Even though the term ‘aesthetics’ was introduced to designate a novel philosophical discipline by the Wolffian Alexander Baumgarten in his 1735 Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, this terminological detail does not seem to bother the grand narratives of aesthetics, which often ascribe the title of ‘the first work on philosophical aesthetics’ to other works whose authors would have never thought they were contributing to a distinct discipline. Well-known narratives have presented such candidates beside Baumgarten as the Cartesian J.P. Crousaz’s Traité du beau (1715) or the first treatise of the Lockean Francis Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). The question of priority, needless to say, becomes significant not as a caprice of the antiquarian, but rather as an excuse to discuss the plausible definitions of (philosophical) aesthetics, its difference from criticism, or the birth of the concept of the ‘aesthetic’ that gave rise to a new way of thinking about certain qualities like beauty, sublimity, and novelty in our encounters with nature or the arts. This is why revisiting the first works in modern philosophical aesthetics is crucial, especially because creative interpretive approaches are rather rare, leaving the founding texts of aesthetics shrouded in one-sided or shallow interpretations: lessons that we all learn and retell. This is what Endre Szécsényi, the editor of the new issue of the Journal of Scottish Thought, has recognized in the scholarship of Hutcheson’s aesthetics. It seems, he argues, that it has only some ‘historic significance’ compared with the ‘more complex and more intriguing figures’ of the period like Hume, Burke, or Kant (172). This neglect is also shown by the fact that there is still only one book-length study devoted to his aesthetics, Peter Kivy’s oft-cited Seventh Sense (1976), which, regarding Hutcheson’s esteemed position in the histories of aesthetics, is quite surprising.1 The nine essays in Francis Hutcheson and the Origins of the Aesthetic aim at revisiting the cornerstones of Hutchesonian aesthetics like his relational concept of beauty, the workings of the internal sense, the immediacy and necessity of aesthetic pleasure, the formal quality of ‘uniformity amidst variety’ that triggers the aesthetic sense, the moral, political and theological scope of the theory, its relation to eighteenth-century and contemporary discussions, and its place in the historical narratives of aesthetics. The opening essay by Alexander Broadie discusses Hutcheson and George Turnbull in the context of moral sentimentalism and the idea that moral perceptions, just like aesthetic ones, evoke pleasure. After investigating the ‘formidable closeness of [the ideas of] beauty and virtue’ (2) in Hutcheson’s epistemology, Broadie turns to the debate concerning the task of the moral philosopher as painter or anatomist between Hutcheson and Hume. For Hutcheson works in moral philosophy, just like paintings for Turnbull, are ‘pieces of rhetoric ... as exercises in the promotion of virtue and the denigration of vice’ (12). This traditional view is given an epistemological support in Hutcheson with Cicero’s De officiis being his ultimate point of reference: ‘It is out of aesthetic properties, such as beauty, elegance and harmony, that moral goodness is composed’, ascribing ‘a certain kind of primacy to aesthetic properties on the basis of a primacy of dependence’ (13). Thus, Broadie not only sheds light on the indebtedness of early modern aesthetics to the rhetorical tradition, but interestingly contributes to contemporary debates regarding the relations of the moral merit of an artwork to its aesthetic properties. Bálint Gárdos also focuses on the intersections of Hutcheson’s aesthetic theory with other fields of concerns against the backdrop of the widely held assertion that Hutcheson’s aesthetics is ‘too abstract’. Gárdos convincingly deconstructs this claim by revisiting the lesser known parts of Hutcheson’s thought like his rather traditional views on poetry based on the moral sense and moral exempla or his Reflections upon Laughter. Gárdos points to the significance of historically specific qualities and subtle distinctions beside uniformity amidst variety, arguing that Hutcheson, as well as Dryden, Dennis, Smith, and Kames, moved between ‘general philosophical positions’ and ‘specific instances of historically situated human experience’ (22), and was equally committed to the idea of universal human nature and aware of historic specificity, which is displayed in the period by the central notion of taste, a ‘mediator between supposedly unchangeable human nature and a historically conditioned value-system’ (28). Concentrating on Hutcheson’s ideas about natural beauty compared with that of Thomas Reid, Emily Brady shows how their aesthetics of nature—the dominant yet often ignored subject matter of eighteenth-century aesthetics—can be relevant for contemporary environmental debates about the appropriate appreciation of nature or the role of (scientific) knowledge. Brady’s decision to discuss Hutcheson’s representational theory of perception and subjectivist, relational concept of beauty alongside Reid’s common sense theory of perception and aesthetic realism proves to be illuminating, although when it comes to their relations to contemporary aesthetics of nature the differences between them somehow lose their weight. Both Hutcheson and Reid are used to support a non-instrumental and non-cognitive view thanks to their claim that the perception of beauty is unmediated by rational reflection (thus independent from utility as well), though Brady’s interpretation seems to suggest that it is rather Reid’s distinction between ‘instinctive’ and ‘rational’ beauty that points toward a pluralistic approach. The most thorough analysis of Hutcheson’s philosophy of mind in the volume is offered by Richard Glauser. Instead of simply reconstructing the arguments concerning the internal sense and the idea of (absolute) beauty following the mainstream interpretation, Glauser—through expanding his field of reference to Hutcheson’s later works on moral philosophy—presents a comparative analysis of the workings of the external, internal, and ‘subsequent’/‘reflex’ senses, pointing out that the sense of beauty in fact belongs to this latter set of senses, distinct from (Lockean) reflection. Based on the clear distinction of subsequent senses, Glauser argues that the idea of beauty—interpreted as a specific pleasure—is caused by a previously perceived complex idea displaying uniformity amidst variety; which account not only supports the subjectivist view, but also illuminates Hutcheson’s three-level theory of aesthetic experience by showing that between sense perception and aesthetic pleasure there is ‘the more or less conscious operations of reason in comparing and discerning the relations and proportions constitutive’ of the complex idea of uniformity amidst variety (78). Glauser’s account does not challenge the immediate, non-epistemic (Kivy) feature of aesthetic pleasure, but offers a more nuanced approach to the role of reason in contemplation and thus it can be read as a subtle debate with the one-sided arguments for the non-cognitive or non-rational stance in Hutcheson’s aesthetics. Instead of investigating epistemic problems, David Carey turns to the Irish reception of Hutcheson through Burke’s Enquiry (1757) and the works of a lesser known author, the Huguenot pastor Charles-Louis de Villette. Beside his voluntarist account of aesthetic response and the multiplication of the internal senses, Villette criticizes Hutcheson’s model for being too mechanical and forgetting the role of ‘an active intellectual faculty’ in the appreciation of beauty (92). As we can see, Glauser’s analysis of the mental activity inherent in aesthetic experience could be also used to partly reject Villette’s criticism. Carey’s discussion of Burke includes his views on utility, proportion, association, and the relation of beauty to virtue, but it sadly ignores the fundamental difference between Hutcheson and Burke: the latter elaborates a physiological aesthetics in the fourth part of his Enquiry, determining aesthetic response in terms of physiological changes—the contraction or relaxation of the fibres. Cairns Craig contests Kivy’s widely-held narrative that the internal sense model was unequivocally overthrown by associationism by the end of the eighteenth century. Craig argues that both Hutcheson’s theory and Archibald Alison’s associationism ‘depend on the interaction of singularity and multitude’: ‘beauty is revealed when a multitude … is discovered to be contained within a singularity’, as Hutcheson’s example of the beauty of general theorems show, ‘whereas for the associationists singularity (the original encounter with an aesthetic object) generates multitudes of the possible associations that can be discovered in “reverie”’ (122). Craig not only ventures into the nineteenth century to discuss the revival of empirical psychology and associationism, but also discusses the writings of Coleridge and Yeats and the criticism of I.A. Richards, illuminating their plausible relations to Hutchesonian ideas and revisiting the principle of uniformity amidst variety as an attempt to grasp ‘the multitudinous potential of the aesthetic object’ (134). The formula of uniformity amidst variety is also given central place in Michael Brown’s paper in order to ‘replace the concern with numbers in the imaginative origins of political economy with an aesthetic concern’ (137–138). After giving us a glimpse of the vibrant intellectual life of Dublin, the city where Hutcheson wrote his first major works in the 1720s, Brown proposes a Hutchesonian aesthetics of political economy based on the application of uniformity amidst variety to the economic role of contract law and money: Commerce then was a system in which diversity was given order by law: various modes of production could trade through the use of a ‘universal’ system of value, money, and with the backing of a legal order … . Political economy turned the desires of a society into the orderly pursuit of satisfaction. … The system of political economy was a thing of beauty (147). The scholarship regarding the sources of Hutcheson’s thought mostly focuses on Shaftesbury and Locke, while it neglects, as Giovanni Gellera argues, other possibilities: Gellera proposes that Calvin’s conception of the senses and the notion of sensus divinitatis, through seventeenth-century Reformed scholastic authors like Franco Burgersdijk and Adriaan Heereboord, might also have influenced Hutcheson’s aesthetic epistemology. Hutcheson received his education in institutions dominated by Reformed scholasticism, which is also used to support Gellera’s view that even though Hutcheson rejected Calvin’s negative conception of human nature, his idea that ‘men are directly aware of God, by means of a sense, … a faculty or disposition to believe that God exists’ (153) and an emerging epistemology of sense in early modern scholastic philosophy can be seen as plausible sources of Hutcheson’s sentimentalism. I find Gellera’s interpretation particularly valuable for the scholarship on early modern aesthetics, since there are few genuine and insightful approaches to reveal the various roots of our sense of beauty, taste, or aesthetic experience in pre-modern philosophy.2 The final essay of the volume proves to be such an endeavour. Endre Szécsényi, after surveying the historical narratives of aesthetics and pointing out their problematic approach to Hutcheson, interprets it as a ‘symptom of their inability to map and to explain the origins of modern aesthetics in its complexity and richness’ (178). Szécsényi focuses on how physico-theology, theodicean arguments, and spiritual experience permeate this unfolding discourse. In an inspiring interpretation of Hutcheson within the context of Addison, Shaftesbury, and the seventeenth-century French discourse of délicatessen, Szécsényi provocatively argues that Hutcheson’s conception of beauty also encompasses the vocabulary and ‘structure of the seventeenth-century je-ne-sais-quoi which can be considered an alternative conception’ to the ‘philosophical beauty’ of uniformity amidst variety (196). Based on Shaftesbury’s and Addison’s accounts of the natural sublime, Szécsényi labels the accounts of these ‘refreshing’ and ‘enlivening’ experiences of ‘irregularity, discord, asymmetry or obscurity’ (197) the ‘aesthetics of shades’ and emphasizes their inherent moral and theological dimensions. Szécsényi suggests that the aesthetic emerges in these marginal accounts of this ‘theologico-aesthetic experience’ (209), which also leads him to propose his own definition for the aesthetic that regains the theological aspects neglected or dismissed by many historians: the concept of the aesthetic emerges, Szécsényi argues, as a new type of interconnection between the sensual / sensuous and the transcendental, in which the former is not merely a disposable ‘means’ toward the latter, but an indispensable and constitutive ‘frame’ for it. The modern aesthetic was invented as a promise to humans that they would be able to regain the harmony or compatibility between the worldly and celestial, between the human and the divine, between the individual and society, between felicity and virtue in a re-shaped form fitted to the radically new spiritual, intellectual and cultural climate. (179–180) The volume does exactly what it promises: revisits, reinterprets, and recontextualizes Hutcheson’s aesthetic thought through various approaches, not only offering more detailed analyses, but occasionally challenging the lessons the histories of aesthetics taught us concerning Hutcheson’s epistemology, conception of beauty, and historical significance. It is noteworthy that many of the contributors shift their attention from the central philosophical argument in the Inquiry to its undercurrents or to the understudied works of the Hutchesonian œuvre, thus gaining novel perspectives. The interpretations offered by Francis Hutcheson and the Origins of the Aesthetic will undoubtedly promote the scholarship on Hutcheson’s aesthetics and have the potential to set into motion the discussion of one of the first philosophical aesthetic theories of Western modernity. Footnotes 1 Peter Kivy, The Seventh Sense. Francis Hutcheson and Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 2003). 2 See Niklaus Largier, ‘Mysticism, Modernity, and the Invention of Aesthetic Experience’, Representations 1 (2009), 37–60; Endre Szécsényi, ‘Gustus Spiritualis: Remarks on the Emergence of Modern Aesthetics’, Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics 1 (2014), 62–85. © British Society of Aesthetics 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 19, 2017
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