Aesthetics (also spelled æsthetics or esthetics) is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as "critical reflection on art, culture and nature." Aesthetics is related to axiology, a branch of philosophy, and is closely associated with the philosophy of art. Aesthetics studies new ways of seeing and of perceiving the world.
It was derived from the Greek αἰσθητικός (aisthetikos, meaning "esthetic, sensitive, sentient"), which in turn was derived from αἰσθάνομαι (aisthanomai, meaning "I perceive, feel, sense"). The term "aesthetics" was appropriated and coined with new meaning in the German form Æsthetik (modern spelling Ästhetik) by Alexander Baumgarten in 1735.
Judgments of aesthetic value rely on our ability to discriminate at a sensory level. Aesthetics examines our affective domain response to an object or phenomenon. Immanuel Kant, writing in 1790, observes of a man "If he says that canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me," because "Everyone has his own (sense of) taste". The case of "beauty" is different from mere "agreeableness" because, "If he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others; he then judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things."
Aesthetic judgments usually go beyond sensory discrimination. For David Hume, delicacy of taste is not merely "the ability to detect all the ingredients in a composition", but also our sensitivity "to pains as well as pleasures, which escape the rest of mankind." (Essays Moral Political and Literary. Indianapolis, Literary Classics 5, 1987.) Thus, the sensory discrimination is linked to capacity for pleasure. For Kant "enjoyment" is the result when pleasure arises from sensation, but judging something to be "beautiful" has a third requirement: sensation must give rise to pleasure by engaging our capacities of reflective contemplation. Judgments of beauty are sensory, emotional and intellectual all at once.
Viewer interpretations of beauty possess two concepts of value: aesthetics and taste. Aesthetics is the philosophical notion of beauty. Taste is a result of education and awareness of elite cultural values[clarification needed]; therefore taste can be learned. Taste varies according to class, cultural background, and education. According to Kant, beauty is objective and universal; thus certain things are beautiful to everyone. The contemporary view of beauty is not based on innate qualities, but rather on cultural specifics and individual interpretations.
Judgments of aesthetic value seem often to involve many other kinds of issues as well. Responses such as disgust show that sensory detection is linked in instinctual ways to facial expressions, and even behaviors like the gag reflex. Yet disgust can often be a learned or cultural issue too; as Darwin pointed out, seeing a stripe of soup in a man's beard is disgusting even though neither soup nor beards are themselves disgusting. Aesthetic judgments may be linked to emotions or, like emotions, partially embodied in our physical reactions. Seeing a sublime view of a landscape may give us a reaction of awe, which might manifest physically as an increased heart rate or widened eyes. These unconscious reactions may even be partly constitutive of what makes our judgment a judgment that the landscape is sublime.
Likewise, aesthetic judgments may be culturally conditioned to some extent. Victorians in Britain often saw African sculpture as ugly, but just a few decades later, Edwardian audiences saw the same sculptures as being beautiful. The Abuse of Beauty, Evaluations of beauty may well be linked to desirability, perhaps even to sexual desirability. Thus, judgments of aesthetic value can become linked to judgments of economic, political, or moral value. In a current context, one might judge a Lamborghini to be beautiful partly because it is desirable as a status symbol, or we might judge it to be repulsive partly because it signifies for us over-consumption and offends our political or moral values.
"Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies". in Studies in animal and human behavior, vol. 2. pp. 115–195. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971 (originally pub. 1950.) Aesthetic judgments can often be very fine-grained and internally contradictory. Likewise aesthetic judgments seem often to be at least partly intellectual and interpretative. It is what a thing means or symbolizes for us that is often what we are judging. Modern aestheticians have asserted that will and desire were almost dormant in aesthetic experience, yet preference and choice have seemed important aesthetics to some 20th century thinkers. The point is already made by Hume, but see Mary Mothersill, "Beauty and the Critic’s Judgment", in The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, 2004. Thus aesthetic judgments might be seen to be based on the senses, emotions, intellectual opinions, will, desires, culture, preferences, values, subconscious behavior, conscious decision, training, instinct, sociological institutions, or some complex combination of these, depending on exactly which theory one employs.