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- The Psychology of Beauty - 5/36 -


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,"<1> 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.

<1> M.W. Calkins: An Introduction to Psychology, 1902, p. 278.

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 ha 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.

But to determine what anything does, or fulfills, or exemplifies, is not the same as to determine what it is in itself. The most that can be said is that the end, or function, shapes the means or constitution. The end is a logical imperative. Beauty does, and must do, such things. To ask how, is at once to indicate an ultimate departure from the philosophical point of view; for the means to an end are different, and to be empirically determined.

Now the constitution of Beauty can be only the means to the end of Beauty,--that combination of qualities in the object which will bring about the end fixed by philosophical definition. The end is general; the means may be different kinds. Evidently, then, the philosophical definition cannot be applied directly to the object until the possibilities, conditions, and limitations of that object's fitness for the purpose assigned are known. We cannot ask, Does the Sistine Madonna express the Idea of Sense? until we know all possibilities and conditions of the visual for attaining that expression. But, indeed, the consideration of causes and effects suggests at once that natural science must guide further investigation. Philosophy must lay down what Beauty has to do, but since it is in our experience of Beauty that its end is accomplished, since the analysis of such experience and the study of its contributing elements is a work of the natural science of such experience--it would follow that psychology must deal with the various means through which this end is to be reached.

Thus we see that Fechner's reproach is unjustified. Those concepts which are too general to apply to particular cases are not meant to do so. If a general concept expresses, as it should, the place of Beauty in the hierarchy of metaphysical values, it is for the psychologist of aesthetics to develop the means by which that end can be reached in the various realms in which works of art are found.

Nor can we agree with Santayana's dictum<1> that philosophical aesthetics confuses the import of an experience with the explanation of its cause. It need not. The aesthetic experience is indeed caused by the beautiful object, but the beautiful object itself is caused by the possibility of the aesthetic experience,-- beauty as an end under the conditions of human perception. Thus the Nature of Beauty is related to its import, or meaning, or end, as means to that end; and therefore the import of an experience may well point out to us the constitution of the cause of that experience. A work of art, a piece of nature, is judged by its degree of attainment to that end; the explanation of its beauty--of its degree of attainment, that is--is found in the effect of its elements, according to psychological laws, on the aesthetic subject.

<1> The Sense of Beauty, 1898. Intro.

Such a psychological study of the means by which the end of Beauty is attained is the only method by which we can come to an explanation of the wealth of concrete beauty. The concept of explanation, indeed, is valid only within the realm of causes and effects. The aim of aesthetics being conceded, as above, to be the determination of the Nature of Beauty and the explanation of our feelings about it, it is evident at this point that the Nature of Beauty must be determined by philosophy; but the general definition having been fixed, the meaning of the work of art having been made clear, the only possible explanation of our feelings about it--the aesthetic experience, in other words--must be gained from psychology. This method is not open to the logical objections against the preceding. No longer need we ask what has a right to be included in the aesthetic experience. That has been fixed by the definition of Beauty. But how the beautiful object brings about the aesthetic experience, the boundaries of which are already known, is clearly matter for psychology.

The first step must then be to win the philosophical definition of Beauty. It was Kant, says Hegel, who spoke the first rational word concerning Beauty. The study of his successors will reveal, I believe, that the aesthetic of the great system of idealism


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