Classification of Arts and Sciences, Early Modern

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The concept of classification seems obvious and benign. To classify is to arrange or distribute according to a system or method, a sense of the word that has not altered since its inception in antiquity. The significance of classification lies not in what it means, but in how it is applied. How people classifyaccording to what principleshas evolved and altered over time as their understanding of the world has altered. How people classify also bears directly on important issues in metaphysics. Does the world come "pre-carved" into natural kinds, or is classification merely an arbitrary exercise of human volition? If natural kinds exist, then classification reveals truths about the external world. The development of ideas about classification (and the things classified) has paralleled both scientific and artistic developments in the early modern period.

Aristotelian Background

To understand the concept of classification in the early modern period, it is necessary to first understand the conceptual framework the early moderns inherited from their predecessors. The world prior to 1600 was still largely Aristotelian. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) provided a classification scheme based on matching a basic kind (species) with a set of distinguishing characteristics (differentia) in order to sort things in the world. Thus a human individual is a rational animal. That is, a human is of the kind "animal" but is distinguished from all other animals by rationality. This example reveals an underlying assumption of Aristotle's system: genuine classification provides definitions. When a thing is properly classified, it is defined. Definition, in turn, relies on the concept of essences. An essence is a property a thing must have to be what it is. Thus one might say that being rational is essential to being human; an individual thing is simply not a human if it lacks rationality.

In Aristotle is also found the first division between the arts and sciences. The distinction is modeled on the natural/artificial divide. Scientia concerns demonstrable and certain knowledge derived from nature. In nature, things develop according to natural internal principles of change (entelechies). Something is artificial if it changes because of an external sourcelike some clay becoming a sculpture because of a craftsman's work. Sculptures are artificial because they do not possess internal principles of change. They are what they are because someone or something else altered them. This distinction led Aristotle to characterize science as an enterprise whose goal is to account for the internal causes or explanatory principles we find in nature. Since this goal is reached by definition (asserting the essences of things), one discovers that appropriate classification is in fact the scientific enterprisethe process of acquiring knowledge. (See Posterior Analytics, in Complete Works, book 2, especially 93a110).

I do not deny but nature, in the constant production of particular beings, makes them not always new and various, but very much alike and of kin one to another. But I think it nevertheless true, that the boundaries of the species whereby men sort them, are made by men; since the essences of the species, distinguished by different names, are, as has been proved, of man's making, and seldom adequate to the internal nature of the things they are taken from. So that we may truly say, such a manner of sorting things is the workmanship of men.

source: John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, III.6.37, p. 462.

Medieval Academia

Building on this Aristotelian foundation, medieval thinkers developed the core distinction between nature and artifice into an academic edifice. The sciences concerned nature. Since God is the author of nature, it follows that not only should people study nature, they also should expect to find regular order and well-defined kinds within it, as would be consonant with the perfection of the deity. Science is the practice of proper classification by definition. The arts more properly concern skills, whether mental or physical. The Latin root artes refers to the technical skills needed to produce something, a fact more apparent in the Greek root techne, as in the word "technology." For the medieval period there is no sense of the "fine arts." All art is craft. A painter or sculptor is as much a craftsman as a carpenter or shipwright. The goal of the artist is the technical perfection of their work or trade.

Although the sciences were broadly treated and classified in the same way, some innovation occurred in the classification of the arts. In the medieval period is seen the division of the arts into those that are "liberal" (meaning that they are suitable for free citizens) and those that are "servile" (work that was typically manual and done by slaves). Hence a liberal arts curriculum is first found in the early universities. Students who completed courses of study in grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were awarded a bachelor of arts. This already implies a division in the arts, since these fields were thought to have redeeming features, whether beauty or intellectual stimulation. Interestingly, many of the fields now routinely called arts were excluded. Poetry and the visual arts, for instance, were not considered suitable subjects for inclusion. Unlike the other fields, these (and others) were not judged to be intellectual arts; competences in these areas were thought to depend on the practice of bodily skills and not on the deepening of mental skills.

Early Modern Context

In many ways the early moderns were still in the grips of the Aristotelian worldview. René Descartes (15961650), like the Cartesians who followed him, assumed that knowledge is a mathematical mapping of the system or structure of nature. As humanity comes to grips with the order of nature and learns to sort it into kinds, it gains knowledge about nature.

Descartes and most of the early moderns preserve the traditional distinction between the arts and the sciences. Science is acquired by the mind; art is a bodily aptitude appropriate to craftsmen. Thus Descartes notes that oratory and poetry are "gifts of the mind" and hence not properly arts at all (Philosophical Writings, vol. 1, p. 114). It was not until the eighteenth century that a robust separation between the fine and useful arts emerged. Parallel with this core difference between conceptions of science and art, classification within each underwent an increasingly divergent development. This development occurred although one key characteristic of early modern theory of art is that art possesses an essentially intellectual character. Perhaps in response to Cartesian and medieval thinking, advocates sought to establish a place for the arts within the mental realm.

This new development generated some interesting thinking about classification. In both the arts and sciences, classification frequently depended on subject matter. Descartes did not like this method for the sciences, since it emphasized material particularity over mental universality. Thus one finds a significant point of departure for classification in the arts and sciences. Genuine knowledge comes from the application of a unified methodology. Hence Descartes argues that it is inappropriate to separate the sciences on the basis of subject matter, since quality scientists should be applying a single method of thought in all scientific matters. The arts, however, comprise separate and distinct skills. As a result, the arts should be distinguished, studied and mastered individually. Skilled craftsmen specialize; skilled intellects universalize. The arts are those intellectual enterprises that also require a practical component, but the latter should not diminish the fact of the former.

Yet as the eighteenth century unfolds there occurs a startling series of innovations in both the arts and the sciences. As the sciences mature, an understanding of what it means to classify comes into focus. The arts develop an independent character, and theories of art push thinking about the nature of classification in the arts in new directions.

Early Modern Classification in the Arts

A number of transformations in the arts took place during the early modern period. What constitutes art, how one ought to classify its various subfields, and even how one ought to judge works of art all underwent bold revisions. The nature and number of the changes is considerable, but it is worth sampling some of the more significant developments.

The concept of invention in art (in the sense of a creative process) altered in the period and would ultimately change how people think about what constitutes art. The old view (even espoused by Leon Battista Alberti, an important Italian theorist of art, as late as the fifteenth century) is that an inventive artist is one that preserves tradition, communal values, and accepted ways of thinking. By the eighteenth century, however, the artist as a solitary figure committed to breaking or superseding traditional norms and artistic methodologies was firmly entrenched. Thus a new intellectual tool developed for categorizing within art and for what counts as art. As the humanist movement took root, artists increasingly redefined their discipline and the standards of quality within their work.

I do not know why you and your associates always want to make virtues, truths and species depend upon our opinion as knowledge. They are present in nature, whether or not we know it or like it.

source: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, p. 327.

How one identifies and classifies beauty also underwent substantial change as the early modern period unfolded. Prior to the eighteenth century beauty was an objective feature of things in the world. For the followers of Plato beauty was a transcendental property, a "Form" in which beautiful things participated. For others beauty was more immanent and empirical but nonetheless present in a thing. Thus classifying things as beautiful depended on isolating features in the objective world. In this sense, classifying objects in the world of art was similar to classifying things in the sciences. The world comes pre-jointed, and peoples' task as aesthetes is to learn to recognize those divisions.

Starting with the work of Francis Hutcheson (16941746) in the early 1700s and best displayed in the work of David Hume (17111776) later in the century, theorists of art shifted the concept of beauty away from an external objective standard to an internal standard. This shift did not necessarily signal the abandonment of objectivity in beauty, but it moved the focus of attention away from the natural world to the person making aesthetic judgments. Both Hutcheson and Hume developed theories of "taste," theories of artistic sensibilities that classify on the basis of perceiving subjects and not objects.

In a similar vein, the concept of the sublime became elevated as an independent kind of experience. The sublime (roughly a lofty, elated feeling), especially in the work of Edmund Burke (17291797), now becomes a separate class quite distinct from beauty. Interestingly, earlier seventeenth-century discussions of the sublime apply the concept only to certain arts such as rhetoric and poetry; no mention is made of the sublime with respect to the visual arts. Jonathan Richardson (16651745) was one of the first to apply sublimity explicitly to the visual arts, marking yet another important step in the increasing stratification and complication of artistic categories.

In general the middle of the eighteenth century witnessed the birth of modern theory of art. In 1750 Alexander Baumgarten (17141762) published Aesthetica and established aesthetics as an independent field studying sensual cognition. Later in the same decade Denis Diderot began publishing his biennial critical reviews of the salons, effectively launching serious art criticism. With criticism comes classification, not only of quality but of many other features. It should thus be expected that during this time there would be a conceptual explosion of classification in the arts to support all of this innovation in theory of art. The expectation is not disappointed.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this classificatory explosion is seen in the work of Gérard de Lairesse (16411711), a Dutch painter and author who published several lengthy volumes at the inception of the eighteenth century about the visual arts. After distinguishing art (a production of the mind) from manner (a manual execution of a skill), he divides the arts into various kinds. Though divisions based on the content of what is painted had been already present for centuries, Lairesse is important because he shifted his classificatory scheme from content to modes of representation. Instead of sorting paintings and painters by their pictorial genres (landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and so forth), he advocated a system based on how the artist seeks to represent the content of the work. Kinds of brush strokes and implicit symbolizations became at least as important as the superficial object depicted. Even still lifes could have allegorical meaning, thus altering how the nature and kind of the work ought to be viewed.

Early Modern Classification in the Sciences

The core problem for the sciences regarding classification during the period concerned was how to carve the world into kinds. For instance, while natural philosophers were engaged in debates over how to classify organisms, metaphysicians asked more foundational questions, such as whether there were natural kinds. Did nature come predivided into kinds? If so, then the task of science was merely to reveal these ultimate classes. And how might this task best be done? Was it even possible to ascertain nature's "joints"? Alternatively, if nature does not come already divided, what are the implications for the sciences? Independently of whether there are natural kinds, there remains the question as to whether there is an ideal system for sorting individuals. In the history of science are found the key foundational theories for the contemporary system of scientific nomenclature being developed in this period.

The problem of natural kinds remains in the early twenty-first century. The philosopher John Locke (16321704), an antirealist about species (he did not believe that the world came antecedently divided into distinct species/kinds), argued that in principle one can have no access to the "real essences" of things and as a result cannot ever hope to know how reality is "really" divided. Instead, the most for which one can hope is to develop an empirical system of classification based on nominal essencesthe names or appearances of things: "the sorting of things is the workmanship of the understanding" (Essay, p. 415). A particular lump of matter is classified as gold because it appears to have the set of properties that have been assigned to the concept of the kind gold. This view was deeply unsatisfying to many, Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) in particular. Leibniz argued that nature had to come prepackaged into kinds and furthermore that there existed some empirical (perhaps even a priori) evidence as to what those kinds in fact are. What is important about this debate is not its resolutionphilosophers continue to argue whether there is one yetbut its impact on thinking about classification generally. This debate helped to liberate scientific thinking from the Aristotelian view of classification as definition. It was no longer deemed sufficient to classify the world by simply positing one or several definitions. How the world may be classified into scientific kinds has to obey certain empirical and analytical restrictions.

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter.

source: David Hume, Essays Moral section 23, "Of the Standard of Taste."

Much of the work came in response to the practical issue of how best to classify in the emerging sciences. A great deal of urgency was attached to developing coherent systems of classification, especially as human knowledge about the natural world and the variety therein continued to grow. Early modern scientific systems tended to be either artificial (classifying on the basis of convenience for identification) or natural (classifying according to natural kinds). Most of the classification systems in biology during the period were by the "habit" of the kind. So plants were categorized by whether they flower or whether they produce fruit. Animals were classified by whether they lay eggs or are nocturnal, and so on. The most important development, however, was the application of new rational systems of naming kinds. Carolus Linnaeus (17071778), a Swedish botanist, devised the precursor to the present system of nomenclature in the eighteenth century (although there were some, such as Jean Bauhin in the sixteenth century, who anticipated this system). His system of binomial nomenclature relied on the division between male and female as one of its fundamental kind distinctions (which is no longer used), but his basic methodology has been adopted as the standard for classification in the biological sciences.

Robert Boyle (16271691) is an exemplar of early modern thinkers who helped define "scientific" theories as rational and ordered methodologies. Boyle, now famous for his development of early chemical theories, argued passionately that chemical kinds had to be subject to empirical experimentation. The old chemical categories were deficient precisely because they were not subject to verifiable tests. Boyle further developed the distinction between primary and secondary qualities (though he coined the terms, the concepts can be traced back at least to Galileo), thus preparing the ground for additional scientific inquiry based on a classification of things in nature that were in principle subject to empirical testing. Thus in the debate over how to carve up nature into kinds, new meta-insights emerged that provided constraints on what sorts of classificatory schemes were acceptable. Even if one cannot know whether the particular details about the kinds one picks out in the world are accurate, there nonetheless emerges a theory of classification that indicates that how one classifies is not purely arbitrary.

It is worth noting an issue not addressed by the early moderns but that was fast approaching. All of the reasoning about classification in this period was pre-Darwinian. Phylogenetic systems of classification (those that classify according to evolutionary sequences) did not emerge until later and hence there was no pressure to suppose that there are deep connections between the kinds that are picked out in nature. Thus one of the constraints that would appear after the development of the theory of evolution (that species-kinds might be interrelated in definable ways) was not yet present. But one might speculate that the innovations in theory of classification in the previous century were part of what made evolutionary theory possible. That there are constraints on what could count as a good system of classification prepares one for additional deep connections in certain fields of inquiry.

Emerging into the Nineteenth Century

By the end of the eighteenth century one can detect a clear separation between theorizing about classification in the arts and in the sciences. Thinkers preserved in the sciences the ideal of external objectivity but grappled with whether this ideal could be achieved. Most importantly, the scientific community developed theories that preserved the ideal in the face of epistemological shortcomings by positing meta-constraints on what could count as a satisfactory theory of kinds. In the arts, classification shifted away from external objectivity to more subjective and intersubjective forms of classification. This shift was facilitated by the distinction between the fine arts and useful arts and more generally by the development of new and separate theories of art. Aesthetics emerged as an independent field of inquiry with its own set of kinds and categories. The early modern period witnessed the development of separate and new ways of classifying in the arts distinct from the sciences.

By the nineteenth century the arts and the sciences were conceived of as separate disciplines with distinct classificatory systems. And as such a new question arose: How is it determined whether some activity or thing should be classified as science or as art, as scientific or as artistic? Separating art and science by how they classify does not entail that they use different conceptions of what it means more broadly to classify at all. In fact, this article has assumed the contrary. Furthermore, separating art and science does not imply that the two domains are utterly distinct. As Leo Tolstoy wrote at the close of the nineteenth century, "Science and art are as closely bound together as the lungs and the heart, so that if the one organ is vitiated the other cannot act rightly" (p. 277).

See also Aesthetics ; Arts ; Science, History of .



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Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Edited by James T. Boulton. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

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Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

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Barasch, Moshe. Modern Theories of Art. Vol. 1: From Winckelmann to Baudelaire. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Excellent historical approach to developments in theory of art.

Gaut, Berys, and Lopes, Dominic, eds. The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. Excellent general resource, including separate articles on key historical figures in the philosophy of art.

Lawrence, George. Taxonomy of Vascular Plants. New York: Macmillan, 1951. Although dated, this text contains an excellent history of classificatory systems in the sciences.

Wittkower, Rudolf, and Margot Wittkower. Born under Saturn. New York: Norton, 1963. A history of artists and how they have been viewed from antiquity to the end of the early modern period.

Marc A. Hight

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Classification of Arts and Sciences, Early Modern

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