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Review of Eighteenth Century British Aesthetics
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Dabney Townsend, ed., Eighteenth Century British Aesthetics (Baywood, 1999)

Reviewed by Saam Trivedi

The eighteenth century is undoubtedly a very important time in the history of aesthetics and its development. Yet, given the current state of the history of aesthetics as taught at Anglophone universities across the world, how much eighteenth century aesthetics does the average aesthetician come across and actually read in the original these days by the time she finishes graduate school? Hume and Kant for sure, and also Shaftesbury and Hutcheson if one is lucky, but perhaps not much beyond that, unless one has done work specifically on theories of beauty and taste. Indeed, it would not be a surprise if a quick poll revealed that many younger aestheticians, and perhaps even some of the older aestheticians, have never even heard of, let alone read, eighteenth century aestheticians such as James Harris, John Baillie, Archibald Alison, and Uvedale Price.

Dabney Townsend’s anthology Eighteenth Century British Aesthetics should remedy this regrettable situation and fill the gap in our knowledge of eighteenth century British aesthetics, a century in which several philosophically important contributions were made to debates over many important aesthetic issues. This hefty volume consists of selections from twenty-two different authors, including well-known writers such as John Dryden, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Samuel Johnson, Hume, Edmund Burke, Joseph Priestley, Joshua Reynolds, Lord Kames, and Adam Smith, as well as lesser-known writers such as John Dennis, the painter William Hogarth, Daniel Webb, Hugh Blair, and William Gilpin, in addition to Harris, Baillie, Alison and Price mentioned above.

In the case of well-known writers such as Hume and Reynolds, the selections include not just well-established pieces such as Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and “Of Tragedy”, and Reynolds’ “Discourses on Art”, but also lesser-known gems such as Hume’s “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion” and Reynolds’ “The Idler.” Other selections of note include Shaftesbury’s “Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times”; Joseph Addison’s “The Spectator”; Hutcheson’s insightful “Reflection upon Laughter”, and also his better-known “An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue”; Samuel Johnson’s “The Rambler”; Hogarth’s “Analysis of Beauty, Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste”; Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”; Priestley’s “A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism”; Lord Kames’ important “Elements of Criticism”; James Beattie’s “Essays on Poetry and Music, as They Affect the Mind”; Archibald Alison’s “Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste”; Uvedale Price’s obscure “An Essay on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful”; and Adam Smith’s “Of the Nature of that Imitation which Takes Place in What are Called the Imitative Arts.”

The selections are prefaced by Townsend’s invaluable introduction, which is lucid and comprehensive, and gives the broader historical context of these works, focusing on the state of science, art, culture, and philosophy during this period. The introduction is also organized thematically according to issues such as taste, sentiment and the passions, beauty and aesthetic pleasure, imitation, imagination, expression, and the sublime and the picturesque.

There is not enough space here to single out or comment on each of the selections, but I will pick out some of those selections previously unknown to me that I read with immense profit and enjoyment. Hutcheson’s “Reflections upon Laughter” begins by rejecting Hobbes’ version of the superiority theory of laughter, according to which “laughter is nothing else but sudden glory, arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others…” (138). Hutcheson rightly points out that “laughter often arises without any imagined superiority of ourselves…” (138), and distinguishes between laughter and ridicule, claiming that “…there are innumerable instances of laughter, where no person is ridiculed…” (141). He grants that puns, for example, often involve an element of contrariety, thus agreeing with Addison to some degree that ‘generally the cause of laughter is “the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas…”’ (143). Hutcheson also sympathizes with the third prominent theory of laughter, the release theory, claiming that “a state of laughter is an easy and agreeable state, that the recurring or suggestion of ludicrous images tends to dispel fretfulness, anxiety or sorrow…” (145), and he claims that laughter is a “contagious” form of bonding.

Samuel Johnson’s “The Rambler” begins by warning against the temptations of gaining “secondary knowledge, which a convenient bench in a coffeehouse can supply”, whereby many “without any examination or distinction, adopt the criticisms and remarks, which happen to drop from those, who have risen … to reputation or authority” (205), rather than form their own opinions through reading and thinking. However, imagination is not subject to the same restraints as is fixed and limited scientific knowledge, claims Johnson, and there remain “boundless regions of possibility” for fiction to explore. Hume’s “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion”, which precedes by some fifteen years his classic “Of the Standard of Taste”, describes hypersensitive people who have a “certain delicacy of passion, which … gives them a lively joy upon every prosperous event, as well as a piercing grief, when they meet with misfortunes and adversity” (227). Delicacy of taste, claims Hume, resembles delicacy of passion in that it “produces the same sensibility to beauty and deformity of every kind, as that does to prosperity and adversity…” (228). Hume claims that while delicacy of taste is to be cultivated, delicacy of passion is to be lamented and remedied. He concludes by claiming that a cultivated taste for the arts improves our ability to feel the tender passions, while rendering us incapable of the rougher emotions. For the most part, there is a lot here to agree with, except for Hume’s claim that a cultivated taste for the arts renders us incapable of the rougher emotions, a well-worn counterexample being provided by the music and art-loving Nazis.

Joshua Reynolds’ “The Idler” denies that there are rules in art, and condemns critics who judge according to narrow rules. While not claiming that rules are “absolutely unnecessary”, Reynolds does “censure scrupulosity, a servile attention to minute exactness, which is sometimes inconsistent with higher excellency, and is lost in the blaze of expanded genius” (333). He also cargues convincingly that to judge beauty calls for practice, and that custom or habit may influence our preferences.

One virtue of Townsend’s choice of selections is that he focuses on texts of philosophical importance, excluding literary criticism and the theory of music and painting. A major virtue of this edition is the modernization of capitals, italics and spelling, overcoming some of the idiosyncrasies of the style of writing during this period, and thus making the writing more accessible to twenty-first century readers who are unfamiliar for the most part with the peculiarities of the style of writing during this period. As Townsend himself puts it in his preface, the “eccentricities of typography and excessive concern with minor differences between editions are needlessly off-putting to the reader whose primary interest is in the argument” (iv). At the same time, archaic word-forms such as “shew” for “show”, and “hath”, have been left unreplaced, as indeed have been things that would affect the sound or rhythm of the text. The book also contains a useful, extensive index.

In sum, Eighteenth Century British Aesthetics is to be recommended in the highest possible terms. For a long time to come, it will be an indispensable sourcebook for courses in the Philosophy of Beauty as well as historically oriented courses in eighteenth century aesthetics. Aestheticians of the younger and future generations should be deeply indebted to Townsend, though perhaps a paperback edition of this volume would be eminently useful.

Finally, the publishers are to be richly complimented for bringing out this first title in their new series “Foundations and Frontiers in Aesthetics”, and the series editors Colin Martindale and Arnold Berleant must get a large share of the credit for this. Townsend’s volume fully realizes the stated intent of the series to “offer material not readily available … because it …. is in obscure sources long out of print, or has never before been published.” One can only hope that subsequent volumes in this series live up to the high standards set by Townsend.


2001 © Saam Trivedi

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