The Dangers of Free Inquiry

Posted: June 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), one of the most important figures ever to have written about art, is considered by many to be the father of modern art history. This book is an intellectual biography of Winckelmann that discusses his magnum opus, History of the Art of Antiquity, in the context of his life and work in Germany and in Rome in the eighteenth century.

Alex Potts analyzes Winckelmann’s eloquent account of the aesthetic and imaginative Greek ideal in art, an account that focuses on the political and homoerotic sexual content that gave the antique ideal male nude its larger resonance. He shows how Winckelmann’s writing reflects the well-known preoccupations and values of Enlightenment culture as well as a darker aspect of Enlightenment ideals–such as the fantasy of a completely free sovereign subjectivity associated with Greek art.

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As we move into Locke’s world we step out of the Age of Reason and into the Enlightenment. Locke – sometimes seen with baroque wig, and sometime without – serves as a transitional figure. His prose is baroque, and yet he argues for clarity of observation and precision of diction. A great contention of the Age of Enlightenment was that we had become confused in our thoughts due to the emergence of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in our language. Later thinkers, following Locke’s lead, will develop the first standard dictionaries, prescriptive grammars, and encyclopedias. In particular, I am thinking of Samuel Johnson, Denis Diderot, and Bishop Lowthe – of whom we’ll read at least one. In any case, the Enlightenment project in science shifts from providing a mechanical explanation of all events toward developing a complete map and definition of all phenomena, all sensory experience. This mapping – which begins with discovering and collecting – is accompanied by the task of assigning a proper name to everything object and sensation. One of participants in this movement who remains familiar to an average today, if only indirectly, is Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who developed the system of binomial nomenclature still used to identify organism. For the Enlightenment, it was no longer enough simply to find weird and marvelous stuff. Everything, including so-called ‘freaks of nature,’ had to be named, order and catalogued into ‘systems,’ which could be presented in large illustrated volumes called Natural Histories. Here, history does not refer to the occurrence of events over the passage of time, but rather the complete series of a particular order of phenomena, such as the system of plants, or the order of insects.

See, below, Charles Bonnet’s ‘chain of being,’ which displays the complete continuum of animals types, from highest to lowest.