Paul Guyer, A history of modern aesthetics, 3 voll., New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014


The three volumes of this work, with an extension of 1700 pages, a bibliography that counts over 60 pages, and over 70 pages of indexes, offer a coherent perspective on the history of modern aesthetics that goes beyond traditional chronological and thematic boundaries. This history leads the reader from Plato and Aristotle to the very recent, and actually still open, debate on aesthetic experience. These points of reference are undoubtedly far to each other. Nonetheless, the author connects them through focusing on the birth of some core ideas for aesthetic experience. Thus, he follows these ideas and builds an historical system upon them. This method gives coherence to the work. Above all, this method allows the author to give a unitary view overall the whole field of aesthetics, even before the discipline got its name. For him, modernity is not the mere name of an historical period. It denotes a methodological issue: this history is a history of ideas. In the modern age, these aesthetic ideas have been recognized as such, progressively. Therefore, they can work as interpretive criteria for both the past and the future of modernity. These ideas dialogue with their past and determine their future. In the Introduction to the first volume Paul Guyer explains why this is only a history of modern aesthetics. The ideas of “the cognitive value of aesthetic experience”, “the emotional impact of aesthetic experience”, “the free play of our distinctively human capacities” (V1, 9) constitute the core of the work. This history can be can compared, in its method, to Tatarkiewicz’s History of six ideas, even though the contents and their readings are different in many regards: the number and the kind of the ideas, the periodization, the distinction between definition and theory. The volumes aim to describe the historical development of the main forms of aesthetic experience. Philosophers, critics, and even artists, are part of this work insofar as they contribute to this objective. However, Guyer clearly points out that his history of philosophical aesthetics “is not a history of art or literary criticism or theory” (V1, 2-3). Works of this kind are, for him, René Wellek’s History of modern criticism and The Cambridge history of literary criticism. The method is descriptive but not historiographic. Guyer divides the work into three volumes, one for each century, and the field of research into three different national traditions: Anglo-American, German, and French. These boundaries are not rigid; for example, the author does not consider twentieth-century French aesthetics, because of its unfruitful emphasis on linguistic models and textuality (V1, 1). These structural criteria are functional to give adequate expression to the purposes of the work: the only possible definition of the field of aesthetic experience is the one provided by its history.

The author states that the discipline of aesthetics “can be thought of as the collective response to Plato’s criticism of many forms of art in his Republic” (V1, 9). He further argues that eighteenth-century aesthetics in its entirety represents a response to Plato, introducing the notions of an intrinsic positive value for emotions and of the free exercise of human capacities. If the philosophical discipline of aesthetics “arose long before it got its name” (V1, 15), then Baumgarten’s baptism of the word aesthetica in 1735 was an adult one. Before that, the Prologue let the history of modern aesthetics begin with the cognitivist approaches of Shaftesbury and Wolff, between 1709 and 1720. Then, it introduces the ideas of play (Addison and Crousaz) and of the emotional impact of art (Du Bos). Chapter II is dedicated to British aesthetics, from Hutcheson’s non-cognitive pleasure in beauty to Hume’s theory of imagination. More than seeking one of his three main ideas, the author is always discussing possible connections between them. After Hume, chapter III discusses Hogarth, Burke and Gerard as arguing about Forms of feeling and chapter IV presents some insights in the works of Kames and Stewart. In chapter V, the author sums up the mid-century French aesthetics from André to Rousseau, including Batteux and Diderot. The paragraph entitled The encyclopedists deals with the work of D’Alembert and his attempt “to balance Montesquieu’s emphasis on the free play” (V1, 273) by strengthening the traditional value of truth in aesthetic experience. Particularly interesting are the references to Louis de Jaucourt and Étienne-Maurice Falconet, authors, respectively, of the entry on painting and sculpture in the Encyclopédie. In his Letter to D’Alembert, Rousseau considers art as a means for teaching or enlightening important moral truths. In chapter VI, we follow the development of the account of beauty as a sensitive cognition of perfection and gradually see how both Baumgarten and Meier introduce a particular emphasis on the arousal of emotions. Moses Mendelssohn, with his partially implicit claims about the engagement of our cognitive powers in the presentation of emotions in art, plays a prominent role in chapter VII, which also presents Winckelmann’s works on ancient art and the anticipation, by Lessing, of the value of art for its own sake. Herder, Sulzer, Herz and Moritz (chapter VIII) complete the background of Kant’s aesthetic theory, to which chapter IX is dedicated. The author, a leading Kant scholar, delivers his insights with great precision regarding the tasks of aesthetics, the theory of free play and fine art, and finally the moral relevance of the concept of beauty. Kant connects the ideas of cognition and play, by excluding emotions. After Kant is the title of the last chapter, which proceeds to Heydendreich, Schiller, Goethe, Wilhelm von Humboldt, again Herder (specifically as a critic of Kant) and Herbart.

The first two chapters of the volume on nineteenth-century aesthetics are committed to describing Romanticism in both German and British authors, starting from Hölderlin and Friedrich Schlegel and proceeding with remarkable emphasis on Schelling’s philosophy and its influence on Richter, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Mill and Emerson. A different understanding on the relationship between art and philosophy leads from Romanticism into the High tide of idealism (chapter III). The author is aware of the difficulty in isolating Schopenhauer’s aesthetics from the rest of his philosophy, and he presents a well-balanced analysis. The paragraph on Hegel is more specifically concerned with his conception of art, instead. Schleiermacher closes this chapter and introduces the next one, which deals with the Hegel reception of Solger, Vischer, Rosenkranz and Lotze. Guyer’s conception of aesthetic experience considers, on the one hand, the interaction between the subject and the beautiful object and, on the other, does not reduce the meaning of the word experience to what the first does with and on the second. With few exceptions, namely Cousin, Gautier, and Baudelaire, the whole second part of this volume deals only with English-speaking authors, including Poe and even Tolstoy (the focus is on the work What is art?, which appeared in English in 1898, see V2, 290-6). John Ruskin, with his own work on Turner’s paintings, deserves chapter V in its entirety, while the sixth mainly analyzes the relationship between aesthetic experience and moral truth in the Aestheticism. In many cases Guyer connects, but avoids confusing, the aesthetical views of these authors with their own poetics. In chapter VII, Bosanquet takes an active part in this history of three ideas, with the attempt to integrate a cognitive approach with the emotional impact of art.

Afterwards, Tolstoy’s theory of infection highlights the role of art in the communication of religious feelings. Friedrich Nietzsche, with his fragmentary aesthetic theory, built around The birth of tragedy, is the main character of chapter VIII. The following few pages briefly refer to the metaphysical aesthetics of Eduard Von Hartmann. The last two chapters are entitled Neo-Kantian aesthetics and Psychological aesthetics. In the former, the author compares Fechner, Cohen, Cohn, Münsterberg and Dilthey with Kant’s perspective as a model but not the model, because of the lack of the emotional impact of art (when some author refers to Kant, Guyer let his competence emerge; he offers an explanation, rather than an interpretation, of these references, in order to make them clearer). In the latter, instead, the concept of empathy gives a new meaning to the idea of play, in order to explain a specific interaction between the body and the mind of the subject on the one hand, and the features of the perceived object on the other hand. The authors here are Spencer, Robert Vischer, Lipps, Volkelt, Groos, Puffer and Lee.

If in the first volume the ideas of play and of the emotional impact are alternatives to the aesthetic of truth, in the second Guyer recognizes a prominent role for emotions, nonetheless related to a rejection of the theory of play. The third volume opens with this statement: in the twentieth century, “a comprehensive approach to aesthetics was not immediately pursued” (V3, 2). Chapter I presents Lukács’ arguments concerning the relationship between modernity and the ancient Greek world and describes the idea, by Heidegger, of the revelation of the truth to us through the experience of art. In chapter II art represents a means for expressing its time (Gadamer, Adorno), and an element of social and political resonance (Benjamin, Marcuse). An extended discussion of Croce’s aesthetics and of its influence on British authors is the core of the second part of the volume. Chapter III takes in exam, besides Croce, the so-called Bloomsbury group and the work of Bullough. Chapter IV examines some responses to Croce, presented by Carritt, Reid, Alexander, while the fifth chapter follows the development of Collingwood’s aesthetics from the connection between cognition and play to its emphasis on the role of art for the clarification of the emotions. With George Santayana and his comprehensive approach to aesthetic experience and the concept and pleasure of beauty (chapter VI), Guyer begins the examination of American aesthetics. Chapters VII and IX consider the reception of the Expression theory from DeWitt Parker, who focuses on the role of emotions, to Ernst Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms (even if German, Cassirer is part of American aesthetics because of his immediate influence on it, see V3, 335). Dewey’s claim that art “offers the con­summa­to­ry fulfillment or highest form of experience” (V3, 312) is discussed in chapter VIII. The works of Gotshalk, Isenberg, Beardsley and Nelson Goodman (chapter X) attest the influence of Dewey, Cassirer and Santayana and lead us to an “epochal event in the history of philosophy” (V3, 429): chapter XI is dedicated to Wittgenstein’s innovations in the theory of language and his insights on the “cultural relativism of aesthetic preferences and judgments” (V3, 447). Chapter XII describes the impact of these theories, culminating with Danto and Dickie; chapter XIII deals with some intentional comprehensive approach to aesthetic experience (Wollheim, Scruton, and Cavell). In the Epilogue, the author recalls the beginning of the first volume in order to present the development of the ideas of cognition, emotional impact and play in recent American aesthetics until Alexander Nehamas’ book Only a promise of happiness. The place of beauty in a world of art (2007).

Brief but thorough biographical and bibliographical notes introduce each author. Each chapter can be hardly isolated from the rest of the study: Guyer’s main ideas determine the method of this history, which describes a voyage of discovery in its coherent progression. He appreciates all those works that try to develop more than a single approach and to integrate different principles of interpretation. On the last page, the author distinguishes between “centrifugal” and “centripetal” forces. With the first, he intends all attempts to identify one specific form of aesthetic experience, thus separating cognition, emotions and play. Forces of the second kind are those which try to do the opposite, namely to link these ideas together. This also clarifies his own approach: a truly aesthetic experience has to deal with both forces, trying to balance them rather than suppressing and promoting only one of them. Thus, he concludes: “We can only surmise that in the continuing development of the discipline, a development that will continue as long as there are philosophers who are moved by art, which is to say, on both counts, as long as there are human beings, both centrifugal and centripetal approaches to aesthetics will take on new and interesting forms” (V3, 604). All new possible forms represent a possibility among others. In order to understand their value, it must be possible to compare them and let them communicate. Since the history of aesthetics is not going to finish, the field of aesthetic experience remains an open space. The main value of this work lies in its invitation to go further within it. An invitation to dialogue with other perspectives.

Luigi Filieri


  • There are currently no refbacks.

ISSN 0585-4733

Mimesis Edizioni
Via Monfalcone 17/19, Sesto San Giovanni (MI)
mimesis @