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Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Platonic Questions in Aesthetics

Roman copy of Plato’s bust by Silanion
for the Academia in Athens (c. 370 BC)
Paul Guyer’s Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics is mainly focused on examining Immanuel Kant’s contributions to the field of aesthetics. In the book’s Introduction, Guyer offers a brief description Plato’s role as the originator of the philosophical debate on aesthetics. Plato asked the right questions concerning several issues in aesthetics—Aristotle provided the answers to these questions.

Here’s an excerpt:
Plato effectively began Western philosophy with an attack on Greek assumptions about the cognitive and practical value of the creation and experience of art, so aesthetics has been both a part of and under attack by philosophy since the outset. In the Republic, Plato questioned the claims of poets and their adherents to any important expertise, and cast doubt on the cognitive value of imitations or representations in general by characterizing them as mere copies of ordinary objects that are themselves mere copies of the genuine realities – the Forms. In the Ion and Phaedrus, he more archly cast doubt on any claims to knowledge that might be made by artists by suggesting that artistic success depends upon divine inspiration, and is therefore incomprehensible to mere mortals. In the Republic, he also questioned the practical value of art not only by questioning the cognitive claims on which its practical value might be thought to depend, but also by arguing that the expression of emotion in either the experience or especially the performance of art would be counterproductive for the education of his ideal guardians, who are to learn above all to use their reason to control their emotions, and by extension the emotions of those they are to govern. Yet while doing all of this, Plato was also aware of the spell of beauty, especially beauty in our own kind, and attempted to channel our love of earthly beauty into love of a higher kind of beauty, something not otherwise accessible to the senses, the beauties of the Forms themselves, especially, of course, the Form of the Good or Justice.  
Plato has subsequently found few takers for the whole of his critique of beauty and art; indeed, the defense of both the cognitive and the emotional as well as practical value of aesthetic experience began immediately with Aristotle, his student and successor. But the questions that Plato raised – what is the nature and value of beauty? what is the connection between art and knowledge? what is the connection between aesthetics and morality? and what is genius, the source of artistic inspiration? – have always remained at the heart of aesthetics, no less so when aesthetics be- came a recognized academic discipline early in the eighteenth century than before, and no less so now than at any other time in modernity. Indeed, after several decades in which “analytic” philosophers set these substantive issues aside in favor of supposedly more respectable as well as more tractable questions about the structure and logic of aesthetic language and discourse – just as they attempted to do for a while in other areas of philosophy as well, such as moral philosophy – precisely these ancient questions have recently returned to the forefront of debate in Anglo-American aesthetics, with all their allure and all their difficulty.

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