Ethel D. Puffer – The Psychology of Beauty: The Nature of Beauty

[Excerpt from The Psychology of Beauty: PART II – The Nature of Beauty PART I – Criticism and Aesthetics]

EVERY introduction to the problems of aesthetics begins by acknowledging the existence and claims of two methods of attack,—the general, philosophical, deductive, which starts from a complete metaphysics and installs beauty in its place among the other great concepts; and the empirical, or inductive, which seeks to disengage a general principle of beauty from the objects of aesthetic experience and the facts of aesthetic enjoyment: Fechner’s “aesthetics from above and from below.”

The first was the method of aesthetics par excellence. It was indeed only through the desire of an eighteenth-century philosopher, Baumgarten, to round out his “architectonic” of metaphysics that the science received its name, as designating the theory of knowledge in the form of feeling, parallel to that of “clear,” logical thought. Kant, Schelling, and Hegel, again, made use of the concept of the Beautiful as a kind of keystone or cornice for their respective philosophical edifices. Aesthetics, then, came into being as the philosophy of the Beautiful, and it may be asked why this philosophical aesthetics does not suffice—why beauty should need for its understanding also an aesthetics “von unten.”

The answer is not that no system of philosophy is universally accepted, but that the general aesthetic theories have not, as yet at least, succeeded in answering the plain questions of “the plain man” in regard to concrete beauty. Kant, indeed, frankly denied that the explanation of concrete beauty, or “Doctrine of Taste,” as he called it, was possible, while the various definers of beauty as “the union of the Real and the Ideal” “the expression of the Ideal to Sense,” have done no more than he. No one of these aesthetic systems, in spite of volumes of so-called application of their principles to works of art, has been able to furnish a criterion of beauty. The criticism of the generations is summed up in the mild remark of Fechner, in his “Vorschule der Aesthetik,” to the effect that the philosophical path leaves one in conceptions that, by reason of their generality, do not well fit the particular cases. And so it was that empirical aesthetics arose, which does not seek to answer those plain questions as to the enjoyment of concrete beauty down to its simplest forms, to which philosophical aesthetics had been inadequate.

But it is clear that neither has empirical aesthetics said the last word concerning beauty. Criticism is still in a chaotic state that would be impossible if aesthetic theory were firmly grounded. This situation appears to me to be due to the inherent inadequacy and inconclusiveness of empirical aesthetics when it stands alone; the grounds of this inadequacy I shall seek to establish in the following.

Granting that the aim of every aesthetics is to determine the Nature of Beauty, and to explain our feelings about it, we may say that the empirical treatments propose to do this either by describing the aesthetic object and extracting the essential elements of Beauty, or by describing the aesthetic experience and extracting the essential elements of aesthetic feeling, thereby indicating the elements of Beauty as those which effect this feeling.

"Untitled (dusk #1)" by Karen Arm
“Untitled (dusk #1)” by Karen Arm

Now the bare description and analysis of beautiful objects cannot, logically, yield any result; for the selection of cases would have to be arbitrary, and would be at the mercy of any objection. To any one who should say, But this is not beautiful, and should not be included in your inventory, answer could be made only by showing that it had such and such qualities, the very, by hypothesis, unknown qualities that were to be sought. Moreover, the field of beauty contains so many and so heterogeneous objects , that the retreat to their only common ground, aesthetic feeling, appears inevitable. A statue and a symphony can be reduced to a common denominator most easily if the states of mind which they induce are compared. Thus the analysis of objects passes naturally over to the analysis of mental states—the point of view of psychology.

There is, however, a method subsidiary to the preceding, which seeks the elements of Beauty in a study of the genesis and the development of art forms. But this leaves the essential phenomenon absolutely untouched. The general types of aesthetic expression may indeed have been shaped by social forces,— religious, commercial, domestic,—but as social products, not as aesthetic phenomena. Such studies reveal to us, as it were, the excuse for the fact of music, poetry, painting—but they tell us nothing of the reason why beautiful rather than ugly forms were chosen, as who should show that the bird sings to attract its mate, ignoring the relation and sequence of the notes. The decorative art of most savage tribes, for instance, is nearly all of totemic origin, and the decayed and degraded forms of snake, bird, bear, fish, may be traced in the most apparently empty geometric patterns;—but what does this discovery tell us of the essentially decorative quality of such patterns or of the nature of beauty of form? The study of the Gothic cathedral reveals the source of its general plan and of its whole scheme of ornament in detailed religious symbolism. Yet a complete knowledge of the character of the religious feeling which impelled to this monumental expression, and of the genesis of every element of structure, fails to account for the essential beauty of rhythm and proportion in the finished work. These researches, in short, explain the reason for the existence, but not for the quality, of works of art.

Thus it is in psychology that empirical aesthetics finds its last resort. And indeed, our plain man might say, the aesthetic experience itself is inescapable and undeniable. You know that the sight or the hearing of this thing gives you a thrill of pleasure. You may not be able to defend the beauty of the object, but the fact of the experience you have. The psychologist, seeking to analyze the vivid and unmistakable Aesthetic experience, would therefore proceed somewhat as follows. He would select the salient characteristics of his mental state in presence of a given work of art. He would then study, by experiment and introspection, how the particular sense-stimulations of the work of art in question could become the psychological conditions of these salient characteristics. Thus, supposing the aesthetic experience to have been described as “the conscious happiness in which one is absorbed, and, as it were, immersed in the sense-object,” the further special aim, in connection with a picture, for instance, would be to show how the sensations and associated ideas from color, line, composition, and all the other elements of a picture may, on general psychological principles, bring about this state of happy absorption. Such elements as can be shown to have a direct relation to the aesthetic experience are then counted as elements of the beauty of the aesthetic object, and such as are invariable in all art forms would belong to the general formula or concept of Beauty.

This, it seems to me, is as favorable a way as possible of stating the possibilities of an independent aesthetic psychology.

Yet this method, as it works out, does not exhaust the problem the solution of which was affirmed to be the aim of every aesthetics. The aesthetic experience is very complex, and the theoretical consequences of emphasizing this or that element very great. Thus, if it were held that the characteristics of the aesthetic experience could be given by the complete analysis of a single well-marked case,—say, our impressions before a Doric column, or the Cathedral of Chartres, or the Giorgione Venus,—it could be objected that for such a psychological experience the essential elements are hard to isolate. The cathedral is stone rather than staff; it is three hundred rather than fifty feet high. Our reaction upon these facts may or may not be essentials to the aesthetic moment, and we can know whether they are essentials only by comparison and exclusion. It might be said, therefore, that the analysis of a single, though typical, aesthetic experience is insufficient; a wide induction is necessary. Based on the experience of many people, in face of the same object? But to many there would be no aesthetic experience. On that of one person, over an extensive field of objects? How, then, determine the limits of this field? Half of the dispute of modern aesthetics is over the right to include in the material for this induction various kinds of enjoyment which are vivid, not directly utilitarian, but traditionally excluded from the field. Guyan, for instance, in a charming passage of his “Problemes de l’Esthetique Contemporaine,” argues for the aesthetic quality of the moment when, exhausted by a long mountain tramp, he quaffed, among the slopes of the Pyrenees, a bowl of foaming milk. The same dispute appears, in more complicated form, in the conflicting dicta of the critics.

If we do not know what part of our feeling is aesthetic feeling, how can wee go farther? If the introspecting subject cannot say, This is aesthetic feeling, it is logically impossible to make his state of mind the basis for further advance. It is clear that the great question is of what one has a right to include in the aesthetic experience. But that one should have such a “right” implies that there is an imperative element in the situation, an absolute standard somewhere.

It seems to me that the secret of the difficulty lies in the nature of the situation, with which an empirical treatment must necessarily fail to deal. What we have called “the aesthetic experience” is really a positive toning of the general aesthetic attitude. This positive toning corresponds to aesthetic excellence in the object. But wherever the concept of excellence enters, there is always the implication of a standard, value, judgment. But where there is a standard there is always an implicit a priori,—a philosophical foundation.

If, then, a philosophical method is the last resort and the first condition of a true aesthetics, what is the secret of its failure? For that it has failed seems to be still the consensus of opinion. Simply, I believe and maintain, the unreasonable and illogical demand which, for instance, Fechner makes in the words I have quoted, for just this immediate application of a philosophical definition to concrete cases. Who but an Hegelian philosopher, cries Professor James, ever pretended that reason in action was per se a sufficient explanation of the political changes in Europe? Who but an Hegelian philosopher, he might add, ever pretended that “the expression of the Idea to Sense” was a sufficient explanation of the Sistine Madonna? But I think the Hegelian—or other—philosopher might answer that he had no need so to pretend. Such a philosophical definition, as I hope to show, cannot possibly apply to particular cases, and should not be expected to do so.

Beauty is an excellence, a standard, a value. But value is in its nature teleological; is of the nature of purpose. Anything has value because it fulfills an end, because it is good for something in the world. A thing is not beautiful because it has value,—other things have that,—it has value because it is beautiful, because it fulfills the end of Beauty. Thus the metaphysical definition of Beauty must set forth what this end of Beauty is,—what it serves in the universe.

Ethel D. Puffer

First published by Project Gutenberg, February, 2003.

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