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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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2. The Visible, the Invisible, and the Sublime: Reflexions on the Lyotardian Sublime


Remember to distinguish between true Sublimity of Mind and Stile, and a vain flatulence of both.

— Samuel Werenfels (1711)


“Today […] the ‘sublime’ is no longer with us”, Mary Mothersill asserts in her book, Beauty Restored (1984).1 Her claim can be interpreted in at least two different ways: it can mean that no art created today deserves to be called “sublime”, or that the category of the sublime is now seen to be philosophically inane and cannot therefore legitimately be used in characterizing any natural phenomena or works of art. It is clearly the latter thought she has in mind, for she claims that unlike “[t]he concept of beauty, like the concept of knowledge or of right”, the concept of the sublime is not a “standing concept”.2 The sublime, “picks out a collection of ideas which is historically local; the components hang together for a while (in this case for a little over a hundred years) and are then dispersed”, she says, and maintains that “[a] philosophical theory that places any weight on such a collection will come, sooner or later, to look dated and to resist interpretation”.3

Mothersill’s traditionalist and triumphalist view of the history of philosophical concepts leads to a neglect of less entrenched concepts and their potential: concepts and conceptions, which are situated, as it were, at the margins of the main philosophical tradition may, in fact, shed light on the central concepts,...

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