The Enlightenment has aesthetic judgement at its centre.
The time of the Enlightenment is time of the first widely read works in philosophical aesthetics since Aristotle, beginning with Edmund Burke (A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757) and David Hume (various essays and sections from his two biggest philosophical works: A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739 and the Enquiries,1748-51). Their work on aesthetics cannot be separated from their other work. Most notably political thought in Burke’s case, and a very wide range of philosophical thought in Hume’s case along with history and economics.
Their notions of aesthetic taste are tied up with notions of knowledge, ethical sympathy, civil society, the workings of the mind and so on. In some ways we can get at what is really new in what they’re doing if we think of how the discussion of aesthetic taste for Burke and Hume is the discussion of how the mind both perceives objects and has ideas about what ideas are in other minds, because the taste refers to our reaction of our objects and our sense of how other people might react. Questions of taste in Hume and Burke raise questions of the complexity of the mind: how it can enjoy pain, the relation between natural pleasure and learned pleasure which is an introduction to understanding the relation between humans as natural animals and humans as formed by history, institutions and culture. Adam Smith also contributed to the discussion of taste, and the issues I’ve just mentioned enter into Smith’s view of political economy.
If we move away from the Scottish (Hume, Smith are just the two most famous figures) and Anglo-Irish (Burke) elements of Enlightenment, to Italy, then the leading figure is Giambattista Vico, in his New Science (1725-1744), which puts the study of mythology and Homer at the centre of the study of the ancient world, and which looks at human history through the link between law and language. Early human history is the most ‘poetic’ for Vico, but the ‘poetic’ is always present in the links between law and language, which appeals to the ancient discipline of rhetoric. Vico looks at human history and the knowledge of human history through visual images, rhetoric, mythology and poetry.
As I noted in a recent post, ‘What Happened to the Novel of Political Theory, two of the great figures of French Enlightenment wrote novels, as a way of expressing and exploring their ideas. The other major country for a survey of Enlightenment is Germany, dominated by Kant, Kant wrote three ‘critiques’ to explain his philosophy, and the Third Critique, Critique of the Power of Judgement, is concerned in its first half with aesthetic judgement, which Kant defines as subjective reflective judgement, and as the place where judgements of knowledge and judgements of ethics are harmonised through judgements of beauty. Judgements of the sublime are said to harmonise the empirical and the transcendental, and to harmonise nature with law governed communities.
The above is the statement of well known facts, but the significance of these facts is persistently obscured by the way that ‘Enlightenment’ is contrasted with ‘Romanticism’. Romanticism, the interest in aesthetic subjectivity is the continuation of Enlightenment and the way that Enlightenment puts aesthetic judgement at the centre. It’s important to see the Enlightenment as something that has aesthetic feeling and judgements of taste at its centre, not at the margins, and that Romanticism is not a decisive break with Enlightenment or its opposite. a short definition of Enlightenment could be the cultivation of taste and the exploration of subjective judgement, that would be no more misleading than other short definitions and less misleading than any which emphasise pure rationality, science and so on.