Friday, August 5, 2016

the materialist tradition in ancient Greek aesthetics

The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece
// Aesthetics Today

I have been reading James L. Porter's The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece:  Matter, Sensation, and Experience.Cambridge U. Press, 2010.  This is an immensely important book both for everyday aesthetics and for aesthetics in general.  Porter is in the Classics Department at UC Irvine and would probably be off the radar for most philosophers who do aesthetics and philosophy of art, although he also has written an interesting book about Nietzsche's philosophy of art.  The intended audience for The Origins must be exclusively classicists since Porter regularly uses Greek without be sure to have your Greek alphabet with you as you read.  Fortunately, most Greek quotes are translated into English.  The primary importance of this book for aestheticians is made clear from the beginning:  no similar work has ever been written on the materialist tradition in ancient Greek aesthetics.   Porter develops the idea of a counter tradition to that of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (the idealist tradition) which he carefully recovers from every source possible including presocratic fragments, Hellenistic testimonia, ancillary fields, and archaeological evidence.  One side effect of this work is to put to rest the common view that the ancient Greeks did not even have anything like an aesthetic theory.  More important in terms of the project of everyday aesthetics is that this book emphasizes the connection between aesthetics and sensuous experience.  A result of this approach to the classical sources is to bring aesthetics back to a continuity between everyday aesthetics and art aesthetics.  It is not surprising then that John Dewey's aesthetic theory is an important inspiration for this effort.  "Dewey's book articulates what will in fact be one of the central theses of the present study": in particular he agrees with Dewey that there are no fine arts that can be cut off from utilitarian arts or from everyday life. (36)  It is also noteworthy that Porter is aware of the implications of his study for everyday aesthetics as he mentions Yuriko Saito's seminal work prominently in the last paragraph of the book.  Porter also has some really interesting things to say about the concept of the sublime which, surprisingly, he traces back to a materialist aesthetic to be found in the Presocratics.  Another important aspect of his book is a reconstruction of the history of ancient Greek aesthetics, pushing it back to the Presocratics (although strangely neglecting the Pythagorean tradition, although perhaps this is because that tradition is more allied with the Platonic idealists) covering such figures as Democritus, Protagoras, and Gorgias especially.  If you care about aesthetics, the history of aesthetics or everyday aesthetics, read this book.  At least get your library to order it:  it is expensive and I was only able to read it by constantly reordering it through interlibrary loan.


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