, is remarkably modern (although there were others, I think, in the eighteenth century, who did close to the same thing). To make out my case I will simply contrast what I construe Batteux to be doing with what I understand Plato and Aristotle to be doing in describing what we understand, and what Batteux understood, to be the fine arts. Plato, as I construe him, thought poetry, sculpture, painting, and music to be mimetic, or as I have been saying, representational. But whereas he thought the latter three to be teachable crafts, he thought poetry to be essentially different in that respect: it was not a teachable craft but an inspirational gift or endowment, along with prophecy and (at least in the Meno) virtue. Thus, although they were all mimetic, they were not a group. So Plato could not possibly be described as reducing them to a mme principe, which is to say, mimesis. There was nothing to reducethere were no them. What about Aristotle? Certainly, like Plato, he understood poetry, painting, sculpture, and music to be mimetic. Were they a group for him? Well for one thing, he explicitly states in a passage that Porter quotes from the Rhetoric that there are other forms of mimesis besides the above mentioned, for he writes of painting, sculpture, poetryand every product of skillful imitation.17 Did Aristotle, like Plato, also think that poetry was an essentially different practice from those other practices of skillful imitation? I rather suspect so. As far as I know he never explicitly said so, as Plato had done. But there is at least circumstantial evidence. A treatise on poetry, the Poetics, is part of the Aristotelian canon. There is no extant treatise on music or sculpture or painting (although perhaps they were written of in the lost portion of the Poetics or in lost texts we know not of). The bottom line here is that for Batteux the concept of an integrated, named group of entities, the fine arts, was epistemically prior, and a common principle was sought for them, which of course turned out to be mimesis. For Plato and Aristotle mimesis was the epistemically prior concept, which what we call the fine arts, Batteux the beaux arts, were examples of, among other things. Thus Plato and Aristotle could no more entertain the project of reducing the fine arts to a mme principe than they could entertain the project of defining the scientific method. And that is what Batteux et alia were doing in the eighteenth century that was remarkably modern. But why did Plato and Aristotle mention specifically and talk about what we call the fine arts, at least some of them, rather than other mimetic things, when they talked about mimesis? And when they did talk about them, were they really not doing philosophy of art? Fair questions! And I will get at least to the latter one by and by. For now I want simply to conclude by driving home the point that what was achieved for the fine arts in the eighteenth century was the idea of autonomy, in spite of Porters undoubtedly correct observation that Batteux permits morals and utility to operate at the very heart of his conception of the beaux arts.18 It ought to go without saying that Enlightenment

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17 18

Ibid. Ibid., 12.


commentators on the fine arts would have found the absolute artistic autonomy implied by Bells formalism or Collingwoods expression theory utterly baffling and completely off the wall. And this goes for Kant as well, who is frequently, and mistakenly, taken for proposing a formalist theory of the fine arts in the third Critique. That the fine arts, in their nature, were necessarily divorced from deep human concernsreligious, moral, philosophicalwas a kind of artistic autonomy that, so far as I know, was never entertained by anyone in the eighteenth century, least of all Batteux, as Professor Porter is perfectly correct to insist. Recognizing that, however, leaves untouched the conclusion that the definitional autonomy of the fine arts was an idea brought into being in the eighteenth century.Was Batteuxs reduction of the beaux arts to a mme principe an attempt to provide necessary and sufficient conditions: in other words, a definition? It hardly seems likely. For at the time, even though non-representational fine arts would have been unthinkable, as now, the class of things representational was known to be wider than the class of things artistic. So mimesis, though a necessary condition, it would have been thought, for the beaux arts, could hardly have been thought by Batteux necessary and sufficient, which of course would have to have been the case if the mme principe was to be the defining principe. I do not think a clearly discernible, out-front attempt to define art can be found in Batteux. And as I said before, I do not think such can be found until the end of the eighteenth century, Reid and Kant being my candidates for the honour. But I do think Batteuxs project, as announced in his title, and pursued in his book, was highly suggestive of the definitional quest. For, clearly, to reduce the fine arts to a single, common principle is the first step in an Aristotelian, genus/difference definition: genus, representation. The rest was yet to come.

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4. Art and the Aesthetic

As is well known, and uncontroversial, the word aesthetic was coined in the eighteenth century, 1735 to be precise, by the German Leibnizian, Alexander Baumgarten, and was adopted by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, in a penetrating analysis of beauty, sublimity, genius, fine art, and taste. The question is: whats in a word? It is easy, perhaps, to read more into the word, in contemporary hindsight, than is really there. The modern idea of the aesthetic, either in the form of the aesthetic attitude, the aesthetic experience, or Frank Sibleys aesthetic concepts, which is to say, special qualities of works of art (and other objects) that are distinctly aesthetic (in a way still a matter of dispute among philosophers) are none of them implicated either in Baumgartens or Kants use of the term. For Baumgarten meant by the science of the aesthetic the science of perception uberhaupt, and Kant meant by aesthetic judgement any judgement based on feeling rather than concepts, neither of which comes close to modern usage. To be sure, with the emergence of the categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque, in the eighteenth century, a large step towards the notion of Sibley-like aesthetic qualities was taken. And although Kant never gave it the name of the aesthetic attitude, his (so described) attitude of disinterested perception, which characterized his pure judgement of taste, was surely the fons et origo of that concept.


The concept of the aesthetic is, indeed, another high road to another kind of artistic autonomy, namely aesthetic autonomy, which, although it does characterize the fine arts, does render them autonomous in the sense of content irrelevant, does not, however, separate them off from other forms of human experience, nature, and other human artefacts. Thus one might define artworks as bearing, qua artworks, only aesthetic properties, their moral, religious, philosophical, or other content inessential and, qua artworks, irrelevant. Or one might define artworks as those human artefacts essentially designed to facilitate the attitude of aesthetic disinterestedness and afford the aesthetic experience, their moral, religious, philosophical, or other content inessential and, qua artworks, irrelevant. This would make them autonomous in the sense of free from propositional or representational content, qua artworks. But it would not uniquely characterize them. For nature, as well as artefacts other than artworks possess Sibley-like aesthetic qualities, are susceptible of sustaining the attitude of aesthetic disinterestedness, and productive of the aesthetic experience. In any event, it seems not to be the case that the eighteenth century produced any such theories of the fine arts as aesthetically autonomous. Or, at least, as Porter concludes, the presence of the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy for the fine arts, in the century, remains highly doubtful (despite Kristellers assurances to the contrary).19 Thus there has been more emphasis on use of the term aesthetic in the eighteenth century than, I think, is warranted by the facts. And this brings us to my final claim, that aesthetics and philosophy of art, as a separate, self-contained subdiscipline of philosophy, first came to be in the eighteenth century. This claim I take to be unqualifiedly true, and deserves the emphasis it has received in the past by me and others.

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5. The Philosophy of Art

That aesthetics and the philosophy of art as a separate subdiscipline of philosophy first emerged and was first vigorously pursued in the age of the Enlightenment seems to be so apparent and well attested to that I will not spend too much time trying to prove it. One might simply begin with the obvious. The eighteenth century witnessed a veritable explosion of separate, self-contained works on the subjects of the fine arts, beauty, sublimity, taste, criticism, the standard of taste, and much moreworks unprecedented in Western intellectual history that absolutely demanded to be shelved as aesthetics and philosophy of art. In France, there were, among many other works, Du Buss Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music, translated into English in 1748, Batteuxs Beaux Arts, the aesthetical writings of Diderot. In Germany, Baumgartens Reflections on Poetry, and the Aesthetica, the aesthetical writings of Moses Mendelssohn, and, of course, Kants Observations on the Feelings of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Part I of the third Critique. But Britain outdid them all. There was Shaftesbury at the threshold of the eighteenth century, Addisons collection of Spectator papers on what he called The Pleasures of the Imagination, Hutchesons Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design, Humes Of the Standard of Taste, Burkes Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Alexander Gerards
19 Ibid., 18.


Essay on Taste, Kamess Elements of Criticism, Reids essay on taste and his Lectures on the Fine Arts, Archibald Allisons Essay on Taste, various essays on aesthetical issues by Duggald Stewart the list goes on and on. The point is that there just is nothing like this in any other period in the history of Western thought, before the eighteenth century. The above-mentioned volumes, and many, many more that it would be otiose to mention, constitute, then, the first substantial body of work in aesthetics and philosophy of art, its reason for being, at least in large part, the establishment of artistic autonomy, which is to say, the modern grouping of the fine arts as a (possibly) definable class in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. (Or is it the other way round?) But that having been said, two gnawing questions persist. If aesthetics and philosophy of art, properly so-called, did not come into being until the eighteenth century, then what were Plato and Aristotle, two of the greatest philosophers in the lexicon, doing when they wrote about epic poetry, tragedy, music, and the rest? And if the concept of the fine arts as a definable concept did not come into being until the eighteenth century, what were the Greek tragedians and epic poets doing when they composed their great plays and poems? Could they have been making works of art without knowing it, which they would have to have been doing if the extant tragedies and Homeric epics are works of art? And if they are not works of art, what is? Can you make works of art without having the concept or the name? Of course one can speak prose all of ones life, can one not? Would it really be false to say that Molires famous character was really speaking prose, in the absence of the concept or the knowledge that he was so doing? That would be hard to credit. A recent and insightful writer on this subject, David Clowney, insists that if one claims folks are creating artworks without possessing the concept of the fine arts, one needs to claim that they were making art works without knowing what they were doing, and this makes no sense.20 Spelled out more fully, at least as I understand it, Clowneys argument goes something like this. For starters, Clowney stresses that it is impossible to make art without making music or painting or sculpture or poetry or one of the other things on that open-ended list. Furthermore, it is impossible to make those things without doing so intentionally, which is to say, knowing what you were doing. But, Clowney queries, sceptically, is there some substantive sense in which they [i.e. pre-eighteenth century folks] might, while knowingly making music (for example), have been unknowingly making art?21 The point, of course, is that anyone who wants to claim that pre-eighteenth-century artists were making art unintentionally would be committed to the seemingly inconsistent belief that they could not make music, poetry, et alia, unintentionally. The argument continues, pre-modern, which is to say, pre-eighteenth-century folks made music, dances, paintings, and the like, but they had not the concept of the fine arts. We, at least some of us, want to say they were making fine arts, even though they could not

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20 21

David Clowney, Definitions of Art and Fine Arts Historical Origins, JAAC, 69 (2011), 316. Ibid., 312.


know that was what they were doing, because they lacked the concept of the fine arts. We know something they did not know. They were doing something else besides making music, dances, paintings, and the like, that is, they were making fine art. But, Clowney argues, we have no clear notion of [the] something else they were doing. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that pre-modern people made art without knowing what they were doing.22 Of course the initial sense of a reductio ad absurdum is conveyed by the suggestion that if you claimed (say) that in writing the Antigone, Sophocles was making fine art, you would be committed to the absurd claim that in writing the Antigone Sophocles didnt know what he was doing. For surely the writing of the Antigone by Sophocles is a paradigm instance of someones knowing exactly what he is doing. So Sophocles couldnt have been making a work of fine art in writing the Antigone because if he had he would not have known what he was doing, namely, making a work of fine art. Now a natural response to this argument, from the direction of common sense, is to point out ordinary cases in which, in ordinary discourse, someone is described as having made something of a certain kind without knowing it while nevertheless having acted intentionally. Thus, for example, suppose a boater is messing about with two kayaks, both of which have proved quite prone to capsizing. All of a sudden she gets the bright idea of connecting the two hulls together with a board in the middle. Eureka! A stable vessel! She shows her invention to a friend and he says: You know what you have done dont you? You have made a catamaran A what? she replies. Never heard of it. Surely common sense tells us she has made a catamaran without knowing it or possessing the concept, and has acted intentionally. So why can we not say, by parity of reasoning, that Sophocles, in writing the Antigone, made a work of fine art without knowing it, and in doing so acted intentionally? If I have laid out Professor Clowneys argument accurately, I surmise his reply might be that the two cases are significantly different. We can produce a necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition of catamaran, whereas we notoriously cannot, at least at present, produce such a definition of art. For, as Clowney observes, no one has yet produced a clear and generally accepted account of what art is.23 And without such an account we have no grounds for calling Antigone a work of fine art rather than something else. However, to make such a response would be to place a very severe condition on human discourse. Is it really the case that we require necessary-and-sufficient-condition definitions to identify the furniture of our world? If so, ordinary discourse would be knocked on its ear. For surely we lack such definitions of unnumbered ordinary concepts that we employ every day. We do not have such a definition of science, for example. Are we foreclosed therefore on describing what Euclid and the Pythagoreans did as science? Or Kepler and Newton, for that matter? For surely they no more had the concept of science in our sense of the word than Sophocles had the concept of art in our sense of the word. Furthermore, we are not in possession, at least to my knowledge, of necessaryand-sufficient-condition definitions of the individual arts: of music or tragedy, poetry

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22 23

Ibid., 313. Ibid.


or dance or sculpture, or, to appropriate Clowneys way of putting the thing, no one has yet produced a clear and generally accepted account of what they are. So if we accept this severe restriction on ordinary discourse we are not even in a position to identify what Sophocles was doing in writing Antigone as making poetry or making a tragedy. And since, ex hypothesi, therefore, Sophocles did not have a necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition of poetry and tragedy and nor do wehe didnt know what he was doing in that regard when he wrote Antigone, and, indeed, could not have been, therefore, making poetry or tragedy, not to mention fine art. Perhaps it might be replied that although Sophocles did not possess knowledge that, he did possess knowledge how (in Gilbert Ryles sense of those terms).24 But that still leaves us in the position of not knowing that Sophocles wrote a tragedy since we do not have a necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition of tragedy. We are in very deep waters here. And in the absence of a knock-down philosophical argument to the contrary, I am going to assume, as I think G. E. Moore once said, that you do not need a definition of reality to tell gems from paste; in other words, I am going to assume the common-sense stance that the ancient Greeks knew what they were doing, were acting intentionally, in relevant respects, when they composed their music, and wrote their epics and tragedies, but, in the process, unknowingly made works of art. They made works of art in fact. What then of the philosophers? If the epic poets and tragedians were making works of art in fact, were Plato and Aristotle, when reflecting on the epic poems and tragedies, not doing philosophy of art in fact? I am confident that they were; and that is why, like my confrres, I begin my courses in introduction to the philosophy of art with Plato and Aristotle, not Hutcheson and Hume. What happened in the eighteenth century, then, and its importance is not to be underestimated, is not that philosophers first began to do to philosophy of art, in fact, but that they first started to do it in full realization that that was what they in fact were doing. It had become, as our graduate students would list it in their job applications, an area of specialization. Now why, the reader may begin to wonder at this juncture, have I argued at such length, and so vigorously, that art, and philosophy of art, were produced in antiquity at least in fact, though not self-consciously? It is because I detect just a smidgen of paranoia in Porters article which I would like to allay. And, to be even-handed about it, I will, in conclusion, lay on the table a paranoia of my own to go with it.

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6. A Pair of Paranoiacs
In the concluding sentence of his article, Professor Porter writes of the term aesthetics, its absence from the ancient Greek vocabulary in the modern sense is not an argument
24 The distinction between knowing how and knowing that can no longer be taken for granted. It has become a can of worms that I have no intention of opening here. The interested reader can see, in this regard: Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, Knowing How, Journal of Philosophy, XCVIII (2001); Stephen Schiffer, Amazing Knowledge, Journal of Philosophy, XCIX (2002); and Michael Devitt, Methodology and the Nature of Knowing How, Journal of Philosophy, CVIII (2011).


against seeking out its earliest impulses, which also happen to be our own.25 I am in full agreement here, and independently reached a similar conclusion that, as I put it: Indeed, I believe Plato did have at least a vague concept of the aesthetic, even though he did not have the word.26 The paranoia I detect here is this. Porter, I think, a classical scholar, is fearful that in placing such emphasis on the origins of the modern concept of art, the aesthetic, and the philosophy of art itself, in the eighteenth century, we will forget or overlook the enormous contribution to the formation and to our understanding of these concepts made in classical antiquity, in particular, by Plato and Aristotle. Porters concerns, as he puts it, stem from an interest of my own in recovering the traditions of aesthetic reflection in Greece and Rome, which Kristellers position effectively prohibits from the outset. He continues: If art and aesthetics, conceived as quasi-autonomous activities, are modern constructs, how can we go about treating these phenomena in antiquity?27 Perhaps Porters paranoia is justified. But there is no need, in recognizing the revolution in our thinking about art and its philosophy in the Enlightenment, to denigrate in the process the ground-breaking accomplishments of classical antiquity in this regard. Anyone who writes about, and teaches, the philosophy of art, and does not find Platos and Aristotles reflections on art as fresh and provoking today as they were in Athens, has, it seems to me, chosen the wrong occupation. So much for Porters paranoia. Now for my own. I first discovered the eighteenth century, without in fact knowing it, as a toddler, when my mother introduced me to the music of Haydn and Mozart. That was my music until the age of twelve, when I discovered the oboe and Bach. Now my fate was sealed. The eighteenth century was my personal property. So when I went on to university I wanted to know what else was going on in the century that produced my musical heroes. Eighteenth-century philosophy followed hard by; and I wrote my honours thesis in philosophy on eighteenthcentury British philosophy of art. So just as classical antiquity is Porters bailiwick, the Enlightenment is mine. And so as Kristellers article may have seemed to Porter to diminish, perhaps, the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome, Porters article may have seemed to me to diminish, perhaps, the accomplishments of my eighteenth century. That is my paranoia. But we should each put his respective paranoia aside. In glorifying the Enlightenment we are not diminishing the glory that was Greece. There is glory enough for all. Peter Kivy Rutgers University

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25 26 27

Porter, Is Art Modern?, 24. Peter Kivy, Once-Told Tales: An Essay in Literary Aesthetics (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 15 Porter, Is Art Modern?, 4.