The question can be raised whether the category or discipline of philosophical aesthetics existed before the eighteenth century. Unlike "logic:' "ethics:' and "physics:' a traditional Stoic division of philosophy with great staying power, "aesthetics" is clearly a product of modernity. As Paul O. Kristeller demonstrated in "The Modern System of the Arts:' it was in the eighteenth century that the idea of the aesthetic as a distinctive human capacity and the parallel consolidation of the notion of the fine arts crystallized in the writings of (mostly) French, German, and English philosophers and critics. The modern concepts of art and aesthetics emerged together. Any history or genealogy of aesthetics will have to confront the possible tensions between an orientation to the arts and one to aesthetic subjectivity; it should take account of the canon of the fine arts that the new field of aesthetics inherited from the eighteenth century as well as its conflicts, margins, and exclusions. We should be aware, for example, that the very notion of literature (in contrast to earlier traditions of poetics and rhetoric) arose around 1800, and almost immediately generated the idea of world literature (which, as Marx observed in 1848, is a recent invention of the bourgeoisie).
Copyright © 2010 University of Chicago Press. This book chapter first appeared in History of Continental Philosophy.
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Shapiro, Gary. "Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, 1840 - 1900." In History of Continental Philosophy, edited by Daniel Conway, 239-59. Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.