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Review of Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition
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Dabney Townsend, ed., Aesthetics: Classic Readings from the Western Tradition (Jones and Bartlett, 1996)

Reviewed by Charles S. Taylor

The Preface to this anthology announces that it is addressed to beginning students in aesthetics. Rather than attempting to provide a history of aesthetics, the selections include representative texts from the history of aesthetics. Each selection is preceded by an introduction and followed by study questions. Each historical section is followed by additional passages for discussion. There are six reproductions of artworks from the Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth; the one on the cover is in color. The text concludes with a glossary and an index.

This collection of readings is for students in a university classroom and is not intended to be a self-sufficient text for the educated general reader who wants an introduction to aesthetics. Those who might adopt this anthology for classroom use will want to know that the selections are divided into two main sections: Classical and Medieval Aesthetics, and Modern Aesthetics; and that the book concludes with a short essay on developments in aesthetics in the twentieth century, leaving each instructor to choose selections from the post-World War I era. The classical and medieval selections include Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Bonaventure and Dante. The selections from modern aesthetics are divided into three sub-divisions: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Hutcheson, Hume, Kant); The Nineteenth Century (Hegel, Nietzsche, Ruskin, Tolstoy); and The Turn of the Century (Croce, Bulloch, Bell). Professor Townsend acknowledges in the Preface that others who study and teach in this area might have made a different selection but suggests that this set is “indubitably prominent.”

In order to present a more adequate portrait of this text one needs to look carefully at each selection and the accompanying materials, but this is not the proper forum for such an exhaustive analysis. I will try, accordingly, to provide a thumbnail of the whole by focusing upon one selection – the one by Friedrich Nietzsche – and its related materials.

The first reference to Nietzsche appears in the introduction to the section on the nineteenth century: “one way to regard aesthetics in the nineteenth century is to see it as the heritage of Immanuel Kant” One of the most important changes in aesthetics was the Kantian separation of the aesthetic from concepts and theory. Increasingly after Kant, aesthetics was understood as an autonomous realm either independent of or opposed to conceptual thought.” One who has studied Nietzsche expects that some reference to this Kantian heritage will appear in later discussions of Nietzsche. Indeed the opening sentence of the Nietzsche selections, from The Birth of Tragedy, expresses this Kantian heritage explicitly. Unfortunately, the Golffing translation used almost totally obscures Nietzsche’s thinking. In Golffing we read,

Much will have been gained for aesthetics once we have succeeded in apprehending directly [zur unmittlebaren Sicherheit der Anschauung gekommen sind] – rather than merely ascertaining [nicht nur zur logischen Einsicht gekommen sind] – that art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality… I have borrowed my adjectives [Namen] from the Greeks who developed their mystical doctrines of art [die tiefsinnigen Geheimlehren ihrer Kunstanschauung] through plausible embodiments [in den eindringlich deutlichen Gestalten ihrer G√∂tterwelt], not through purely conceptual means [zwar nicht in Begriffen] .
Greek art, Nietzsche says here, developed in accord with profound artistic Anschauung (intuition) and if we are to gain access to such aesthetics we must likewise proceed according to Anschauungen. The Greeks developed their Kunstanschauung not through concepts but rather through the penetratingly clear figures (pictures) of their gods. The opposition here of Anschauungen to logical inference is Kant’s distinction; the language is Kant’s own language. This use of the Kantian heritage by Nietzsche was guided by Schopenhauer, who also adopted the Kantian language and perspective on art as autonomous and not reducible to the conceptual. This piece of the history of aesthetics is not mentioned anywhere in Professor Townsend’s book.

In his introduction to Nietzsche Townsend makes it clear he recognizes the complexities of making selections from Nietzsche: “it is impossible to select or anthologize Nietzsche without distorting him. The Birth of Tragedy is one of Nietzsche’s earlier, more coherently argued works. It is still full of paradox and contradiction, however. In selecting sections that bear most directly on aesthetics, I do violence to Nietzsche’s thought by reducing it paradoxical nature.” The crucial phrase here is “bear most directly on aesthetics.” I am inclined to argue that in the case of Nietzsche the “price” one pays for making selections in terms of content rather than selecting complete passages is too high. Yes, The Birth of Tragedy is an intellectual collage which weaves together classical studies, Schopenhauerian philosophy and Wagnerian aesthetics in paradoxical ways. The selections we are provided, however, will only make sense as a collection if we also listen to Professor Townsend’s lectures. Here I think the selection process comes much too close to an individualized set of readings and is not a “representative” selection. The choices made here reflect the fact that it is a teacher of aesthetics who has made them. It is no small task to step outside one’s own teaching and produce a text for everyone.

It is important to add here that the selections made for other philosophers do not precisely follow the pattern used for Nietzsche. For Plato, for example, the selection is the complete opening of Republic X (to 608b). This selection will not satisfy those who want to use the sections in Republic II; it does, however, give a complete section from Plato. Likewise the section from Aristotle’s Poetics, although abridged, is still complete enough to present the original text accurately. By contrast, the shortest section of the book, on Hegel, has more pages of explanation than of text and while the selections are eleven consecutively numbered paragraphs from The Encyclopedia they seem far more likely the passages this instructor regularly uses in class rather than a representative selection.

The introduction to Nietzsche is (as for all authors) divided into two parts: a brief biographical sketch and a longer introduction to his aesthetic thinking. The biographical sketch comments very sensibly on current frequently asked questions like: did his insanity result from syphilis? what was his relation to fascism? and why are there misogynist statements in his writings? The discussion of Nietzsche’s thinking chooses to locate Nietzsche essentially within the context of nineteenth century thought. In this perspective Nietzsche is “a radically new manifestation of a traditional religious tension.” His thought is also compared to certain forms of romanticism. In spite of the current profusion of writing on Nietzsche there is certainly no consensus on how he is to be read. Clearly Townsend’s overriding nineteenth century perspective is a very effective way of introducing Nietzsche and his aesthetics. As already indicated, the absence of a discussion of the connections bewteen Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche weakens this reading. Schopenhauer is mentioned on several occasions as influencing Nietzsche but only the fact of influence is noted, the content is not presented. Perhaps this too is presented in class lectures.

One comes away from this anthology with one very strong impression. The students who use this text and have this instructor are very fortunate indeed, for it is clear that introductory course will be a very good one. The book presents a very broad and impressive knowledge of the history of aesthetics. The question one thus asks is how successfully has this quite likely excellent course material been transformed into a widely usable text for introductory aesthetics classes? Certainly no single person can be a specialist in all of the represented authors, and it is noteworthy that the weaknesses noted above in the Nietzsche section come from a Nietzsche specialist. This tension has a corollary in that the introductory sections are at times addressed to two very different readers. Sometimes the audience is the introductory student but at other times the audience appears to be the potential teacher of those introductory students. Of the two voices heard here the teacher’s voice predominates as it should. And that is, in the end, what we have here, a teacher’s excellent course transformed into a book.


1997 © Charles S. Taylor

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