A brief overview of history of aesthetics

Scenic beauty of the landscape or in a broader sense environmental aesthetics has been an area of concern for assessing visual quality of landscapes and landscape preferences. Although the involvement of aesthetics in environmental psychology and landscape assessment studies does not date back very far, it has been a subject for philosophy since ancient times. The word "aesthetic" is derived from aisthanesthai, Greek word for "to perceive" and aistheta, which means "perceptible objects" in Greek. The term "aesthetics" was first coined by Alexander Baumgarten, a German philosopher, in 1735. Before that, "beauty" was the focus of the aesthetical debates of philosophers.

The question of "what is beauty" has been central to theories of aesthetics since classical Greek times (Porteous, 1996). According to Socrates, (469-399 B. C.) there is a mutual connection between beauty, truth and symmetry (Hofstadter, 1979 in Barak-Erez & Shapira, 1999). He believed that beauty was desirable for youth and he linked beauty to being good and morality (Lothian, 1999). For Plato (427-347 B. C.), there is an "essential universe", the perfect universe; and there is the "perceived universe" where we perceive the reality through our senses as imperfect copies. Plato believed the beauty was an "idea" and the beauty we perceived in the "perceived universe" was not the real, original beauty, but just an imperfect copy. On the other hand, Aristotle (384-322 B. C.) discusses beauty in context of mathematics. He believed that beauty was associated with size and order, and there were three components of beauty; integrity (integras), consonance (consonantia), and clarity (claritas). Beauty was accepted as a sign of God’s existence after Christianity emerged and during medieval times.

With Renaissance, approaches towards aesthetics in ancient Roman and Greek times returned back with the movement Classicism. In this period, beauty was associated with order, symmetry, proportion and balance. In the end of 17th century, modern aesthetics emerged in Britain and Germany. For John Locke (1632-1704); "beauty consists of a certain composition of color and figure causing delight in the beholder" (Carson, 2002) and therefore, it was a subjective quality. Likewise, British philosophers David Hume and Edmund Burke believed that aesthetics was a subjective concept. According to Hume (1711-1776), people decide whether an object was beautiful or not by their feelings. Burke (1729-1797) identified beauty as a "social quality" and linked beauty with the feeling of affection, particularly toward the other sex. According to him, the feeling of the beautiful is grounded in our social nature (Vandenabeele, 2012). On the contrary, German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s (1724­2804) approach to aesthetic judgment was based on logic and deduction (Lothian, 1999). He believed aesthetic judgments were based on the feeling of pleasure and they were disinterested. Daniels (2008) explains disinterestedness as "… a genuine aesthetic judgment does not include any extrinsic considerations toward the object of judgment itself, such as political or utilitarian concerns"". Therefore, Kant claimed that aesthetic judgments were both subjective and universal. However, German philosophers Friedrich Schiller and Wilhelm Hegel rejected Kant’s subjective approach on aesthetics (Lothian, 1999). Schiller (1759- 1805) claimed that beauty was the property of the object, thus aesthetic experience was rather objective. On the other hand, Hegel (1770-1831) believed that aesthetics was concerned with the beauty of art and beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature. Like Schiller, for Hegel beauty was the property of the object. According to Baumgarten (1714-1762), who coined the term aesthetics, beauty is not connected to the feeling of pleasure or delight, indeed beauty is an intellectual category and perfection of sensitive cognition is a precondition for beauty (Gross, 2002). In 19th century, romanticism focused on nature as an aesthetic resource. In this period, landscape was viewed in objectivist terms and considered as having intrinsic qualities (Lothian, 1999). However, nature lost its importance as an aesthetic object by the end of 19th century and during the 20th century art has become the main concern for aesthetic debates.

George Santayana, Benedetto Croce, John Dewey and Susanne Langer are amongst the modern era philosophers on aesthetics. Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) believed that beauty was a subjective concept, rather than objective. He defined beauty as the pleasure derived from perception of an object (Lothian, 1999). Croce (1866­1952) interprets aesthetics as an experience. For Croce, intuition is basis for the sense of beauty. Dewey’s (1859-1952) aesthetics is based on experience as well. In contrast to Kant’s disinterestedness principle, Dewey’s aesthetics require involvement and engagement (Lothian, 1999). While Dewey suggested that aesthetic experience was a biological response, Langer (1895-1985) strongly rejected this idea (Bourassa, 1988). Langer’s aesthetics is based on the concept of semblance. According to Langer, semblance of a thing is an aesthetic symbolic form which constitutes its direct aesthetic quality (Kruse, 2007).

Although philosophical theories of aesthetics may seem relatively relevant to landscape assessment, landscape planners and designers need to understand the fundamentals of aesthetic theories of art and nature in order to develop valid and efficient approaches towards evaluation of landscape aesthetics in context of landscape planning and design. According to Berleant (1992), the idea of environment possesses deep philosophical assumptions about our world and ourselves, thus the study of aesthetics and environment can provide mutual benefit in this changing world.

Updated: October 13, 2015 — 1:09 am