The various conceptions of beauty entertained by any man or race of men strictly conform to the grade of general culture of that individual or that race. Therefore we find the ideals of beauty among different peoples to vary directly with their grade of development in intellect and feeling. Each one of us can trace an evolution of his ideals corresponding with the phases of his mental development.
It would seem, therefore, that an absolute ideal of beauty, whether in morals, in form, in sound or in vision, is not to be found; that the tom-tom of the savage and the violin of the master of symphony are of equal excellence because each expresses most adequately the emotional activity of its respective player.
But psychology remained much like a tractless chaos until students bent themselves to the investigation of laws and functions of the nervous system; and the rich accessions contributed thereby to the knowledge of the mind gives reasonable hope that perception of the beautiful may find in the sense apparatus, which is in general its physical basis, an orderly explanation of facts which otherwise seem without law. If it can be shown that certain esthetic states are dependent for their development upon the specific structure and mode of action of the body in its reaction to external stimuli, it is evidence that the resulting conceptions of beauty are not ephemeral but are founded on the laws of nature which do not operate by chance.
The proof that all esthetic pleasure depends upon a certain harmony between objective stimuli and the structure and operation of the sense apparatus would demand a number of concrete demonstrations correlative with the ideas of beauty.
Nevertheless our main thesis may be firmly founded on a single group of facts if it can be shown that the esthetic attributes of a sense organ arise out of an anatomical or physiological peculiarity of the apparatus which is not concerned in or is even opposed to its prime utilitarian function. Our knowledge of biology appears to be too meager to support a generalization in this field, but certain known facts as to the reactions of the visual apparatus establish that certain of its idiosyncrasies which would condemn it as an optical instrument lend themselves to the development of ideals of visual beauty.
The astonishing revelation appears that when in the evolution of our visual organs under operation of the Law of Usefulness the structure has taken on characters which are inherently subversive of its utilitarian functions, nature has, as it were, circumvented the tendency of these defects; and out of them arise interpretations of the external
- "Physiological Æsthetics," 1877.
- "Pain, Pleasure and Æsthetics," 1894.