Shifts in Early Modern Aesthetics

"The mind is continually labouring to advance, step by step, through successive gradations of excellence, towards perfection, which is dimly seen, at a great though not hopeless distance, and which we must always follow because we never can attain; but the pursuit rewards itself; one truth teaches another, and our store is always increasing, though nature can never be exhausted."
--Joshua Reynolds, Discourse IX

Early Modern aesthetics, especially in the eighteenth century, can be divided broadly into two broad approaches to the relationship of the mind (i.e. the faculty of taste) and beauty:

  1. Cultivated Faculty: one has or must develop the taste necessary to appreciate beauty (Shaftesbury, Hutchenson, Hume, Reid, Reynolds)
  2. Observed Imagination: closer study of the way beauty impacts the human imagination (Addison, Burke, Kant)

*--Not included in assigned reading for the day.

*Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristics (1711)

  1. Because the purpose of humanity is to acquire virtue, humans have strong ethical and aesthetic affections that orient them toward what is good and beautiful.
  2. Thus, there are objective ethical and aesthetic standards for what is good and beautiful that exist independently of human perception, but these must be discerned and internalized to do us any good.
  3. In the same way that the pursuit of virtue makes a person truly happy, so the apprehension of the beautiful makes a person truly delighted.
  4. Therefore, since our affections must be correctly oriented towards the good of others, the pursuit of the good and the beautiful are similar, if not overlapping, pursuits.
Joseph Addison, "On Wit" (ER 314-318)
  1. While judgment involves the discrimination of elements, wit involves bringing together ideas unrelated enough to bring surprise and delight to the audience.
  2. True wit involves a true congruity of ideas, while false wit involves only surface level associations, such as that found in anagrams and shape-poems.
  3. Mixed wit involves a surprising congruity of ideas but still involves less perfect methods, such as puns.
  4. Beauty is found in the true nature of things, and so, that which is beautiful is also just.

Further Ideas from Addison

  1. The pleasures of the imagination can be divided up into primary ones and secondary ones. Primary pleasures involve the immediate experience of things that are sublime, novel, or beautiful, while secondary pleasures involve things removed from our sight and recalled to the memory.

  2. There is a particular pleasure for the mind in comparing the artwork or description with the original or with the nature of things.

  3. Abstract notions need metaphors and poetic representation to make them truly pleasurable.

*Francis Hutcheson, "Ideas of Beauty and Virtue" (ER 318-319)

  1. Beauty is found in the pleasing emotional sense we have of the harmony and unity of external objects amidst their diversity.
  2. Absolute beauty is found in nature, while relative beauty is located in the human arts.
  3. The external senses alone cannot explain the immediacy with which beauty impacts us nor our ability to make discriminations concerning matters of taste.
  4. There must be some kind of internal sense in human beings that makes the perception and judgment of beauty possible.
  5. Genius, or taste, is present in the one who has this internal sense well-developed.

*Comte de Buffon, "Discourse on Style" (ER 319-321)

Le style c'est l'homme mÍme ("The style is the man himself").

Mostly known for his mathematic and scientific work, Buffon's work on style reveals a number of neo-classical attitudes:

  • harmonic and unified structure in writing
  • the perfection of Nature's works & their divine origin
  • the human mind must assemble its ideas--no creation ex nihilo 
  • simple, luminous style, without too much embellishment
  • clarity and organization of ideas
  • grave style gives it majesty; avoid enthusiasm

*David Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste" (ER 322-329)

[Additional paintings by Gainsborough: 1 2]

  1. The wide variety in what people find as beautiful across cultures and times, as well as the specifics on which critics base their judgments, is obvious.
  2. Yet, we are all prone to seek certain standards for taste, and despite this diversity of judgments, there are certain common factors in the faculties of those considered tasteful.
  3. In particular, taste is developed with repeated examination of aesthetic objects and performances, which involves the study of the relationships of the parts of something judged beautiful, as well as comparing and contrasting various things judged more or less beautiful.
  4. In particular, one must be free from prejudice in order to take the viewpoint that the particular work of art demands; otherwise, sound judgment and true appreciation are distorted.
  5. Still, variations in persons' temperaments and cultures make complete uniformity of taste impossible.
*Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers  (1785)
  1. Our internal sense of beauty involves a cognitive judgment, not just an emotional response. 
  2. That internal sense of truth, goodness, and beauty can be accorded some trust because God has designed us for a world with such things present in it. 
  3. These matters are judged as to their appropriate excellencies and perfections.
  4. Therefore, objective beauty, goodness, and so on does exist.
Edmund Burke, "The Sublime" (ER 329-333)
  1. The human imaginative response to the sublime is one of astonishment, even horror or fear, and as such, it bypasses our typical rational responses.
  2. It, therefore, involves a sense of danger, which is reinforced by the unknown; thus, it gives rise to an impulse of self-preservation.
  3. Affecting ideas are not the same as clear ideas.
  4. Words and poetry are more able to produce a sense of the sublime than pictures because they are less immediate.
  5. Beauty, on the other hand, creates a desire for company and connection; while the sublime overwhelms and repulses, the beautiful draws us to it. The sublime tends to the large, overpowering and somber, while the beautiful embraces the small, refined, and bright.

Immanuel Kant, "The Beautiful and the Sublime" (ER 339-342)

  1. Kant shares Burke's distinctions between the beautiful and the sublime. 
  2. The sublime can be divided into that which terrifies, that which engenders respect due to its nobility, and that which calls forth a sense of the splendid.
  3. The terrifying sublime that is imaginary or fantastic is also called the grotesque.
  4. The mathematically sublime involves a sense of the infinite and is therefore overwhelming to us, while the dynamically sublime is more understandable and consequently does not master our psyches. 

Joshua Reynolds, 'Discourse on Art" (ER 342-349) [Paintings by Reynolds: 1 2 3]

  1. Genius and taste are not quasi-divine mysterious powers that cannot be investigated. Taste is simply the human desire for the truth of nature. 

  2. Prejudices in art function as a quasi-science and can be trusted up to a point as possessing some authority since they provide stability and a uniform view of matters; however, the more restricted and narrow these prejudices become the more unreal they become.

  3. The general idea of nature must provide some principles by which to guide art; taste is an organized mind that investigates reality.

  4. The mind's organization respects the authority of human experience and the authority of the audience and other's opinions. 

[Paintings by J.M.W. Turner: 1 2 3]


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding