Soft Boundaries: Re-Visioning the Arts and Aesthetics in American Education

By Claire Detels | Go to book overview

3
Uses of History in Some Recent Aesthetic Writings

Aesthetics, the study of cognitive judgments of sensory experience, is a subject that touches on every aspect of human life, from seeing, hearing, eating, touching, and smelling to thinking, learning, and loving. Why then, do Americans seem to dislike or resist learning about aesthetics? One reason is that almost no one knows what aesthetics is, or even how to spell it correctly ("esthetics" is preferred in some circles). The Greek roots of the term give it an arcane flavor that deters many, and the often convoluted debate of aesthetic specialists tends to deter the rest. Also, the meaning of the term and the breadth of the discipline have shifted many times since their formal origins in the mid-eighteenth century. The initial focus of aesthetics was on understanding the experiences of beauty in nature and, to a lesser degree, in the arts. This focus was supplanted in the nineteenth century by an emphasis on beauty and other aesthetic values specifically in reference to the arts. In the twentieth century analytic philosophers have made aesthetics into a complex field of debate about the meaning of relevant concepts, such as "aesthetic object," "aesthetic experience," and "work of art."

So, when students seek a straightforward definition of the already intimidating term of "aesthetics," what they are likely to receive from teachers or authors of writings on aesthetics may intimidate them all the more. A simple and memorable definition would help immeasurably to make this important discipline seem more accessible to students and the public. I like the definition "the practice of making sense of sensory experience": it's short, simple, and -- with its asso-

An earlier version of this chapter appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in the special issue Philosophy and the Histories of the Arts 51 ( 1993): 363-75, under the title "History and the Philosophies of the Arts." It was first presented to the American Society for Aesthetics at the 1993 Philadelphia meeting as my response to the 1991 Institute on Philosophy and the Histories of the Arts.

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