Essays on Art, Aesthetics, and Culture
1. On Form and Content
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
— W.B. Yeats
The concept of form is one of the most complicated concepts in the history of philosophy, in aesthetics and in art criticism. In general philosophy this concept has had a rich and variegated history — from Aristotle’s analyses of the relations between form and matter to the early Wittgenstein’s search for the logical form of the sentence. Both in and outside philosophy “form” has many different, though often related, meanings. We can do things for form’s sake, words can be different in form but identical in meaning, there are income tax forms to be filled in, the Vienna Philharmonic often play at the top of their form, a horse can be in good form, there are Aristotelian formal causes as well as Wittgensteinian forms of life, and so on.
The history of the concept of form as well as the linguistic background of the term “form” is quite complex. Raymond Williams, commenting on the uses of the word in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, notes that “form spanned the whole range from the external and superficial to the inherent and determining”.1 On the one hand “form” referred to “a visible or outward shape”, on the other hand it denoted “an essential shaping principle”.2 Both uses are prevalent in aesthetics and art theory today. The following are some of...
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