Aesthetics of Form

In preparing for this session, I found that I needed to remind myself of the meaning of the words brought together in our session title [“Aesthetics of Form,” 2017 Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Session 81]. Accordingly, I begin with some terminological notes. In a second step, after reminders about “aesthetics,” I will add the concept of “meter” to my inquiry, then “Middle English.” Then some poems.

The entry for the word “aesthetic, adj. and n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary has been updated to the third edition and contains an excellent and very full etymological essay, characteristic of the current round of revisions to the dictionary. From the OED’s essay, I am reminded that the word “aesthetic(s)” fits a familiar pattern: modern science fashions a new technical term for itself, from Greek root-stock; subsequently there is a debate about the relative priorities of etymology and usage in determining the proper meaning of the word.

By the term “aesthetic,” one may refer to sensory perception as such—the whole domain of that which is perceived by and perceptible to the senses, and, more specifically, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with sensory perception (sense A.1). Alternatively, the word “aesthetic” may refer specifically to “the perception, appreciation, or criticism of that which is beautiful.” Thus “aesthetics” as “the Philosophy of Taste, the theory of the Fine Arts, [or] the Science of the Beautiful” (“aesthetics, n.,” sense 1a = “aesthetic, adj. and n.,” sense A.2a).

Both senses date to the mid eighteenth century, and specifically to the writings of the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. Baumgarten “defined the Latin word [aesthetica] as ‘science of cognition by the senses”; he also employed the word to name the “criticism of good taste,” and “it was chiefly in this sense,” the OED editors write, “that [the word was] adapted into . . . European languages.” In subsequent usage, “aesthetics” has typically designated the philosophy of art—though with periodic re-injections of etymological awareness. The ancient Greek αἰσθητικός means “sensitive, perceptive, of or relating to sense perception”; that etymological sense serves to nudge the discourse of “aesthetics” in the direction of phenomenology, or the science of appearances.

Like phenomenology, philosophical aesthetics encounters persistent ambiguities in attribution: when I judge an object x to be, say, “beautiful,” what status does that object have, and how is responsibility for my aesthetic judgement apportioned between subject and object? Kant, who sought to reclaim the word “aesthetic” for its etymological meaning, characterized judgments of beauty as a particular kind of auto-perception: when I judge an object to be beautiful, I do so because my perception of that object shows me the basic functional relatedness of my cognitive faculties. The “beautiful” names a sort of pleasurable resonance between my cognitive architecture and the objects of my experience, or a feeling of ad-equation between mind and world. [This I draw in part from Gilles Deleuze’s La philosophie critique de Kant (1963), English trans. 1984, the most useful of Deleuze’s books from my present distance.] Again: I call those objects beautiful whose perceived form stimulates my cognitive faculties into free indeterminate communication with one another.

I refer in passing to Kant’s theory of taste for the way it demonstrates the problem of attribution in aesthetics – a problem, or perhaps attribute, that crops up persistently in later treatments. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asks “What can a theory of aesthetic experience be that takes seriously the distinction between the experience of features and the features of experience?” Variants of that chiastic question run through the Stanford Encyclopedia’s entry on “The Concept of the Aesthetic,” and this is the juncture at which I bring the concept of “meter” into the discussion, for philosophical treatments of poetic meter encounter similar problems of attribution. In talking about meter, are we talking about the experience of features (of a poem) or the features of experience (of reading)? Is meter located in language as such, in vocalized words, or in the mind of the metrically attuned lector-auditor? If in the mind, on what basis may judgments about meter lay claim to objectivity?

Nicholas Myklebust addresses precisely these questions, in the theoretical chapters of his exceptional 2012 dissertation, “Misreading English Meter: 1400-1514.”

[In subsequent sections of this paper, I employ Myklebust’s cognitive theory of meter to describe the short four-beat line used in so much English poetry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I then offer readings of two inset lyrics in Fasciculus Morum, showing how they inhabit their metrical form. These poems and my account of the short four-beat line will figure in an essay in progress on Middle English lyric. I accordingly withhold these expositions here.]

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