The Origins of Aesthetics

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The roots of aesthetics lie in ancient thought, particularly in Plato. We are used to thinking of aesthetics as a field distinct from morals, politics, and psychology; but that is not how it began. In fact, aesthetics emerges as a separate discipline only in the 18th century; and even then; it does not fully detach itself from these other areas of inquiry. We shall begin by reading some dialogues of Plato’s, including his Republic. We shall read some selections from Augustine’s Confessions, followed by Averroes’ brief Decisive Treatise on the Relation Between Philosophy and Law. We shall then move on to Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) in which aesthetics begins to emerge as a separate field, though it involves a reflection on morals. We shall follow our study of Shaftesbury with selections from Rousseau, Hume, and Burke. We shall then move on to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humanity. Our work in class should give students terms of comparison for conference work on aesthetics in any period up to and including the present.