Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 81.djvu/67

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61
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL BASIS OF ESTHETICS

THE PHYSIOLOGICAL BASIS OF ESTHETICS
By HENRY SEWALL, Ph.D., M.D.
PROFESSOR OP MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO

IN its very etymology the word esthetics denotes perception of sense impressions and implies a physiological reaction between a sense organ and objective stimuli. The significance of the term has become modified to indicate rather the feelings produced by the sense perceptions than the mental picture itself. Certain of such are pleasing in their effect and the mind inevitably occupies itself in analyzing the factors giving rise to pleasing impressions and attempts to recombine them in relations the results of which will be still more agreeable.

Reason irresistibly seeks to formulate laws which may be used to construct ideals, or concepts of perfect beauty, and we thus have the origin of the fine arts. By general consensus of opinion there is drawn a more or less well defined line of separation between those pleasurable emotions which do and those which do not involve the intellect. The latter are indispensable to the vegetative life, subserving especially the functions of procreation and nutrition.

The former we intuitively apprehend as higher in their nature, leading us to conceptions of perfection, to ideals which lift us above the sordid struggle of selfish existence.

The fundamental query as to the nature and conditions of beauty has engaged the minds of philosophers from the earliest times. Why is one object or group of sensations beautiful, another ugly, another indifferent? "Why we receive pleasure from some forms and colors and not from others," says Professor Ruskin, "is no more to be asked than why we like sugar and dislike wormwood."[1] From Socrates to Herbert Spencer abstract thinkers have devoted their best energies to elucidating the origin and conditions of the Ideals that make up the apotheosis of life.

It would add little to the conception unfolded in the present essay to review the voluminous literature of esthetics; indeed, such a task is far beyond the powers of the writer. A comprehensive synoptical survey of the subject is given by Sully.[2]

The first writer to have attempted to coordinate the development of esthetics with the evolution of physiologic function seems to have been Herbert Spencer.[3] Grant Allen sought to give physiologic basis to the

  1. Quoted by Grant Allen, infra.
  2. Article "Æsthetics," Encycl. Britannica, 9th Ed.
  3. "Psychology," 2d Ed.