Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.
David Vichnar and Louis Armand
Literary beauty was once understood as intertwining sensations and ideas, and thus as providing subjective and objective reasons for literary appreciation. However, as theory and philosophy developed, the inevitable claims and counterclaims led to the view that subjective experience was not a reliable guide to literary merit. Literary theory then replaced aesthetics as did philosophy’s focus on literary truth. Along with the demise of the relevance of sensations, literary form also took a back seat. This suggested to some that either literature communicated truth like any other literal form of communication or it was a mere diversion: a springboard to harmless reverie or daydreaming. Neither response satisfactorily captured what was distinctive about literature: the love readers can have for literary texts and the edification or insight claimed of works within each culture’s respective catalogue of classics. However, a concept of literary beauty has again become viable due to developments in theories of pleasure and imagination. If the defining aspect of literature is the imaginative engagement it occasions, and if this imagining is constrained by plausibility and endorsed as effective relative to our goals, ideals, and interests, then literature is not reduced to either mere fact or wish fulfillment. An account of literary beauty is available which defines literature accordingly and explains how subjective and objective reasons for appreciation intertwine to evoke pleasure and insight.