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Notions of the Aesthetic and of Aesthetics

Essays on Art, Aesthetics, and Culture

Lars-Olof Ahlberg

The essays in the first part of this book, «Art and Aesthetics», are devoted to the invention and development of aesthetics as a discipline. The essays’ topics range from the nature of analytic aesthetics and the invention of modern aesthetics to notions of the aesthetic and of aesthetics. Further study in this part explores the «aesthetic turn», Bourdieu’s critique of aesthetics and understanding and appreciating art. The second part, «Music, Literature, and Painting», deals with questions of form and content, musical formalism, Susanne Langer’s theory of music as well as with the analogy between ornament and music and the values of literature. In addition, there is an essay on «Northern Light and Darkness in Music and Painting». The third part, «Heidegger and the Essence of Art», is devoted to Heidegger’s philosophy of art, in particular to the role he assigns to van Gogh and Hölderlin. And in the fourth and final part, «Modernity/Postmodernity and Culture», postmodern conceptions of history and Lyotard’s theory of the postmodern sublime are discussed, and in the last essay the challenge of evolutionary psychology to the humanities is addressed.
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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

I. Introduction

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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