Saturday, February 09, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius II: Formation of Taste

One of the difficulties of talking about taste and genius is that they are in some sense natural and in some sense artificially cultivated; what is more, it is often difficult, perhaps sometimes impossible, to determine where the division occurs. We saw in the previous post how Gerard uses the reflex sense method to analyze taste into its natural constituents. We are able to identify aspects of our experience that are not reducible to the five external senses of sight, hearing, touch, oral taste, and smell; this gives us the internal or reflex senses. Because we cannot rule out a priori that they provide us with at least usually reliable information about the world, and because we cannot in practice ever do without them anyway, they have the same authority as our external senses, and for the same reason. Using this method, Gerard identified seven natural principles of taste: "the senses of novelty, of sublimity, of beauty, of imitation, of harmony, of ridicule, and of virtue" (ET 2).

At this point we need to consider how we build on these in order to develop good taste. There are several elements to this: (1) the union and improvement of our reflex senses; (2) sensibility or delicacy of passion; (3) precise and balanced judgment; (4) actual practices of cultivation.

(1) We form or cultivate our taste, thus giving ourselves good taste, by improving each of these senses individually and learning how to exercise them all in unity. In reality, both of these go together: by improving our reflex senses we make them better able to combine in gestalt, and by uniting them we make it possible to exercise each to the fullest extent: "Our sentiments and emotions receive an immense addition of strength from their reciprocal influence on one another" (ET 74). Although Gerard doesn't use the example, we can compare this to the way the external senses of taste and smell work together: to get the full taste of a meal, we need to be able to smell as well as taste it. Likewise, the experience of sublimity is intensified and enriched if this experience is also an experience of novelty, or of virtue, or of harmony. One area in which we all see this operating is that of music (ET 76):

Poetry is a complication of beauties, reflecting by their union additional lustre on one another. The sublime, the new, the elegant, the natural, the virtuous, are often blended in the imitation; brightened by the power of fiction, and the richest variety of imagery; and rendered more delightful by the harmony of numbers. When poetry is set to well-adapted music, both gain new power by their alliance. The music, by exciting the requisite affections, puts the mind in a disposition to conceive ideas suited to them, with peculiar facility, vivacity, and pleasure.

(2) This union of the internal senses in aesthetic experience is affected by something that is not itself a reflex sense at all, namely, what Gerard calls "sensibility of heart" or "delicacy of passion", which is the tendency to be easily moved by any kind of sentiment. It is what we might call sensitivity. Human beings are extraordinarily diverse in how sensitive they are, and it is to this that Gerard attributes much of the diversity in judgments of taste. Some people are largely insensible to aesthetic experience; this will necessarily create defects in their taste. It is possible to have excessive sensibility, but Gerard thinks it is rare, and I think he would also want to make a distinction. Intense sensibility may hamper one's ability to make a good critical judgment at a given time, but even then it could prepare the way for good critical judgment later. Being overwhelmed by a symphony or sunset may make it impossible to give a just analysis of its beauty and grandeur while you are actually experiencing, but it provides you with a richer experience that can assist you in such an analysis later.

(3) I suspect that Gerard is not worried about the excessive sensibility due to the third ingredient in good taste. Neither union of reflex senses, nor delicacy of passion, nor both combined are enough to give one good taste. A key element of good taste is good judgment (ET 83-84):

Good sense is an indispensable ingredient in true taste, which always implies a quick and accurate perception of things as they really are.

That judgment may completely exhibit to the internal senses, the beauties and excellencies of nature, it measures the amplitude of things, determines their proportions, and traces out their wise construction and beneficial tendency. It uses all the methods which art and science indicate, for discovering those qualities that lie too deep spontaneously to strike the eye. It investigates the laws and causes of the works of nature: it compares and contrasts them with the more imperfect works of art; and thus supplies materials from which fancy may produce ideas, and form combinations, that will strongly affect the mental taste.

Gerard gives several examples of this, which I will not go over. Suffice it to say that judgment has a considerable effect on our aesthetic experience. Nonetheless, in different experiences and to different people it may have a larger or lesser role, and this is another reason why there is a diversity in judgments of taste. Some people have more acute internal senses; others have more accurate judgment. Both may have a good critical judgment, but the one will have a better feeling for the aesthetic features of the experience, while the other will have a better sense of how the experience conforms to reasonable standards of unity and variation. Accurate judgment may make up for some weakness of imagination, while strong imagination may make up for some weakness of judgment. But the two will also have somewhat different experiences in the first place as well, since the first will have more feeling for the immediate features of the work, while the latter will have more feeling for its abstract or intellectual features. Gerard gives as his examples Longinus and Aristotle, who wrote two of the major aesthetic works of antiquity. Longinus exhibits a delicate sentiment and imagination; he has a good judgment, but his imagination far outstrips it. Thus to read Longinus you have to enter into his sentiments; otherwise you are going to miss his point, because he is not as good at explaining his conclusons as he is at conveying the imaginative experience underlying them. Aristotle, on the other hand, is the reverse case: livelilness of imagination is far outstripped by his brilliance of judgment. He is extremely good at analysis and weighing of argument, so his conclusions are backed by powerful explanations. But you rarely get a sense of the aesthetic experience underlying them.

(4) All aspects of human nature admit of some kind of improvement, including even the external senses, but the internal senses admit of more improvement than most. Part of the reason for this is precisely the fact that they are reflex senses: they respond and react to all the other senses (including other reflex senses). Not just everything will cultivate this improvement. "It is only in the few who improve the rudiments of taste which nature has implanted, by culture well chosen, and judiciously applied, that taste at length appears in elegant form, and just proportions" (ET 95).

There are four lines along which this cultivation might take place: sensibility, refinement, correctness, and proportion.

Sensibility "disposes us to be strongly affected with whatever beauties or faults we perceive" (ET 121). It is relatively ingrained; it is largely based on the native features of the mind, and thus not easily susceptible of development. In fact, extended use may well dull, rather than heighten, the mind's ability to perceive and feel. This does not, however, mean that it does not admit of any improvement. Indeed, there is a sort of paradox of sensibility: overexposure dulls sensibility, which might lead you to think that extensive experience of beauty would dull our taste for it, but extensive experience of beauties in reality heightens our taste for them. This is because extensive experience with beauty is not repetitive; the objects of taste are endlessly variable. Further, although familiarity may make our experience less striking, it will nonetheless give us a more complete sense of everything involved in the experience, thus enriching the things that may be taken into account by the reflex senses. Other reasons could be added. Thus, while sensibility is relatively stable, we can improve it by extending our acquaintance with the objects of taste.

Refinement or elegance "makes us capable of discovering both [faults and beauties], even when they are not obvious (ET 121). The objects of the reflex senses admit of degrees, and we can come to recognize when (for example) a harmony is imperfect. This happens partly by familiarity, but the primary contributor to refinement is simply study -- we acquire knowledge and improve our judgment. To have a refined taste for wine, you have to set your mind to distinguishing the features of wine, find and fill gaps in your experience, compare each experience with every other experience. In addition, we need to practice and exercise our judgment. In our early experiences of something, we have difficulty taking everything into account in our judgments, but over time we are able to cover more and more of our experience with our judgments, no longer bewildered or overwhelmed by all the elements of our experience. As Gerard says (ET 114):

Refinement of taste exists only where to an original delicacy of imagination, and natural acuteness of judgment, is superadded a long and intimate acquaintance with the best performances of every kind. None should be studied but such as have real excellence; and those are chiefly to be dwelt upon which display new beauties on every review.

Correctness "preserves us from approving or disapproving any objects but such as possess the qualities which render them really laudable or blameable; and enables us to distinguish these qualities with accuracy from others, however similar, and to see through the most artful disguise that can be thrown upon them" (ET 121). Every aesthetic excellence can be seen as a mean between two extremes; but as with virtue, the extremes are almost never equidistant from the mean: there is usually one extreme that is much more similar to the virtue than the other, and thus apt to be confused with it under certain circumstances. As with refinement, correctness is developed in great measure by deliberate study (ET 125):

Custom enables us to form ideas with exactness and precision. By studying works of taste, we acquire clear and distinct perceptions of those qualities which render them beautiful or deformed: we take in at one glance all the essential properties; and thus establish in the mind a criterion, a touchstone of excellence and depravity. Judgment also becomes skilful by exercise, in determining, whether the object under consideration perfectly agrees with this mental standard.

Proportion involves finding the best balance of all the principles involved in good taste. Sometimes one reflex sense may exercise much too much influence; excessive pursuit of the humorous or the novel may, for instance, ruin one's taste for the sublime. This imbalance is perhaps the most common cause of bad taste. Proportion presupposes correctness, and requires the exercise of all of our reflex senses, not just in general, but with regard to any kind of object that involves a diversity of aesthetic features.

Having considered what is required in the formation of taste, Gerard turns to a discussion of how taste relates to other areas of life, which we will consider in the next post in this series.

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