Popularized in English by translation of Immanuel Kant, and used originally in the classically correct sense “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception.” Kant had tried to correct the term after Alexander Baumgarten had taken it in German to mean “criticism of taste” (1750s), but Baumgarten’s sense attained popularity in English c.1830s (despite scholarly resistance) and removed the word from any philosophical base. Walter Pater used it (1868) to describe the late 19c. movement that advocated “art for art’s sake,” which further blurred the sense. Related: Aesthetically.
1798, from Ger. Ästhetisch or Fr. esthétique, both from Gk. aisthetikos “sensitive, perceptive,” from aisthanesthai “to perceive (by the senses or by the mind), to feel,” from PIE *awis-dh-yo-, from base *au- “to perceive” (see audience).
From Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com
The Oxford English Dictionary also targets the classical sense of the word in its English translation — “things perceptible by the senses, things material (as opposed to…things thinkable or immaterial), also perceptive, sharp in the senses.” How wise was Herbert Spenser to proclaim in 1872 that “To deal fully with the psychology of aesthetics is out of the question.”
Forty years ago, Addison Gayle did try to restore the wonderful impossibility of the question in his remarks on the mind-opening project of the Black Arts Movement/Black Aesthetic. In the introduction to the anthology The Black Aesthetic (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), Gayle thought few would disagree with “the idea that unique experiences produce unique cultural artifacts, and that art is a product of such cultural experiences. To push this thesis to its logical conclusion, unique art derived from unique cultural experiences mandates unique critical tools for evaluation. Further than this, agreement need not go!”(xxiv). Gayle’s percussive use of “unique” made sense, because he used it in the orbit of a powerful unifying myth of “the black community.” The myth was an atom. It was smashed in the 1980s, its sub-atomic particles flying into the incomprehensible diaspora of thought that has neither color nor material referents, that belongs to everyone and no one.
Against the shameless academic posturing in talk about the aesthetic and fear of saying that people do indeed have uncountable perceptions of music, genres of writing, dramatic performance, visual expressions and the multiple blendings thereof within and across cultures, we ought to reinvest in the stardust of Cheikh Anta Diop’s saying in the very first sentence of his introduction to The Cultural Unity of Black Africa/L’Unite Culturelle De L’Afrique Noire (1959; Chicago: Third World Press, 1978) that he had tried “to bring out the profound cultural unity still alive beneath the deceptive appearance of cultural heterogeneity”(7). Diop’s project was one in totalizing historical sociology; Gayle’s, a critique of the bad faith, pseudo-universality and bid for hegemony implicit in Western and Euro-American uses of “aesthetics” (the concept) to project an ideology pertaining to privileged ideas of beauty and art. Critical reinvestment (reflection ) may allow better identification of who is crawling back into the womb of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) and who is walking out of the cave of Plato’s indispensible allegory to learn something from Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), Trudier Harris’s Saints, Sinners, Saviors (New York: Palgrave, 2001), Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)and from what Cornel West proposes about “substantive intellectual vigor” in The American Evasion of Philosophy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
Genuine progress in the study of African American literature(s) and culture (s), which is now the burden of scholars born after 1980, does pivot, in large measure, on using the stern discipline and tao of imagination, the connecting metaphoric capabilities of “the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception,” the science which is unashamed of confessing its limits, its ideological, sex, gender and ethnic prejudices, and uncertainties as well as exposing its findings to scrutiny. It pivots on sustained thought about what Carolyn Fowler meant in her introductory essay “By Way of Preface: Balancing on the Brink” for Black Arts and Black Aesthetics (1976; Atlanta: First World, 1981) in this assertion: “The term ‘the black aesthetic’ can be subsumed under black aesthetics. The former is a philosophical stance; the latter attempts to trace the history of philosophical stances. Black aesthetics, because it is historical, is non-exclusive” (v).
Beneath the ocean of chaos that is the twenty-first century, something unique, human, and healing is still alive and awaiting principled commentary from pre-future scholars and critics.