Aesthetica Preprint, 4 (June 1984)

Ivo Torrigiani, The mirror of the systems: Batteux and Condillac

Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe written by Charles Batteux and l'Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac were simultaneously published in 1746. The aim of Torrigiani's study is that of demonstrating the historical and theoretical significance of such a chronological coincidence. Both authors follow Newton's model, aiming at putting a certain order in those knowledge gaps which were excluded from the new science field, either because they were based on pragmatical reflections or on metaphysical reasonings. Batteux wants to justify a precise cultural field which firstly roughly locates and subsequently creates a theoretical base. The result being a definition of a new cultural area, that is aesthetics, whose regality will however result ambiguous and uncertain.
Condillac, on the other hand, wants to reorganize the whole sphere of human intelligence. On following this track he will find himself using the same material that Batteux was busy using for the preparation of his "aesthetics". At first he will assume notions such as talent, taste and imagination, reconstructing the knowledge process of the subject; he will however be afraid of compromising the rational order of the intellective sphere, and will thus be obliged to remove all emotional aspects and substantially all aspects of valutation. It will therefore be difficult for him, on moving away from this concept, to create value objectivity as that of arts. In fact, when he tries to place the beautiful product of the imagination in this theoretical context, he must either put it on a purely circumstantial basis or it must be as near as possible to reality, but having a mere decorative role.
This problem is taken up again in a more explicit way in the second part of the Essai, substituting the genetical order of the subject with the diachronical order of the language history. Born within the linguistical action and sustained by the fire of the imagination, arts have played an important role in the evolution of civilization. The discovery of articulated sound language will however deprive him of the original gnoseological communicative role, in such a way that some may vanish and others will survive by finding in pleasure their purpose of existence. However, the achievement of scientific civilization will attenuate the hedonistic function, thus assuming characteristics of pleasant decorations. The fate of arts in the universe of man's science seems to be, according to Condillac, definitively assigned: it is that of the ornament, of the decoration and of the parure, which create pleasantness and not pleasure.
This result may explain the reason why between Condillac's and Batteux's solution the latter will be the winner. The theoretical views of the Essai fatally weaken the function of arts, instead those of the Beaux-Arts, in their equivalent ambiguity, seem to be fertile.