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Aesthetic disinterestedness: axiom of modern Western aesthetics

"The concept of aesthetic disinterestedness is surely one of the axioms of modern Western aesthetics, if not its central principle. Developed mainly in the eighteenth century in the writings of Alison, Shaftesbury, Addison, Hutcheson and others of the British school, the notion of disinterestedness denoted the perception of an object 'for its own sake.' This central idea became the mark of a new and distinctive mode of experience called the aesthetic, a kind of experience that was distinguished from more common modes, such as practical, cognitive, moral, and religious experience. During the same century many of these writers grouped what we now call the fine arts into a generally accepted set in which they were all organized by the same principles and could be compared with one another.[1] Finally, in the latter part of the century and especially in Germany, the general theory of the fine arts achieved the status of a separate discipline and, in the work of Kant, came to occupy a distinct and integral place in a philosophical system. Kant's formulation of disinterestedness is generally regarded as definitive:

'...[T]aste in the beautiful is alone a disinterested and free satisfaction; for no interest, either of sense or of reason, here forces our assent...Taste is the faculty of judging of an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.'[2]

...What might we say is the historical significance of aesthetic disinterestedness? Disinterestedness served to identify intrinsic normative experience. As first developed it was used in a moral context to help the recognition of things and actions that were good in themselves, apart from their usefulness. Thus Shaftesbury, who, along with Hutcheson and Alison, was one of the principal contributors to this view, contrasted 'the disinterested love of God,' a love pursued for its own sake, with the more common motive of serving God 'for interest merely.' The disinterested love of God has, then, value that is entirely intrinsic.[3] When applied to the experience of beauty, it denoted the same recognition of intrinsic value. There is a valid insight here, for we often find ourselves valuing a work of art for its own sake. Somehow the value of good art seems to be self-contained. The work commands respect and admiration in itself, apart from practical considerations such as monetary value, the conferring of social status, or its association with the hand of genius."

(Arnold Berleant and Ronald Hepburn, Contemporary Aesthetics)

[1] Paul Oskar Kristeller, "The Modern System of the Arts," in Renaissance Thought II (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 163-227.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (l790), Sect. 5. For an extended critical account see A. Berleant, "The Historicity of Aesthetics I," The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol.26, No.2 (Spring 1986), 101-111; "The Historicity of Aesthetics II," The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol.26, No.3 (Summer 1986), 195-203; and "Beyond Disinterestedness." The British Journal of Aesthetics, 34/3 (July 1994).

[3] Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics, ed. Robertson (London, 1900), II, 55, 56. The definitive discussion of this history is Jerome Stolnitz, "On the Origins of 'Aesthetic Disinterestedness'," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XX, 2 (Winter 1961), 131-143. The history of the idea of disinterestedness continues to be debated. See my Art and Engagement, Ch. 1, esp. n. 3, pp. 215-216.


18th centuryaesthetic disinterestednessaesthetic experienceaesthetics • Anthony Ashley-Cooper • appreciative experience • Archibald Alison • Arnold Berleantart for arts sakebeauty • British school • cognitive experience • critique of human actions • Dabney Townsend • David Hume • disinterested love • disinterested satisfaction • disinterestedness • dissatisfaction • experience of beauty • fine arts • Francis Hutcheson • George Dickie • god • human creations • Immanuel Kant • intrinsic normative experience • intrinsic value • Jerome Stolnitz • John Locke • Joseph Addison • judgement • moral experience • Paul Oskar Kristeller • practical experience • religious experience • Remy Saisselin • Ronald Hepburn • taste • usefulness • Western aesthetics


Simon Perkins

Revisiting Craft 2: Tools of Craftsmanship

"To McCullough, computer animation, geometric modeling, spatial databases–in general, all forms of media production or design–can be said to be 'crafted' when creators 'use limited software capacities resourcefully, imaginatively, and in compensation for the inadequacies of prepackaged, hard–coded operations' (21).... Again, as Sennett suggests, we 'assert our own individuality' against the prepackaged, predetermined processes and limitations of the tools we're using. Craftsmanship, says aesthetic historian David Pye, is 'workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment [sic], dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works' (45).

'Workmanship engages us with both functional and aesthetic qualities. It conveys a specific relation between form and content, such that the form realizes the content, in a manner that is enriched by the idiosyncrasies of the medium' (McCullough p.203). '[E]ach medium,' McCullough says, 'is distinguished by particular vocabulary, constructions, and modifiers, and these together establish within it a limited but rich set of possibilities' (McCullough p.230). Similarly, each methodology, or each research resource, has its own particular vocabulary, constructions, modifiers, obligations, and limitations. We need to choose our tools with these potentially enriching, and just as potentially debilitating, idiosyncrasies in mind. Do we need advanced software, or will iMovie suffice? Do we need to record an focus group in video–or will the presence of the camera compromise my rapport with my interviewee? Will an audio recording be more appropriate? Do we need to conduct primary interviews if others have already documented extensive interviews with these same subjects? Do we need to conduct extensive, long–term field–work–or can we accomplish everything in a short, well–planned research trip? How do I match my problem or project to the most appropriate tool?"

(Shannon Mattern, Words in Space)

Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).




aesthetic qualitiesaestheticsapparatusartistic practicecomputer animation • constructions • craftedcraftsmanshipcraftworkcreative practicecritical theorycultural technology • David Pye • design methodology • design possibilities • design vocabulary • dexterity • experimentationform and contentform realises content • functional qualities • geometric modelling • hard-coded operations • imaginative • iMovie • insightjudgement • limitations • maker • Malcolm McCullough • media productionmedium • modifiers • pre-packaged • research • resourcefulness • Richard Sennett • software capacities • spatial databases • techniquetheory buildingtool • tools of craftsmanship • truth to materialsvisual vocabularyvocabulary • workmanship


Simon Perkins

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