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The Seventh SenseFrancis Hutcheson and Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics$

Peter Kivy

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780199260027

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0199260028.001.0001

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(p.223) Appendix A Some Minor Figures

(p.223) Appendix A Some Minor Figures

The Seventh Sense

Peter Kivy

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Dealt with here are some of the minor figures in eighteenth‐century aesthetics and critical theory who adopted Hutcheson's concept of the sense of beauty, in particular, William Melmoth, John Gilbert Cooper, and Hugh Blair.

(1) To examine every writer on aesthetics in Enlightenment Britain who was influenced by the sense of beauty would be a task of staggering proportions and, at least from the philosophical point of view, one that, I suspect, would not pay sufficient returns on the investment. Nevertheless, some consideration of “disciples” may be called for to limn in more fully our picture of the aesthetic sense doctrine during the mid‐1700s. I have chosen, therefore, to discuss three minor writers—William Melmoth, John Gilbert Cooper, and Hugh Blair—as representative of the influence which Hutcheson wielded at this time. My choice of Melmoth and Cooper was dictated mainly by the fact that their names are to be found to some small degree in previous studies of the period.1 They are hardly first‐rate philosophical or critical minds, and their influence on the aesthetic sense doctrine is a trivializing one; but such influences also belong to the history of ideas and cannot be totally ignored. Blair, of course, is of somewhat greater importance, not perhaps as an original philosophical thinker, but certainly as a talented popularizer of various aesthetic and critical ideas.2

(2) William Melmoth's reputation seems to have rested, in his own day, on two literary productions: a translation of the Epistles of Pliny the Younger, which appeared in 1753, and a series of essays on various topics, published during the 1740s as Letters of Sir Thomas Fitzosborne.3

(p.224) The thirty‐ninth of the Fitzosborne Letters is an epitome of Hutcheson's Inquiry, with a little bit of this and that from Addison, Sir William Temple, and others. Melmoth conceives of aesthetic sensibility as a God‐given gift in the form of a faculty or sense from which the standard of taste is derived and to which it owes its authority. He writes:

The charms of the fine arts are, indeed, literally derived from the author of all nature, and founded in the original frame and constitution of the human mind. Accordingly, the general principles of taste are common to our whole species, and arise from that internal sense of beauty which every man, in some degree at least, evidently possesses.

However, whereas Hutcheson tends to play down the role of “education” in developing aesthetic perception (it being, as we have seen, a perversion rather than a corrective influence, for Hutcheson), Melmoth, in this respect perhaps under the influence of Addison and Temple, acknowledges the innate and the acquired as necessary and equal in the functioning of the aesthetic sense. Thus “taste is nothing more than this sense of beauty, rendered more exquisite by genius, and more correct by cultivation . . . . ”4

In the tradition of the aesthetic sense theorists, Melmoth presses the analogy between critical judgment and sense perception: the critical process is involuntary, immediate, and therefore nonrational. “There are certain forms which must necessarily fill the soul with agreeable ideas; and she is instantly determined in her approbation of them, previous to all reasonings concerning their use and convenience.”5

As we have seen, the standard of taste is assured, for Melmoth, by a common aesthetic nature among men in the form of a God‐given internal sense. But if such a common ground exists, the fact of manifest differences in taste must be accounted for; it is a problem for Melmoth as it had been for his predecessors and as it must be for anyone whose critical position implies unanimity. Melmoth, like Hutcheson, appeals here to the principle of association, although the term itself is not used and the argument is but brief. Melmoth writes: (p.225)

The opposition, however, which sometimes divides the opinions of those whose judgments may be supposed equal and perfect, is urged as a powerful objection against the reality of a fixed canon of criticism: it is a proof, you think, that, after all which can be said of fine taste, it must ultimately be resolved into the peculiar relish of each individual. But this diversity of sentiments will not, of itself, destroy the evidence of the criterion; since the same effect may be produced by numberless other causes. A thousand accidental circumstances may concur in counteracting the force of the rule, even allowing it to be ever so fixed and invariable, when left in its free and uninfluenced state.6

The “accidental occurrences,” I presume, are the chance associations of ideas through which Hutcheson and many others attempted to account for diversity of taste. Melmoth does not explore the position further.

There can be no doubt that Melmoth's critical ideas are purely derivative: there is not one that cannot be traced to his immediate predecessors. Nor has he added any depth to what he has appropriated. In Melmoth the sense of beauty has ceased to have any real epistemological significance; it has behind it neither the profound Platonism of Shaftesbury nor the Lockean empiricism with which Hutcheson imbued the doctrine, although it bears the merest traces of both. The aesthetic nature has become the most obvious sort of mechanism, “programmed” by a Deity of convenience. But perhaps we are too severe; Melmoth, after all, made no real pretensions to philosophy.

(3) In John Gilbert Cooper's Letters Concerning Taste (1755) we have a more extensive treatment of the aesthetic sense than is to be found in the Fitzosborne Letters and, perhaps, some small contribution of original thought. Cooper identifies taste with an “internal Sense” and gives us a description of it in complete conformity with what we have come to expect from such theorists. He writes:

The Effect of good TASTE is that instantaneous Glow of Pleasure which thrills thro' our whole Frame, and seizes upon the Applause of the Heart, before the intellectual Power, Reason, can descend to ratify its Approbation, either when we receive into the Soul (p.226) beautiful Images thro' the Organs of bodily Senses; or the Decorum of an amiable Character thro' the Faculties of moral Perception; or when we recall, by the imitative Arts, both of them thro' the intermediate Power of the Imagination.7

The relationship between the sense of beauty and its objects is determined by the Deity: “the ALMIGHTY has in this, as well as in all his other Works, out of his abundant Goodness and Love to his Creatures, so attuned our Minds to Truth, that all Beauty from without should make a responsive Harmony vibrate within.”8 And here aesthetic speculation must end; any further question would amount to prying “into Matters, which the Deity, for Reasons known only to himself, has placed above our limited Capacities. . . ”—the age‐old Deist dodge.9

Cooper's language is reminiscent of Shaftesbury's rhapsodic tone, and in other respects, too, there are affinities between them. For Cooper, “TRUTH and BEAUTY are coincident . . . . ”10 As with Shaftesbury, “truth” is used here in the sense of “true” proportions—thus, well proportioned, measuring up to some ideal or standard. It is the Neoplatonic tradition, rather than Hutcheson's empiricism, which Cooper seems to follow. But what he lacks is Shaftesbury's deep commitment to rationalism. As W. J. Bate has pointed out, Cooper tends to luxuriate in feeling11; and this separates him from Shaftesbury's aesthetics of reasoned sensibility as well as Hutcheson's somewhat tame subjectivism in which “perception” is a far more appropriate word than “feeling” for describing aesthetic judgment.

In apparent response to the charge of aprioriism, which many critics were leveling against Hutcheson and his school, Cooper seems to be maintaining that the aesthetic sense need not be considered an additional psychological principle but, rather, a distinct operation which the traditionally accepted faculties—sense organs, intellect, and imagination—perform in concert. Taste, according to Cooper, “does not wholly depend upon the natural Strength and acquired Improvements of the Intellectual Powers; nor wholly upon a fine Construction of the Organs of the Body; nor wholly upon the intermediate Powers of the Imagination; but upon an Union of them all happily blended, (p.227) without too great a Prevalency in either.”12 That both mental and physical attributes must conspire together in the man of taste is, of course, common knowledge, neither the discovery of Cooper nor his century. But that these faculties, in a certain dynamic relationship, constitute what can be termed a “sense of beauty” (a position at least adumbrated here) points to the future: to the later Scottish school and (if we are not reading too much into Cooper) to Kant's “free play of the cognitive faculties,” the aesthetic sensus communis of the third Critique. Here, perhaps, Cooper is breaking new ground or, at least, timidly lifting the spade.

(4) Hugh Blair, the last of our trio, and the most familiar to students of eighteenth‐century criticism, published his major critical work, the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, in 1783, although according to Blair himself the published Lectures essentially reproduced what he had been presenting to his classes at Edinburg since 1759.13 Blair made no pretensions to originality, but he did claim to have done some hard thinking of his own. He wrote candidly of the Lectures,

The Author gives them to the world, neither as a Work wholly original, nor as a Compilation from the Writings of others. On every subject contained in them, he has thought for himself. . . . At the same time, he availed himself of the ideas and reflections of others, as far as he thought them proper to be adopted.14

In his opinion of himself, as in his opinions on more controversial topics, Blair was middle‐of‐the‐road.

Blair defines taste as “The power of receiving pleasure from the beauties of nature and of art.” He then asks whether this power “is to be considered as an internal sense, or as an exertion of reason?” opting, on familiar grounds, for the “internal sense”:

It is not merely through a discovery of the understanding, or a deduction of argument, that the mind receives pleasure from a beautiful prospect or a fine poem. Such objects often strike us intuitively, and make a strong impression, when we are unable to assign the reasons of our being pleased . . . . Hence the faculty by (p.228) which we relish such beauties, seems more nearly allied to a feeling of sense, than to a process of understanding. . . .15

Because the reasons for our critical judgments cannot be determined, Blair seems willing to conclude that there are none and, therefore, that critical judgments are perceptual. He fails, apparently, to see that both our inability to determine reasons and the absence of reasons to determine are compatible with our judgments' being rational, not to mention the fact that our inability to determine reasons does not imply absence of reasons. And in spite of his introduction of the notion of intuition, Blair sees no other alternatives beyond discursive reason and perception.

Blair conceived of taste as a common sense: “a faculty common in some degree to all men.”16 And thus he, too, faced the all too familiar questions which this position raises: If we have a common aesthetic sense, why do we dispute in matters of taste? If we do dispute, on what grounds do we seek for resolution? Blair's answer is, essentially, the answer of old: taste is “in some degree” innate; but it must be nurtured to its full flowering: “This inequality of Taste among men is owing, without doubt, in part, to the different frame of their natures; to nicer organs, and finer internal powers, with which some are endowed beyond others. But, if it be owing in part to nature, it is owing to education and culture still more.”17

It is not surprising to find that the education of feeling, for the most part, lies with reason. Starting out bravely with a sense of beauty, Blair now must summon reason in through the back door. He writes,

But although Taste be ultimately founded on sensibility, it must not be considered as instinctive sensibility alone. Reason and good sense . . . have so extensive an influence on all the operations and decisions of Taste, that a thorough good Taste may well be considered as a power compounded of natural sensibility to beauty, and of improved understanding.18

Are we to conclude, then, that reason forms the standard to which the sense of beauty conforms, in Shaftesbury's manner? Is reason the final court of appeal? For Blair there seems to be (p.229) no straight answer: like Buridan's ass, he stands transfixed between alternatives—reason on the one side, the sense of beauty on the other. Blair leads us a merry chase from feeling to reason to feeling again; for “the ultimate conclusions to which our reasonings lead, refer at last to sense and perception.”19 Blair is caught up in the same sort of vicious circle attributed falsely to Hume. But whereas Hume understands that the circle must be broken, his fellow Scot seems blissfully unaware that anything at all is amiss.


(1.) References to Cooper occur, for example, in A. Bosker, Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson (New York, 1935), pp. 164–165; W.J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth‐Century England (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), pp. 53–54; E.N. Hooker, “The Discussion of Taste, from 1750 to 1770, and the New Trends in Literary Criticism,” Publications of the Modern Language Association, XLIX (1934), p. 79n. References to Melmoth can be found both in Bate (pp. 52–53) and Hooker (p. 79n).

(2.) “Though he was neither a comprehensive nor a profoundly original writer, Blair was of immense importance as a popularizer of aesthetic and critical speculation. . . ” (Hipple, The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque, p. 122).

(3.) The first volume of the Letters was published in 1742; a second in 1748; the two volumes were first published together in 1749. The work seems to have maintained its popularity throughout the century, going through a number of editions.

(4.) William Melmoth, Fitzosborne's Letters on Several Subjects (Boston, 1815), p. 112.

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Ibid., p. 114. Melmoth emphasizes the uniformity of man's aesthetic nature here; but he is not altogether consistent about this. Cf. p. 109.

(7.) John Gilbert Cooper, Letters Concerning Taste. The Fourth Edition. To which are added, Essays on Similar and Other Subjects. The Second Edition (London, 1771), pp. 2–3.

(8.) Ibid., p. 7.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Ibid., p. 2.

(11.) Bate, op. cit., p. 53.

(12.) Cooper, op. cit., p. 27.

(13.) Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 3rd ed. (London, 1787), vol. I, pp. iii, 4n.

(14.) Ibid., p. iv.

(15.) Ibid., p. 20.

(16.) Ibid., p. 21.

(17.) Ibid., p. 24.

(18.) Ibid., p. 29.

(19.) Ibid., p. 40.