Aesthetics: The study of beauty in nature and the arts. Two approaches to aesthetics exist: (1) the philosophical approach, which poses questions relating to the nature or definition of beauty; and (2) the psychological approach, which examines the perception, origins, and effects of beauty. Aesthetics is relevant to literary criticism insofar as it considers the relationship between beauty and other values, such as truth. The study of aesthetics also involves inquiry into the nature of artistic creation and audience appreciation.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, an extreme philosophy of aesthetics emerged that came to be called Aestheticism. Advocating “art for art’s sake,” adherents of Aestheticism valued literature for its inherent or affective qualities and maintained that art need not take moral or practical issues into consideration.
Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant used the term aesthetic in another sense, to refer to the effort to relate the material to the spiritual. Aesthetic objects, according to Kant, combine the two realms, simultaneously entailing tangibility and sanctity. This idea that the aesthetic is somehow a locus of universal or even divine truth — a realm where words are somehow not just arbitrary signifiers but rather revelatory signs with some special status — was debunked in the twentieth century, both by deconstructors like Paul de Man and Marxist critics like Terry Eagleton. In Aesthetic Ideology (1988) and The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), de Man and Eagleton, respectively, argued that the privileging of aesthetic language and the belief that it has transcendental significance are but manifestations of the prevailing Western ideology and, to use Eagleton’s paraphrase of de Man’s argument, “pernicious mystifications.”