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Aesthetics as a Scientific Discipline

A Science is a System

The problem of the truly scientific nature of modern aesthetics is cardinal. One can hardly regard as a contribution to it the innumerable theoretical essays following the pattern of "Reflections Concerning...", which should really be taken to mean and have a subtitle "My Taste in Art". A noted American art critic Thomas Munro called one of his books Toward Science in Aesthetics1.
Fed up with impotent efforts, the author longs for a truly scientific approach taking issue with those who think that science is dreary and that it kills everything it touches. According to Munro, the scientific approach implies observing and classifying facts and evolving general laws.
But even a great number of correct observations, classified facts and established laws, even brought together, do not add up to a science, just as a pile of bricks, even sorted out according to size, is not a building. Science is not a collection of truths, facts, observations or ideas. Science is knowledge organised in a certain way and subordinated to social practice.
A science is a system which has the following essential characteristics:
1. A logical connection and subordination, a hierarchy of concepts, categories and laws and a specific order of ideas. A scientific problem in aesthetics can be solved only if it is tied up with adjacent problems and dealt with as part of an overall system and with the help of a single set of methods.
2. A system is an organised (orderly) multitude consisting of separate elements but not reducible to their simple sum.
Aesthetics is a system of laws and categories which give a theoretical description of the world in its great diversity and value to mankind, an artistic cognition of this world, creative activity according to the laws of the beautiful, the substance of art, features of its development, specifics of creativity, perception and social functioning of culture.
3. Concrete and universal ideas interlinked in the scientific system, the ability not to simply accumulate and relate the facts but rise over them and get a bird's-eye view of them. A scientific system always disengages itself from facts putting them only to indirect use. In this sense, aesthetics bases its theoretical generalisations on the infinite realm of the practical and artistic cognition of the world according to the laws of the beautiful.
4. Monism, i.e. proceeding from the same initial positions when interpreting all phenomena. The significance of Mendeleyev's discovery in chemistry lies in the fact that the knowledge of the subject was supplemented without any additional research but only by organising the accumulated knowledge into a system based on a single principle. Such single basis for a systematic organization of knowledge in aesthetics is provided by the interpretation of the aesthetic as the universally valuable.
5. A major feature of a scientific system is the absence of anything superfluous (the principle of minimum sufficiency). The minimum number of axioms or other points of departure should encourage such evolution of ideas which would enable them to embrace the maximum number of facts and phenomena. This lends logical elegance and beauty to a scientific system. In this respect, aesthetics may borrow the experience of physics in its movement towards the theory of relativity. Einstein said that initial hypotheses are becoming ever more abstract and removed from life experience. Yet we are coming ever nearer to the lofty scientific purpose: to embrace, through logical deduction, the maximum number of facts of life while basing on the minimum number of hypotheses and axioms.
6. Inherent in a scientific system are openness and readiness to take in and theoretically "process" hitherto unknown facts and phenomena. The possibilities of aesthetic cognition of the world are boundless; therefore, a closed aesthetic system is necessarily faulty. Only a system built on a monist basis, open to all new facts and not claiming to be absolutely complete but seeking to assimilate all the entire historical experience of mankind and to meet the requirements of the day, a system which is capable of growing, filling its own gaps and embracing new ideas, only such a system can be fruitful and promising. Aesthetics crystallises the experience of man's artistic development, which is infinite.
When in flight, an aircraft is both supported by air and has to overcome its resistance. That is the way for aesthetic thought to approach the facts of art. Facts are the air of science, and thought, its wings. To rise above them but keep them in view in a sublated form is the only way to form concrete and generalised opinions in aesthetics, which are equally alien to barren empiricism on the one hand and empty abstraction on the other. To sum up, aesthetics as a science is a system of laws, categories and general concepts presenting, in the light of certain social practice, essential aesthetic ties, relationships and qualities of real life, and the process of its cognition according to the laws of the beautiful.

The Unity (Monism) of the System

What is then the principle which should serve as the foundation of aesthetics as a science?
For idealist aesthetics, this is the Spirit. The aesthetic wealth of the world itself is viewed as the product of either the Absolute Spirit, i.e. God, or of individual consciousness, and the evolution of art, as a development stage passed by the Absolute Idea, or the result of the growing complexity of the artist's inner world. Materialism emphasises the objective existence of the world's aesthetic wealth and is aware of its material (natural or social) sources and causes.
From this point of view, art is imitation of nature (Aristotle), its mirror reflection (Leonardo da Vinci), the reproduction and interpretation of life and a judgement over it (Chernyshevsky), the reflection of social being in one of the forms of social consciousness (Marxism).
The history of aesthetics has known quite a few doctrines which attempted to embrace, using a single principle, world artistic process in its entirety. Each of these monist aesthetic doctrines depended on the interpretation of the relationship between art and life. Two of them – those of Aristotle and Hegel – were truly global.
Aristotle's system rested on the theory of imitation (mimesis). He distinguished between the object, material and way of imitation, and used the same principles to explain the aesthetic categories, the nature of art, and its kinds and genres. Aristotle's system is turned towards life whose relation to art is interpreted as imitation.
According to Hegel, the world proceeds from the Absolute Idea. Its self-movement creates a real, material world ("the other being" of the Absolute Idea) and determines the stages of its evolution. A major form of the evolution of the Absolute Idea which fills matter with the spirit is art.
When the Spirit first penetrates matter, matter (form) prevails over the idea (content). This stage corresponds to the first, symbolic, form of art (Ancient India, Ancient Egypt), which is best represented by architecture as the art where the material prevails over the spiritual. The same correlation of spirit and matter is inherent in the comic as an aesthetic category.
In its self-development, the Absolute Idea continues to fill matter with the Spirit ushering in the second stage – the classical art marked by harmony of the Spirit and matter, content and form. Harmony belongs, above all, to sculpture and painting, and to the chief aesthetic category – the beautiful. But the balance is soon upset by the continued evolution of the Spirit. The romantic period begins and content begins to prevail over form; this process is reflected in the category of the sublime, and in arts – music and literature.
In Hegel's grandiose and complete system, the evolution of art is part of the evolution of the world (the stage of the evolution of the Spirit in its connection with the material).
The evolution of art is begun by the evolution of the world, it flows into it and is consumed (negated) by it.
Finally, the idea (content) finds its way into the realm of pure spirituality and frees itself from matter (form). The advent of the epoch of philosophy begins, while the development of art is terminated.
Russian aestheticians – Herzen, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov – based their complete and original aesthetic system on the principle of artistic verity. They interpreted kinds and genres of art as artistic structures which gave a truthful, comprehensive and complete representation of life in all its diversity. They saw the various trends in the history of art as different historical stages of artistic cognition of the world and as types of artistic verity; realism was for them the most fruitful way of attaining it, and aesthetic categories were existing aesthetic qualities of life whose aesthetic wealth should be reflected by the truthful art.
The cornerstone of the aesthetic doctrine propounded in the present book is life in its diversity considered from the point of view of its significance to man (the aesthetic). Interpretation of phenomena in the light of the sublime goals of historical development and their importance to man is a new foundation of an aesthetic system. A historically flexible harmonious system of laws and categories resting on this unified foundation is able to embrace the vital issues involved in aesthetic cognition of the world and in creative activity according to the laws of the beautiful.

Scientific Method

Cognition is impossible without its instrument, i.e. method. A truly scientific method is, according to Engels, an analogue of the object of cognition or, to be more precise, that part of the object which has been cognised. The cognised laws form the basis of the method but are not yet the method itself. A method is the rules formulated on the basis of these laws which serve to ensure a further advance of cognition. According to Hegel, "in searching cognition the method is also posited as an instrument, as a means imminent in and used by the subjective party to refer itself to the object."2 The laws of the object are reinterpreted in the method thus determining the actions of the subject.
The adequacy of a theory of reality depends on whether the requirements of the method are fulfilled. A genuine theory is always systematic. A theory or a system is not yet a method.
Not a single system of knowledge can be fully realised in the method since its contents are richer, but the method which emerged on the basis of a system oversteps its boundaries, transforming the old system of knowledge and producing a new one. As the more conservative element, the system seeks to preserve and perfect itself, while method is more mobile and seeks to accumulate knowledge and evolve a new system.
Using general methodology of philosophy as the universal basis, individual sciences work out their own methods of cognition. Aesthetics is no exception.
The method of aesthetics rests on the knowledge accumulated by this science previously and transformed, with the help of general methodology of philosophy, into orientations, principles, approaches and modes of acquiring more knowledge. The method of aesthetics is the historic approach.
This approach is turned both against the idea of time standing still, the world petrified in eternal immobility, and the lopsided relativist idea of absolute fluidity, an incessant flow of time. It implies observing three principal conditions: first, all phenomena are considered in motion; second, the given phenomenon is studied in its interaction with others, and, third, history is interpreted in the Ught of contemporary experience and using historically more advanced forms as a key to understanding the preceding ones.
The principle of historic approach in aesthetics is more than a mechanical application of the tenets of dialectics to this branch of knowledge. It grows within aesthetics as a result of the need for a more thorough analysis of its subject. It has to be understood that art as it is today and its modern laws have been shaped in the course of history, and that the future of art is being formed within the artistic process going on before our very eyes.
The historic approach is the way to link up theory and practice and the only path leading to a truly modern aesthetics. Having risen to the historical and theoretical level, scientific thought is not an illustration of thought by artistic facts but development of thought on the basis of facts.
Major aspects of problems posed by aesthetics can also be solved with the help of structural analysis, i.e. stop-analysis which examines a static object, statics here being an instance of motion. Structural analysis is a component part of the historic approach and its important supplement.
It examines, as it were, a horizontal layer of a fact of art analysing it as a system of elements (space, colour, text and context, time, etc.).
Aesthetics continues to develop, and so it is important that new theoretical propositions, observations and discoveries enter into it without disrupting its monist foundation but consolidating it. The historic approach turned not only towards the past but also towards the present and the future – that is the motive force in the evolution of aesthetic theory.

1 Thomas Munro, Toward Science in Aesthetics, Selected Essays, The Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1956.
2 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Sämtliche Werke, Fr. Frommans Verlag, Stuttgart, 1928, p.331.