Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Beattie on Taste

Since I recently posted on taste, and since I've hinted at Beattie's position on taste before, but never given any details, here's a set of passages from Beattie on the subject:

To be a person of taste, it seems necessary, that one have, first, a lively and correct imagination; secondly, the power of distinct apprehension; thirdly, the capacity of being easily, strongly, and agreeably affected, with sublimity, beauty, harmony, exact imitation, &c.; fourthly, Sympathy, or Sensibility of heart; and, fifthly, Judgment, or Good Sense, which is the principal thing, and may not very improperly be said to comprehend all the rest.

I. Good taste implies Lively Imagination. This talent qualifies one, for readily understanding an author's purpose; tracing the connection of his thoughts; forming the same views of things which he had formed; and clearly conceiving the several images or ideas that the artist describes or delineates....

II. Sometimes, when one's imagination is lively, and regulated too by an acquaintance with nature, one may, notwithstanding, contract habits of indolence and irregularity in one's studies; which produce a superficial medley of knowledge very detrimental to the native vigour of the mind. And therefore I mentioned Distinct Apprehension, as the second thing necessary to good taste....

Now the third thing necessary to good taste is, Acuteness of (what is here called) Secondary Sensation; or, to express it in other words, "a capacity of being easily, strongly, and agreeably affected, with sublimity, beauty, harmony, exact imitation," &c....

IV. A fourth requisite to good taste is Sympathy; or that Sensibility of heart, by which, on supposing ourselves in the condition of another, we are conscious in some degree of those very emotions, pleasant or painful, which in a more intense degree would arise within us, if we were really in that condition....

V. The last thing mentioned as necessary to form good taste, is Judgment, or Good Sense; which is indeed the principal thing; and which some would consider, as comprehending most of the foregoing particulars. By Judgment, I here understand such a constitution of mind, as disposes a man to attend to the reality of things, and qualifies him for knowing and discovering the truth. It is by means of this faculty, as applied in criticism, that we compare poetical imitations with natural objects, so as to perceive in what they resemble, and in what they differ; that we estimate the rectitude of sentiments, the probability of incidents, and whether fictitious characters be similar to those of real life and consistent with themselves, and whether any part of a composition be unsuitable to the tendency of the whole. Hence too we discern, natural, or confused and unnatural; and whether the author have been careful to make it, both in the general arrangement, and in the structure of each part, conformable to the rule.


James Beattie, "Of Imagination," Chap. IV. in Dissertations Moral and Critical, pp. 166, 170, 173, 180, 182.

On p. 174, he says, "I here join taste and genius together. They are kindred powers; and of so near affinity, that the first, perhaps, might be called passive genius, and the second active taste." What Beattie above calls "Secondary Senses," and which, as he notes, are sometimes called "Reflex Senses" or "Internal Senses" were a major philosophical research project in 18th century Scotland, in great measure due to Francis Hutcheson. They include things like a sense of beauty, a sense of harmony, a 'musical ear', a taste for sublimity, a taste for novelty, a sense of humor, a feel for magnificence, a sense of morality, etc.

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