Summer term 2006 "Nature perfected"

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"Nature perfected"
Prof. Dr. K. Stierstorfer

SESSION ON 16 JUNE 2006: British Aesthetics – The century of Taste

Verena Klein / Gertraud Beuker / Beatrice Badouin / Wolfgang Strietholt /

Özlem Özdemir / Eva-Maria Müller

  1. Definition of the word ‘aesthetics’:

A branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of the beautiful and with judgements concerning beauty.” (Longman Dictionary of the English Language)

  1. Historical and social background:

  • time of enormous growth and change in England

  • period marked by:

• political stability

• economic growth

• increase in population

• emergence of works of art, design and architecture

  • new age of pride, self-confidence, magnificence and a higher standard of living

  • economic growth and money from English colonies and trading posts led to ‘mania for building’ (churches, public buildings, private houses)

  • imitation of classical architecture from antiquity → magnificent and splendid style of buildings (private houses built like palaces)

  • style of private houses displayed wealth and taste of their owners

  • works of art important for social status of people

→ increase in all areas of design and architecture

  • cultivation of taste as a major feature of the 18th century → need to acquire a fine taste

  • having a good taste closely connected to being virtuous and well-mannered

  • 1734: foundation of the ‘Society of Dilettanti’

  • social change: more and more people from working classes were able to get rich, but were often disliked by the old aristocracy → one way to be accepted by the upper class was to have a fine taste and to become an expert in the fine arts

→ changes during 18th century led to an increased interest in the nature of taste, people wanted to find a final definition of what was good and beautiful

  1. Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746):

Scottish philosopher; laid the foundation of utilitarianism

An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725)

  • first modern essay in philosophical aesthetics

  • first treatise on the beauty of nature, architecture, theorems, music, poetry and painting

  • second treatise on the beauty of “actions, affections and characters” (i.e. the beauty of a virtuous behaviour)

simple ideas vs. complex ideas

internal sense of beauty

  • beauty does not lie in an object itself but is attached to the object by a perceiving mind

  • gives pleasure (like an external sense)

  • gives pleasure immediately (like an external sense)

  • independent of people´s will (like an external sense)

  • pleasure does not depend on knowledge (of principles, proportions, causes) (like the pleasure of ext. sense)

  • independent of advantage or usefulness (like an external sense)

  • theorems can be beautiful (external senses are not involved – further proof of internal sense)

  • internal, because people might be able to see but receive only little pleasure out of looking at sth. beautiful

  • men of genius own a finer taste

  • associations can lead to someone´s disliking of beautiful

  • common taste, universal agreement (everyone possesses the internal sense of beauty (though not in the same degree) and it operates by the same laws in every person)

  • internal sense antecedent to custom, education, example (innate)

common characteristic of things that please men

  • formula: “compound ratio of uniformity amidst variety”

  • deformity is “the absence of beauty, or deficiency in the beauty expected in any species” (relative to expectations or demands)

original vs. comparative beauty

  • absolute or original beauty: independent of comparison with other objects

  • comparative or relative beauty: perceived in objects, that are imitations of something else; founded on a “kind of unity between the original and the copy”; the original does not have to be beautiful itself

  1. David Hume (1711-1776): Scottish philosopher

Of the Standard of Taste (1757)

  • brought the theory of taste closer to success than any other theory before

  • short essay, theory uses empirical investigation

  • There is great variety of taste

  • Sentiment = emotions, everyone has sentiment concerning an object

  • Concept:

  • Good critics: strong sense/ judgement, delicate sentiment, practice, comparison, no prejudice à valuable character

  • Beauties and blemishes: belong to the sentiment, but are linked to certain qualities in objects à objective judgement is possible à leads to universal agreement

  • Good critics agree on certain beauties and blemishes (e.g. force of expression, harmony etc.)

    • agreed beauties are the standard of taste

  • Standard of taste not specified by Hume

  • Objects can consist of different beauties and blemishes, in order to be beautiful the beauties have to predominate

  • Sometimes no accepted standard can be found because of age/ culture/ temperament

    • test of time will solve the problem

Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely, the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. […]Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

  1. Brief summary:

How is beauty perceived according to Hutcheson?

According to Hutcheson, common sentiment or common approval is:

  • the proof for a universal sense of beauty

  • triggered by a single master principle

  • dogmatic / causal explanation:

uniformity amidst variety always makes an object beautiful.

  • is tantamount to positive judgement

Hume’s relativism contradicts each of the above assumptions:

How is beauty perceived according to Hume?

According to Hume, common sentiment or common approval is:

  • subjective

  • no proof for a universal sense of beauty, due to the great variety in taste!

  • often general but not necessarily universal

  • not guided by a single master principle

  • is not tantamount to positive judgement!

  1. Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1757)

Burke in contrast to Francis Hutcheson and David Hume: beauty does not exist in our mind, but in the objects themselves

  • his text can be described as a general survey of passions, properties of things which make objects beautiful and sublime and their effect on human beings

  • its structure:

- introduction: Burke writes about his general assumptions for the enquiry

- part 1: description of our passions

- part 2: properties of objects which make objects sublime

- part 3: properties of things which make objects beautiful

- part 4: scientific explanation of the formation of the sublime and the beautiful

- part 5: on the effect of poetry

  • Burke’s main assumption in his text:

And my point in this enquiry is to find whether there are any principles, on which the imagination is affected, so common to all, so grounded and certain, as to supply the means of reasoning satisfactorily about them. And such principles of Taste, I fancy there are.” (13)

→ according to Burke our perception of objects which we later define as beautiful or sublime passes through three steps:

1. perception of an object with our senses

2. affection of our imagination

3. conclusion concerning the object made by reasoning faculty

  • these three steps of perception are common to all people

Our passions

  • three kinds of passion: pleasure, pain, state of indifference/delight

The sublime

  • What is meant by sublime?

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime. […] When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful”. (36-7)

  • What feelings are created when we are confronted with the sublime?

Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect.“ (53)

The beautiful

What is meant by beautiful?

where women and men, and not only they, but when other animals give us a sense of joy and pleasure in beholding them”. (39)

What feelings are created when we are confronted with beauty?

By beauty I mean, that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it.” (83)

Objects have certain properties which make them either sublime or beautiful:

Burke, Enquiry, part 2: The sublime

Which properties of things are sublime?



Privations: vacuity, darkness, solitude



Burke, Enquiry, part 3: Beauty

Which properties of things are beautiful?



Gradual Variation


Light colours

7. Bibliography:
Primary literature:
HUTCHESON, Francis: An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). New York, 1971.

HUME, David. Of the Standard of Taste and other essays. (1757), ed. LENZ, John, New York, Bobbs-Merrill: 1965.

BURKE, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1759), ed. Adam Phillips, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford:1990.
Secondary literature:
BEARDSLEY, Monroe C.: Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present – A Short History. Alabama: 1975.

DENVIR, Bernhard, The Eighteenth Century: Art, Design and Society, 1684-1789, London: 1983.

DICKIE, George. The century of taste: the philosophical odyssey of taste in the eighteenth century. New York: 1996.

HUSSEY, Christopher, The Picturesque. Studies in a Point of View, London: 1983.

JONES, Robert W., Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge: 1998

KIVY, Peter (ed.). The Blackwell guide to aesthetics. Malden: 2004.

KIVY, Peter. The seventh sense: Frances Hutcheson and eighteenth-century British aesthetics. Oxford: 2003.

NORTON, David F (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge: 1993.

SAMBROOK, James, The Eighteenth Century: The intellectual and cultural context of English literature, 1700-1789, London: 1986

ZIMMER, Robert. Burke zur Einführung. Hamburg 1995.

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