The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895

By A. G. Lehmann | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE STARTING-POINT OF AN AESTHETIC

1. Positivist theories. 2. The intellectualist formula. 3. Pre-symbolist roots of anti-positivism. 4. Symbolist anti-positivism. 5. Symbolist idealism. 6. Mystical influences in Symbolist theory. 7. Schopenhauer. 8. Schopenhauer and Mallarmé. 9. The inadequacy of Ideas in modern Aesthetic.


A. POSITIVISM

1. POSITIVIST THEORIES

THE symbolists, we have suggested, are mainly remarkable for contributions of aesthetic fact rather than system; and it would be as well to see briefly the shape of the prevailing system of aesthetics which they found too narrow to house their facts.

Positivism aimed broadly at extending to the anatomy of art certain principles which it assumed to be valid in the natural sciences, and which it saw no reason to abandon when it came to the human sciences. Its first attempt was on historical data, and to this end it adapted its conception of the scientific method. The positivists 'thought it consisted of two things: first, ascertaining facts; secondly, framing laws. The facts were immediately ascertained by sensuous perception. The laws were framed through generalizing from these facts by induction'.1 If it could be shown that the laws of art thus discovered were in some way related to similar laws of society which it hoped ultimately to discover in a similar way, the first step would have been taken towards breaking down the intolerable mystery which surrounded the question, 'What is art?' All subsequent development of an aesthetic would then take the form of a minute investigation and detailed classification of artistic phenomena under headings provided by the theory of society. Art would, in short, be explained initially from a sociological viewpoint.

The sociology dreamt of by Auguste Comte never materialized, and positivists tacitly gave up waiting for it around the sixties. So we may with some justice say that Taine Philosophie de l'art, which represents the sketch for the principles of an aesthetic, is not unlike a ship attempting to anchor in a sea that has never been sounded, or walls being set up for a house which it is never proposed to finish:

____________________
1
R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 1946, pp. 126-7.

-21-

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The Symbolist Aesthetic in France, 1885-1895
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Part I 1
  • Chapter I- The Nature of the Inquiry 3
  • Chapter II- The Starting-Point of an Aesthetic 21
  • Chapter III- Poetic Knowledge 74
  • Part II 127
  • Chapter IV- The Symbolist View of Language 129
  • Chapter V- The Classification of the Arts 194
  • Chapter VI- The Symbol in Art 248
  • Index of Proper Names 319
  • Subject-Index 323
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