A Brief Pre-History of Aesthetics

Aesthetics, in philosophical terms, has largely been a sub-genre of phenomenlogy, which is the analytic enquiry into appearances, in the conditions that make the appearances of things possible, and into the characteristics of appearances in general. One of phenomenology’s historical origins is found in the astronomy of ancient Greece and the Hellenistic Period. Mathematical models, in that era, were driven by several interlocking principles.

First, because ‘God’ was considered the paragon of all perfection, all his creations must be designed according to principles that are in themselves also perfect. The cosmos, then, must manifest such perfect principles, according to the most perfect of geometric forms and mathematical logic, as enshrined in Euclid’s treatise, The Thirteen Books of the Elements of Geometry, (circa 350 BCE). Since, according to Euclid and testified to by Pythagoras and his school, and later by Plato, the most perfect of geometric forms is the circle and it’s three dimensional form, the sphere, then, it was inconceivable that planetary orbits would conform to any other form than the circle, or that heavenly bodies be anything other than spherical.

Second, all heavenly movements must be harmonious, that is regular, uniform, and constant. The motion, of the heavenly bodies thought to move, the planets, must rotate around the earth with constant, uniform, unchanging velocity. They could not speed up or slow down. In other words, to attribute acceleration (and de-acceleration) to planetary motion would offend the principle of divine perfection. This principle was so strongly held that even to entertain exceptions to it was anathema and anyone who attempted to deviate from it would be burned at the stake. [add a bit about Copernicus and Galileo here]

The third principle of course is that the Earth was the center of the cosmos.

All of these principles must be met simultaneously by any ‘scientifically’ acceptable astronomical model. But such models were required to account not merely for the shape and structure of the cosmos, but also had to account for the enormous body of observation data handed down since at least the time of the early Egyptians. To understand the relation of this early concept of astronomy to aesthetics, it is necessary to understand the specific language that arose at that time in this context. Astronomical data, as a record of centuries of acquired observations, constituted ‘the way things appear’, or, measurements of the ‘phenomena’ of the locations in time and space and the movements in time and space of the heavenly bodies in some cases over enormous intervals of time. [give the examples of the zodiac and ecliptic] Therefore, arithmetical and geometrical astronomical models had to give an account of the ‘way things appear’ as supported by extensively recorded astronomical data.

The requirement of any acceptable model of the cosmos was that it ‘save the appearances’. In Greek the phrase was, ‘sozain ta phenomena’. Implicit in this task was that the model had to obey all 3 principles with an accuracy determined by the recorded astronomical data. The considerable difficult of this was that the principles were so constraining that they often conflicted with the data. Thus as over time as the data became more precise and complete, the models became more and more complex to the point where they became so absurd they were difficult to believe. God was in danger of becoming a mad, scientific designer wholly in contradiction with another implicit, ‘aesthetic’ scientific principle – the expectation that nature and it’s laws would operate according to the simplist rules and forms. The geometric models of planetary motions of the Alexandrian astronomer, Ptolemy, published in his Almagest (circa…), became arcane systems of epicycles upon epicycles in order to the save the appearances of their observed positions in their orbits as the specific times as recorded in the data. [give the example of Mars]

This brief history of ancient Greek astronomy is the origin of ‘aesthetics’ conceived as the science of saving appearances. At it’s heart was the conflict between the three ‘ideological’, absolute principles and the observed data. The three principles are essentially proto-religious and non-scientific, based as they are on assumptions about ‘god’s’ engineering standards and the assumed ‘ideology of perfection’. Thus aesthetics as the saving of phenomena, or the way things appear, was established on an analytic and interpretive system which subordinated the hard scientific observational data to unproven ideological assumptions based on a cosmological theophany itself premised on and rooted in the proto-religious, mystical conceptions of Pythagorean geometry that equated perfection with truth and beauty. The comprehension of mathematical truth was tantamount to the religious, mystical experience of contemplating the mind of God as manifested in his creation.

Aesthetics, in this early incarnation, was a fascinating synthesis of mathematics, empirical observation, and theophany. It should be noted here that the term, theophany, contains the root of the term, phenomenology – theo = god + phainein = to show or to appear. Aesthetics is then a theophany the purpose of which is to save the appearances through the application of mathematical truth to empirically observed data, as a form of mystical encounter with and devout contemplation of God. This theophantic aesthetics persisted largely in the form, depending on how one slices the historical timeline, until the emergence of the scientific revolution in the 15th century. It certainly began to shift with the revolutionary work of Kepler and Galileo. Kepler, relative to theophantic aesthetics, was more revolutionary than Galielo because he single-handedly overturned all three of the ideological principles in one fell swoop, while saving the centuries of recorded, empirical data. How he accomplished this I’ll take up later, but in brief, with a lot of inspired guesswork and going very far out on a theoretical limb, he mathematically demonstrated that the astronomical data could be squared with an geometric model if, and only if, the principles of theophantic aesthetics were abandoned wholesale and replaced with ‘imperfect’ geometric forms, particularly the ellipse; and if planetary motion were allowed to be non-uniform and non-constant (in other words allowed to accelerate and de-accelerate); and if the cosmos was not geocentric but heliocentric. Kepler essentially risked becoming a heretic by shredding all of the ancient Greek, theophantic principles, by demonstrating that if orbits were elliptical, if the planets could speed up when closer to the sun and slow down when further away, then this new structure of the universe based on his new geometric principles, the astronomical date could be far better accounted for, while abandoning the absurdity of both Ptolemy’s and Copernicus’ mad systems of epicycles. Kepler saved the appearances as recorded with far greater accuracy by his mentor, Tacho Brahe, but only by positing an imperfect God, and by abandoning two thousand years ideological assumptions.

A Brief Pre-History of Aesthetics

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