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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
29 JULY 2006

Scrapbooks: tools for collecting our personal material culture

"Scrapbooks comprise much of the 'material culture' of personal memory: they contain memorabilia of all sorts, and photographs of people and occasions that are important in the individual's life. In this sense, they are the 'analog', nonverbal form of a diary or journal. Michele Gerbrandt, edits Memory Maker, a magazine devoted to 'scrapbooking' that began in 1996. In Scrapbook Basics: The Complete Guide to Preserving Your Memories (Memory Makers Books, 2002), Gerbrandt suggests that scrapbooks have their origins in the 'commonplace books' in which people collected literary passages, quotations, ideas, and observations for personal reflection. She reports that in 1709, the British philosopher John Locke (posthumously) published a New Method of Making Common–Place Books (sometimes included in editions of Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding). The common–place book eventually evolved into the modern scrap–book. In 1872 Mark Twain, who owned a publishing firm, marketed a 'self–pasting' scrap book. Scrapbooks document personal and family histories, and record experiences, good and bad, for later reflection. Many personal websites, not to mention weblogs (or 'blogs'), have a certain 'scrapbook' quality."

(John F. Kihlstrom, University of California, Berkeley)




blogcommonplace bookcommonplacesdiaryephemera • John Kihlstrom • John LockejournalMark Twainmaterial culturememorabiliamemoryquotationreflectionscrapbook

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