Shifts in Early
"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:
- Cultivated Faculty: one has or must
develop the taste necessary to appreciate beauty (Shaftesbury,
Hutchenson, Hume, Reid, Reynolds)
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- While judgment involves the discrimination of
elements, wit involves bringing together ideas unrelated enough to
bring surprise and delight to the audience.
- 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.
- Mixed wit involves a surprising congruity of
ideas but still involves less perfect methods, such as puns.
- Beauty is found in the true nature of things, and
so, that which is beautiful is also just.
Further Ideas from Addison
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.
There is a particular pleasure for the mind in
comparing the artwork or description with the original or with the
nature of things.
Abstract notions need metaphors and poetic
representation to make them truly pleasurable.
*Francis Hutcheson, "Ideas of Beauty and
Virtue" (ER 318-319)
- Beauty is found in the pleasing emotional sense
we have of the harmony and unity of external objects amidst their
- Absolute beauty is found in nature, while
relative beauty is located in the human arts.
- The external senses alone cannot explain the immediacy
with which beauty impacts us nor our ability to make discriminations
concerning matters of taste.
- There must be some kind of internal sense in
human beings that makes the perception and judgment of beauty
- Genius, or taste, is present in the one who has
this internal sense well-developed.
*Comte de Buffon, "Discourse on Style" (ER
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
- the human mind must assemble its ideas--no
creation ex nihilo
- simple, luminous style, without too much
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Still, variations in persons' temperaments and
cultures make complete uniformity of taste impossible.
|*Thomas Reid, Essays on
the Intellectual Powers (1785)
- Our internal sense of beauty involves a cognitive
judgment, not just an emotional response.
- 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.
- These matters are judged as to their appropriate
excellencies and perfections.
- Therefore, objective beauty, goodness, and so on
|Edmund Burke, "The Sublime" (ER 329-333)
- The human imaginative response to the sublime is
one of astonishment, even horror or fear, and as such, it bypasses our
typical rational responses.
- It, therefore, involves a sense of danger, which
is reinforced by the unknown; thus, it gives rise to an impulse of
- Affecting ideas are not the same as clear ideas.
- Words and poetry are more able to produce a sense
of the sublime than pictures because they are less immediate.
- 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
Immanuel Kant, "The Beautiful and the
Sublime" (ER 339-342)
- Kant shares Burke's distinctions between the
beautiful and the sublime.
- 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.
- The terrifying sublime that is imaginary or
fantastic is also called the grotesque.
- 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
Genius and taste are not
quasi-divine mysterious powers that cannot be investigated. Taste is
simply the human desire for the truth of nature.
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.
The general idea of nature must
provide some principles by which to guide art; taste is an organized
mind that investigates reality.
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]