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25 Oct

Tolstoy: “In Todhunter’s ‘Theory of the Beautiful’ (1872), beauty is infinite loveliness…”

In Todhunter’s Theory of the Beautiful (1872), beauty is infinite loveliness, which we apprehend both by reason and by the enthusiasm of love. The recognition of beauty as being such depends on taste; there can be no criterion for it. The only approach to a definition is found in culture. (What culture is, is not defined.) Intrinsically, art that which affects us through lines, colours, sounds, or words is not the product of blind forces, but of reasonable ones, working, with mutual helpfulness, towards a reasonable aim. Beauty is the reconciliation of contradictions.

From What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude, New York : Funk & Wagnalls (1904), p. 35. (archive.org).
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12 Jan

Burke, Beauty and the Sublime

Burke on the difference between Beauty and the Sublime (Youtube). Narrated by Harry Shearer and scripted by Nigel Warburton for the BBC Radio 4 series A History of Ideas.

Burke was not the first to write about the sublime, but in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) he suggested for the first time that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. For Burke, the sublime could be ugly, and thus ugliness was not merely a lack of form as Augustine and others had suggested. Unlike the pleasure invoked by beauty, Burke suggested that the sublime evoked a “negative pain” which he called delight. The sublime evokes fear and attraction. Overcoming fear to confront the sublime removes the pain, producing the intense feeling of delight.

David Berman sets the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy at the publication of The Sublime and the Beautiful, the last great work of the period. For more on the idea of the Sublime see this In Our Time episode. Also see this from Existential Comics on the sublime.

27 Sep

Aesthetics, Art and Wittgenstein: the life and work of Cyril Barrett

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)

Much of Wittgenstein’s writing was, at one remove, about aesthetics: questions of meaning, perception and emergence of sense. Yet there was little available explicitly about his aesthetics until notes from his lectures given by him in 1938 were collected and published in 1966 as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Hagberg, SEP). The notes, taken by students Rush Rhees, Yorick Smythies, and James Taylor, together with notes on conversations about Freud and lectures on religious belief were edited by Cyril Barrett. Given the protective attitude Wittgenstein’s students had to his work and legacy, this was not a trivial task and the volume is probably his most enduring contribution to philosophy (eg see The Herald, The Times (paywall)).

What might surprise some is that this work was done by an Irish Jesuit. Born on 9th May 1925 in Dublin, Cyril Barrett graduated from UCD in 1947 with a first in Latin and History. Barrett entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 and was ordained in 1956. After teaching in various institutions he became one of the two founding members of the philosophy department in Warwick University in 1965, where he stayed until his retirement as reader in philosophy in 1992. After retirement he was a tutor in Oxford. He kept writing up to his last days in Milltown Dublin, where he died on 30th December 2003.

As well as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations, in 1990 Barrett published a commentary on Wittgenstein’s works, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief. In this he argued that questions of value (ethics and religious belief) were of prime importance to Wittgenstein, and “intimately interwoven” in his thought.
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04 Apr

Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.

“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:
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