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During their tour of Scotland in 1803, Coleridge and Wordsworth went for a walk along the banks of the Clyde, near the spectacular waterfall of Cora Linn. For days, the two poets had been arguing about the precise distinctions between the terms "beautiful", "sublime", "grand" and "majestic". At a spot overlooking Cora Linn, Coleridge fell into conversation with another tourist, who said, "What a majestic waterfall!" Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of this judgment. "Yes," he cried, "you are right, it is majestic." The other man continued: "Majestic! Beautiful! Sublime!"

One thing this story tells us is that too much technical sophistication in matters of aesthetics may be a bad idea. When the theorists' terminology runs far ahead of ordinary usage, they end up trying to make us see the world through their theories, instead of explaining how it is that we see the world.

For a little over two centuries, aesthetics has been a subject-matter of serious philosophical investigation. We have had Kantian aesthetics and Hegelian, formalist and Marxist, and innumerable attempts to sort out the whole messy subject using the precision tools of modern analytical philosophy. Often the result has been a doctrinal position which makes sense on its own terms, but fails to match experience. And all too often the philosophers have become absorbed in sterile debates about such things as the ontological status of works of art (asking whether the "real" symphony is the sound in the concert-hall, the marks on the page, or the idea in Beethoven's head-and so on).

Roger Scruton has written about so many subjects, from politics to sex to hunting, that readers may need to be reminded that he is, above all, a philosopher of aesthetics. Indeed, he is the author of two of the most important books in the field: The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and The Aesthetics of Music (1997). And one reason why they are so important is that while he has mastered all the specialisms and philosophical technicalities, he has never lost touch with the ordinary human experience of the viewer and the listener.

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