Friday, February 01, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius I: Principles of Taste

The late eighteenth century, especially in Britain, was profoundly interested in the question of good taste. It is discussed extensively, its relationship to good morals closely probed, and attempts to understand its underlying principles were common. Of these attempts, the one that is most commonly read today is David Hume's essay, Of the Standard of Taste. However, the work on the subject that was perhaps most highly regarded, and certainly most widely referenced, was Alexander Gerard's Essay on Taste.

Alexander Gerard (1728-1795) was educated at the University of Aberdeen. He went on to become the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, then afterward became Professor of Divinity, first at Marischal, then at King's College. He first wrote the Essay on Taste in 1756 while still Professor of Natural Philosophy, winning a prize from the Edinburgh Philosophical Society for it; when he published it three years later and its companion work on Genius in 1774, they earned him plaudits throughout the Republic of Letters. The book quickly went through three English editions and two French editions. He was an active participant in academic college, advocating various reforms to the Scottish system of education, and in the Church of Scotland.

Gerard's account of taste and genius is an example of what is known as a reflex sense system. Systems of this type trace back to Francis Hutcheson's An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). In a sense one can take reflex sense accounts as attempts to redress a problem in standard empiricism. Empiricism requires that all mental content trace back in some way to a sense, but we can clearly identify kinds of mental content that do not seem to be reducible to sight, hearing, and the like. Thus if we take 'sense' to mean (in Hutcheson's words from the Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions) "any determination of our minds to receive ideas independently on our will, and to have perceptions of pleasure and pain", it is clear that we must posit internal as well as external senses. What is more, these internal senses tend to give us higher-order content: unlike the external senses, which sense things about bodies, the internal senses give us information about the information that we receive from the external senses. They are 'reflex' or 'reflective' senses. For instance, one of the reflex senses Hutcheson identifies is the sense of novelty. When something seems new to us, this seeming-new cannot itself be something we get from the eyes, ears, or any of our external senses. Nonetheless it is genuine information; while our reflex senses are no more immune to occasional sensory illusions than the external senses, the most obvious explanation, and usually the right explanation, for the fact that something seems new to us is that it is. Thus we have informative mental content that cannot be understood entirely in terms of the information of external senses. It is also reflective: if I see a new color or shape, I sense the newness of the sensation. While there is a sense in which the sense of novelty presupposes the external senses, however, it does not do so in a crude way; we can have a sense of the newness of very abstract theories, for instance, that cannot themselves be sensed.

On an empiricist approach to matters, moreover, there is no particular reason to privilege the external senses over the internal senses as sources of knowledge; we know that we have senses by actually sensing, and if we seem to sense newness, the empiricist just has to accept that as a fact, and go on to decide whether this is a distinct sense or reducible to other senses. And, to top it all off, we can't actually isolate our judgment from these reflex senses, any more than we, clearly seeing colors, can ignore them completely when making judgments about the world. Thus we can never have a well-founded reason for denying that these reflex senses give us genuine information about the world, at least sometimes: we have no a priori way of ruling them out and no a posteriori way of doing without them. The sense of novelty is as good, and as unavoidable, a foundation for judgment as the sense of sight, and for exactly the same reasons. This does not mean that the reflex senses are brute facts: we can come up with explanations for why things seem to be the way they are, and can identify illusory cases, as with the external senses. But all such explanations, and all such identifications of illusions, presuppose both the reflex senses themselves and their general legitimacy as foundations of judgment.

Gerard therefore starts his account of taste by analyzing it in terms of the senses on which it draws, and, in particular, the reflex senses on which it depends. And as it turns out, it's not a simple matter. Taste as Gerard conceives it makes use of a variety of reflex senses; and cultivating a good taste consists in refining these reflex senses in a unified way:

Taste consists chiefly in the improvement of those principles, which are commonly called the powers of the imagination, and are considered by modern philosophers as internal or reflex senses, supplying us with finer and more delicate perceptions, than any which can be properly referred to our external organs. These are reducible to the following principles; the senses of novelty, of sublimity, of beauty, of imitation, of harmony, of ridicule, and of virtue. (ET 1-2)

We will take each of these principles of taste in turn.

The Sense of Novelty. The agreeable experience of coming upon something new is something everyone knows. Sometimes it's nice to get out and do something different; we get excited when it seems to us that we've made a new discovery, or come up with an idea very different from what we've ever had before; we all know the distinctive agreeable feeling that arises on reading or studying something interestingly new or original. What these experiences show us is that no adequate account of good taste can ignore the effect of our sense of the newness of things on our judgments. We sense some things as novel; this can excite other sensations in us, whether of pleasure or of pain.

The Sense of Sublimity. We could also call this a sense of grandeur. When we experience the world, we experience some things as simultaneously vast and simple. Neither the vastness nor the simplicity are reducible to the five external senses. As we might put it, it is not the apparent size of the ocean to the eye that makes us sense its vastness, since it doesn't take up any more of our visual field than what we ordinarily see. And the particular vastness that makes things seem sublime is the kind of vastness that has a limitlessness to it. It need not be literally infinite, but even when we sense finite things as sublime, there is a sense in which, for practical purposes, they might as well be infinite. Gerard accepts a version of the standard view (another version of which is later shared by an even more famous account of sublimity, Kant's), which goes to back to Longinus, that we sense things as vast and simple in the relevant sense when we ourselves seem vast and simple in sensing them. As Gerard sees it, we sense something as sublime by sensing our need to expand to take it all in, and, with this need, the difficulty of doing so. This is one reason why experiencing sublime things is so exhilarating: we experience pleasure and pride, and perhaps a feeling of being privileged, having both the opportunity and the ability to think on that scale. The difficulty arises because the sublime is not merely vast, but a vastness that has to be taken all together. If you think of the ocean as just a bunch of cups of water, just one after another and nothing more, you don't get a sense of sublimity, any more than you get a sense of sublimity from the mere fact that you can go into your supermarket and see rows and rows of products. To get the sense of sublimity you need to think of the ocean as a whole. To think of your supermarket as sublime -- which is not out of the bounds of possibility -- you would have to think of the sheer vastness of the whole group of actions that come together to give you endless choices of laundry detergent. Likewise, the experience of what Gerard calls "the sublime of science" (ET 14) is an experience of the vastness of the phenomena and truths unified by this or that single principle or simple explanation.

It's important to note, I think, that the fact that this sense of the sublime is a sense of our own expansion does not make it subjective -- at the mere level of sense there's no principled way to distinguish the objective and the subjective. The fact that we sense that something is sublime because our thought must expand to take the whole in makes sublimity no more 'subjective' than the fact that we sense certain kinds of distance by how hard it feels our eye muscles are working makes distance 'subjective'.

In any case, it is not in any way controversial to say that sublimity is important to our judgments of taste.

The Sense of Beauty. Another experience that clearly must be taken into account if we are talking about judgments of taste is our sense of beauty, which takes as its objects things that have uniformity, variety, and proportion: "the absence of any one of these ingredients...diminishes the beauty of objects: but where all of them are wanting, deformity must be prevail" (ET 35). This 'formity', as we might call it, can be found in the figure, color, or usefulness of a thing.

The Sense of Imitation. There is another thing that sometimes gets called 'beauty', and that is lively, exact imitation or resemblance. It's not mere imitation that gives us this experience; it is lively re-presentation. A pile of rocks may be uninteresting in itself; simply repeating the pile of rocks, although a good imitation, doesn't give you any sort of sense of imitation that could be confused with the sense of beauty. However, a painting of that pile of rocks may be breathtakingly 'beautiful', i.e., lively in imitation, and enjoyed for that reason. This is a sense that perhaps looms larger in our own tastes than it would have in the tastes of Gerard's day: the sense of imitation is something we would often call the sense of realism. Realism is not mere imitation, either; if somebody copies the murder scene in a play by actually murdering someone in the same way, we don't say that the murder is 'a realistic portrayal', despite being an obvious imitation. We can enjoy the realism of a portrayal of a real-life villain even though we would hate the imitation in reality of that same villain. In a sense, it's the quality of the imitating that is really in view.

The Sense of Harmony. Another sense that is often conflated with the sense of beauty but, at the very least, involves a distinctive kind of 'beauty' is the sense of harmony; harmony is a function of the agreeableness of single sounds and "the charms and energy of a skillful complication of them" (ET 56). The energetic complication of agreeable sounds is not itself something picked up by the ear; our external sense does not hear anything as harmonious -- it just hears them as sounds. Getting the idea of harmony requires some sort of reflection on sound. But the sense of harmony is actually a good example of an internal sense that gives us what we would generally consider (reasonably) reliable information about the world: when we talk about hearing, we usually include our sense of harmony, our ability to sense proportional relationships among sounds. But proportionalities among sounds are not what the ear picks up, and you can only have information about these proportionalities by some kind of additional synthesis going beyond the bare hearing of something.

The Sense of Ridicule. We all know the sense of ridicule; it is what later came to be called the sense of humor. It picks up on incongruities, that is, uncommon inconsistencies in consistency, unexpected similarities among the dissimilar, oppositions in a unity. What we usually call wit, humor, or ridiculre are different kinds of imitation of the incongruity that we pick up with this sense -- artificial representations of the incongruous, and perhaps incongruous artificial representation of the incongruous. When things aren't funny, it would then be because either we don't think there's enough contrariety (too coherent, so it makes a lot of sense, is not very funny) or we don't think there's enough unity (too incoherent, so it makes hardly any sense at all, is not very funny, either). We need them to make sense of things not making sense, or show that something's making sense doesn't itself make sense.

The Sense of Virtue. Gerard is quite insistent that you cannot have an adequate account of good taste, or any taste for that matter, without taking into account what we might call our sense of morals:

It is never unregarded in serious performances, and it enters even into the most ludicrous. It claims a joint authority with the other principles of Taste; it requires an attachment to morality in the epos and the drama, and it pronounces the quickest flights of wit, without it, phrensy and distraction. Something moral has insinuated itself, not only into the serious designs of Raphael, but also into the humorous representations of Hogarth. (ET 69)

No matter how much someone might try to insert a dividing wall between moral and aesthetic judgment, the two can't be so easily separated. A great deal of our judgment of a literary text, for instance, may consist in our judgments about the villainies or redeeming qualities of villains, or the heroics or flaws of heroes. A work may be flawed by dropping a crude and thus inappropriate joke into the middle of what the story needs to be solemn and respectful. Raphael's painting of the Prodigal Son is judged not merely in terms of painting technique but in terms of its expression of moral qualities like forgiveness.

What's more, we often find that this sense has a certain superiority over other principles of taste, not in the sense that it overrides them completely, but in the sense that it has a massive effect everywhere. Someone may still find a malicious joke funny, but it's impossible that the sense of its being malicious have no effect at all on the funniness of the joke. And likewise, many of the things we do find funny are morally funny, or funny in ways tinged by moral judgment: you have to have a sense of honesty and of hypocrisy in order to find Twelfth Night as funny as it is. Someone who had no grasp of hypocrisy or of inappropriate ambition would lose the ability to grasp any number of jokes. And on the reverse side, understanding what's going on in tragedy requires a grasp of fault and innocence. Even something like the "sublime of science" is affected by our sensing that the explanations and reasonings involved are honest; try still thinking it sublime if it turned out all to be sophistry or based on lies about experiments. Again, it's not that moral inappropriateness or flaw necessarily ruins these other aspects to the work we are appreciating; but that it really is a flaw affecting our entire experience, and thus the entire foundation for our judgments of taste.

All of this, of course, just gives us the basics: the kinds of elements in our experience that feed into judgments of taste. What we are usually most interested in, however, is the formation or cultivation of taste. This requires the union and development of these basic principles, and to that we will have to turn next.


  1. MrsDarwin1:27 PM

    I rather like the Warner Siblings' gloss on the various senses:

  2. branemrys2:49 PM

    Somehow I never saw that one.


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