Apr 12, 2007

A New Philosophy Book on the Subject of Beauty

I am going to have to start putting up teasers about various articles I can’t find time to study in detail right away. This teaser concerns a book review that I thought might be worth a close reading but have been unable to find the time yet to consider closely. The book is a non-technical work on the subject of beauty, or aesthetics, by a philosopher who has written some moderately popular books for general audiences, Alexander Nehamas. It’s suggestively, puzzlingly entitled Only a Promise of Happiness. A short review came out in the New York Sun in its February 16, 2007 edition. The brief but insightful piece, entitled “The Uncertainty Principle of Beauty” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whom I know nothing about, is full of suggestive ideas about the philosophy of beauty. It can be found at:


The reviewer, Lewis-Kraus, writes that though beauty has been a chief concern of philosophy from Plato to Kant, the subject has nowadays been almost entirely dropped as a philosophical topic and is now left to fine arts and English departments. I don’t think this is quite so, since I know of major philosophy departments that offer courses in aesthetics and of a few philosophy journals devoted to the topic. But it does seem roughly true that the heavyweight philosophers of our times seldom bother with beauty. With his new book, Nehemas tries to tow the subject back into the mainstream of philosophy. Since Nehamas writes general philosophy, concerning what he calls "the art of living," his interest in the project makes some sense.

Lewis-Kraus pithily explains that Nehamas reaches back in this book to Plato for his concept of beauty’s being inseparable from eros, or desire. That concept has been lost, according to Nehamas, because Kant and other major philosophers of the past 300 years or so began to mistrust “passion" -- for its sordidness, its fickleness, the emotional imbalances it brings about. According to Nehamas, Kant’s ideas damaged the study of beauty because it tried to replace passion with a model of “disinterested contemplation.”

Now, you might be wondering, how might this book and its central concept bear upon the work of Yvor Winters? To put the matter briefly, though he had little to say about aesthetic theory in his writings, Winters, as so many literary critics have being doing over hundreds of years, bandied about the words “beautiful” and its near synonyms throughout his career without ever clearly defining those terms in any way or to any depth -- also as so many critics have been doing. In particular, Winters kept referring to certain passages of poems and prose, often oddly short passages -- sometimes no more than a line or a even a phrase (a practice for which he was often ridiculed) -- as possessing exceptional beauty, as well as certain whole works as beautiful, without circumscribing what beauty meant to him or should mean to us all. This is an obvious, even a vexing deficiency in Winters’s criticism, an area in which a Wintersian could do some very good work in keeping Winters’s critical theory alive and developing it for a new generation. It would seem, speaking offhandedly, that Yvor Winters would side with Kant on this issue, at least as Lewis-Kraus portrays Nehamas’s take on it. I intend to give the book some study. Though I cannot say I know Nehamas’s thought on beauty well enough to make any final judgment, I tend to think that theories of beauty like Nehamas’s, as Lewis-Kraus characterizes it, continue to do a lot of damage in literature and all the arts. I hope to get to this subject some time soon.

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