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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
08 JANUARY 2014

Kafka's Wound by Will Self

"I am guilty of an association of ideas; or rather: I am guilty–that's a given, and in casting about for the source of my guilt I find I cannot prevent myself from linking one idea with another purely on the basis of their contiguity, in time, in place, in my own mind. It's not only ideas I connect like this, I do it with images, sensory impressions and the most epiphenomenal of mental glitches. Hume writes in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that the imagination is best conceived of as a combinatorial faculty: there is nothing intrinsically imaginative about the idea of 'gold', nor the idea of 'mountain', but join them together and you have a fantastically gleaming 'gold mountain'. And might not that gold mountain be the Laurenziberg in Prague? After all, it looms over contemporary Prague–under its Czech language moniker, the Petřín–just as it loomed in the consciousness of Franz Kafka, whose earliest surviving narrative fragment, 'Description of a Struggle', is in part an account of a phantasmagorical ascent of its slopes: 'But now the cool light which precedes the rising of the moon spread over the mountain and suddenly the moon itself appeared from beyond one of the restless bushes. I on the other hand had meanwhile been gazing in another direction, and when I now looked ahead of me and suddenly saw it glowing in its almost full roundness, I stood still with troubled eyes, for my precipitous road seemed to lead straight into this terrifying moon.'"

(Kafka's Wound by Will Self)



associative • associative logic • between people and things • combinatorial faculty • contiguity • Czech language • Czech RepublicDavid Hume • epiphenomenal • essay • fantastically gleaming • Franz Kafkaglitch • gold mountain • hypermedia • idea association • imaginationinformation visualisationinterlinking • linking one idea with another • linking structure • London Review of Books • mental glitch • moonnodal structureorganisational relationship • Petrin • phantasmagoricalPraguerelatednessrhizomatic associationsrhizome • sensory impressions • similitude • Will Self


Anna Troisi

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