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Review of Art and Enlightenment: Scottish Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century
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Jonathan Friday, Art and Enlightenment: Scottish Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century (Imprint Academic, 2004)

Reviewed by Steven A. Jauss

Art and Enlightenment is the third volume in a new Library of Scottish Philosophy series. According to the publisher, the series is designed to address “a major problem associated with the study of Scottish philosophy,” the fact that many works “simply are not available,” or are available only “in expensive reproductions or costly new editions.”

This problem is familiar to those interested in teaching eighteenth-century Scottish aesthetics. David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and “Of Tragedy” are, of course, widely reprinted in anthologies appropriate for undergraduate courses, and brief excerpts from Francis Hutcheson’s influential Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue occasionally make their way into such readers as well. However, more extensive selections from the aesthetic writings of these authors, not to mention extracts from works by Alexander Gerard and Archibald Alison, are normally available only in anthologies that are relatively costly, such as Dabney Townsend’s hardcover-only Eighteenth Century British Aesthetics (Baywood, 1999), which is priced above $60. And even that anthology includes no selections from important Scots such as George Turnbull and Thomas Reid, among others.

Jonathan Friday’s contribution to the series is a very important step toward addressing this problem. The book is an attractive and inexpensive paperback containing sixteen extracts from the works of eleven figures. In addition to the philosophers mentioned above, Adam Smith, Henry Home (Lord Kames), and James Beattie are also represented here, and “stretching the rubric of admission” (p. 198) allows Friday to include important essays by John Baillie and Dugald Stewart as well, even though the former may not have been a Scot and the latter’s essay “On the Beautiful” was not published until 1810.

Brief biographical remarks and modest suggestions for further reading introduce each of the eleven figures. These introductions are generally helpful, though a few seem ill-suited for inspiring student interest in the readings they preface: “neither of the extracts [from Kames’ Elements of Criticism] indicate a very original thinker” (p. 124), “there is little original in Beattie’s study of the sublime” (p. 169), and “in Alison we do not have the glittering intellectual achievements that we find in many other Scottish philosophers” (p. 185).

The introduction to the book is more consistently upbeat. In it, Friday emphasizes the “important sense in which aesthetics as a subject of philosophical inquiry has its origins in eighteenth-century Britain, and in particular Scotland” (p. 1). He also describes a few of the main questions of eighteenth-century aesthetics and very briefly traces some links between Scottish aesthetics and non-Scots such as Locke, Burke, and Kant. A note from series editor Gordon Graham also instructs readers that spelling and punctuation have been modernized, that quoted material not in English has been transliterated, translated, or omitted, and that the extracts may have been abridged or given new titles.

As for the extracts themselves, the Hume staples mentioned above are included, along with two important sections from Book Two of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature: “Of Beauty and Deformity” and “Of Contiguity and Distance in Space and Time.” (The latter is introduced as “the basis of Hume’s analysis of the sublime” (p. 49).)

This quartet is preceded by extracts from Hutcheson’s Inquiry and Turnbull’s 1740 Treatise of Ancient Painting, both of which pose special challenges for the editor of an introductory reader due to their length. Friday wisely elects to reprint more of the Inquiry’s influential treatise “Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design” than he does of any other single work, though with many sections abridged or removed. (“Of the Beauty of Theorems,” “Concerning our Reasonings about Design and Wisdom in the Cause, from the Beauty or Regularity of Effects,” and the 1738 “Additions & Corrections” suffer the latter fate.) The source of the extract appears to be the revised fourth edition of the Inquiry, though the bibliographical reference only mentions the first edition.

Turnbull’s Treatise is neither as brief as Hutcheson’s nor as narrowly focused. It contains an “Epistle upon Education,” a “Preface Concerning Education, Travelling, and the Fine Arts,” and a very long and wide-ranging “Essay on the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Painting among the Greeks and Romans.” Friday manages to capture some aspects of one of the book’s main themes, the role of the arts in moral education, by sewing together brief passages from diverse parts of the treatise – and then hiding the seams. At least, no ellipsis periods mark the transition from the first three paragraphs of the extract, which are taken from Turnbull’s “Preface,” to the remainder, which is taken from the penultimate chapter of the “Essay” (some 150 pages later in the Treatise).

Elsewhere in the book, Friday employs a different strategy for creating easily digestible extracts from large books. Readings XIV & XV, for example, are drawn out of order from Alison’s 1790 Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, so that readers encounter his general summary of “the preceding chapter” – Essay I, Chapter I – before they encounter a more narrowly focused excerpt from that chapter. As in the case of the extract from Turnbull’s Treatise, this abridgement leaves out much that is of great interest in Alison’s sprawling treatise, and in the long section added to it in 1811. However, readings XIV & XV, studied in that order, do introduce readers to the general shape of Alison’s conception of aesthetic experience (as a complex “emotion of taste” rather than as the experience of having a simple, pleasant idea of beauty).

Most of the remaining extracts are not so aggressively abridged. Of them, two – those from works by Baillie and Beattie – deal exclusively with the sublime. The rest are about beauty, taste, and criticism. These are all central topics, and Friday’s selections provide instructors with the opportunity to trace at least some of the ways in which thought on these central topics evolves during the course of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, as a result, some other interesting topics are touched on only in passing, in one or two extracts only, or not at all: genius and the creation of art, whether music is an imitative art, the nature of the picturesque, the relation between beauty and utility, the nature of laughter and the comic, the moral and religious significance of aesthetic appreciation, the nature of fictional truth, the paradox of tragedy, the unity of the arts, and the beauty of mathematical theorems. Some of these topics are treated more extensively in important works that are not represented in Art and Enlightenment: Hutcheson’s “Reflections Upon Laughter,” Beattie’s Essays on Poetry and Music, as They Affect the Mind, Hume’s “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” Smith’s “Of the nature of that Imitation which Takes Place in What are Called the Imitative Arts,” and both Gerard’s Essay on Genius and the 1759 edition of his Essay on Taste.

While on the subject of omissions, it is worth noting that several Scots who made important contributions to eighteenth-century aesthetics make no appearance in Art and Enlightenment. Hugh Blair is perhaps the most noteworthy of these, but an exhaustive anthology would also include works by George Campbell and perhaps also Allan Ramsay. Adding discussions of a broader range of topics and extracts from additional works would, of course, require many more than this volume’s 212 pages.

In what courses might Art and Enlightenment be used? Since it is an inexpensive book that features brief readings on unquestionably central topics, readings mostly extracted from the works of clearly important (and sometimes neglected) figures in the history of aesthetics, the volume may earn a place on the reading lists of introductory courses on aesthetics or its history. However, the way in which some of the longer works have been abridged and the narrow range of topics covered may limit the volume’s appeal somewhat, especially as a book for use in advanced courses, though it would serve as a comfortable means by which instructors could contextualize major works of eighteenth-century aesthetics that are available in modern paperback editions, as are relevant works by Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Kames, Mendelssohn, Burke, and Kant.

 

2006 © Steven A. Jauss

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