(p.230) Appendix B Lord Kames and the Sense of Beauty
(p.230) Appendix B Lord Kames and the Sense of Beauty
Abstract and Keywords
Dealt with here is the possible influence of Hutcheson's theory of the sense of beauty on the critical theory of Henry Home, Lord Kames.
(1) It may come of something of a surprise to the student of eighteenth‐century thought to find Lord Kames, whose name is frequently associated with the doctrine of inner sense, exiled from the body of a work devoted to that doctrine and imprisoned in an appendix. Yet the fact is that although entirely within the moral sense tradition and indeed often cited as an example of its excesses, Kames does not adhere to the internal sense doctrine in aesthetics except in a rather offhand manner. Nevertheless, his fame demands that he at least be put in proper perspective with regard to the doctrine he is often alleged to espouse—my intention here.
Kames's Elements of Criticism, perhaps the most widely known work of Scottish aesthetics, is a long book; and if, as is likely, you give up before reaching the bitter end—the appendix, in fact—you will emerge with the impression that Lord Kames had little if anything to do with the school of Hutcheson. Indeed, the term “sense” occurs but rarely in the body of the work; it is in the appendix, which Kames called “Terms Defined or Explained,” where his connection with the sense of beauty is revealed. And it is thus with the end of the Elements that we must begin.
Kames begins the appendix, significantly enough, with definitions of terms central to the aesthetic sense doctrine: perception, internal sense, external sense.
That act of the mind which makes known to me an external object, is termed perception. That act of the mind which makes (p.231) known to me an internal object, is termed consciousness. The power of faculty from which consciousness proceeds, is termed an internal sense. The power or faculty from which perception proceeds, is termed an external sense. This distinction refers to the objects of our knowledge; for the senses, whether external or internal, are all of them powers or faculties of mind.1
For Kames, the hallmark of perception and consciousness is passivity. “Senses” are “faculties”; and the verbs “to see,” “to feel,” and the like are active verbs, and this seems to ascribe some kind of positive “doing” to the senses. But this is a mistake: the sense does not do anything, any more than a piece of wax does something when it is melted by a flame. It is the flame to which we must ascribe the doing; the “power” of the wax is purely passive: the power to be melted. And it is the same with the senses, whether internal or external:
A tree in flourish makes an impression on me, and by that means I see the tree. But in this operation I do not find that the mind is active: seeing a tree is only an effect produced on it by intervention of the rays of light. . . . Perception accordingly is not an action, but an effect produced in the mind. Sensation is another effect: it is the pleasure I feel upon perceiving what is agreeable.2
Although a distinction is made between internal and external senses, Kames ascribes all perception, both the internal and the external varieties, to the mind: “the senses,” he says above, “whether external or internal, are all of them powers or faculties of mind.” This point is emphasized in the introduction to the Elements, where Kames makes it clear that the pleasures of sense, though in certain instances mistakenly placed in the organ of perception, are, in reality, “in the mind.” He writes:
The pleasures of visual perception are considered on a higher level than the pleasures of touch, taste, and smell, not because the latter are corporeal and the former mental; for both are mental. Rather, they occupy a higher plane merely because they seem to be mental (and are indeed mental), whereas the so‐called corporeal pleasures of sense, though they are mental, too, seem corporeal. Thus, the distinction between mental and physical pleasures of sense is based merely on a “delusion”; but a delusion which we are unable to dispel at the perceptual level and which we would not even be aware of “Were it not that the delusion is detected by philosophy . . . . ”4
[E]very feeling, pleasant or painful, must be in the mind; and yet because in tasting, touching, and smelling, we are sensible of the impression made upon the organ, we are led to place there also the pleasant or painful feeling caused by that impression; but with respect to seeing and hearing, being insensible of the organic impression, we are not misled to assign a wrong place to the pleasant or painful feelings caused by that impression; and therefore we naturally place them in the mind, where they really are: upon that account, they are conceived to be more refined and spiritual, than (p.232) what are derived from tasting, touching, and smelling; for the latter feelings seeming to exist externally to the organ of sense, are conceived to be merely corporeal.3
Kames distinguishes sharply between perception and sensation, the former pertaining to external objects, the latter to feelings. But both are, in large measure, mental processes: “internal acts.”
Perception is a general term for hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling; and therefore perception signifies every internal act by which we are made acquainted with external objects: thus we are said to perceive a certain animal, a certain colour, sound, taste, smell &c. Sensation properly signifies that internal act by which we are made conscious of pleasure or pain felt at the organ of sense: thus we have a sensation of the pleasure arising from warmth, from a fragrant smell, from a sweet taste; and of the pain arising from a wound, from a feted smell, from a disagreeable taste. In perception, my attention is directed to the external object: in sensation, it is directed to the pleasure or pain I feel.5
Let us review what we know of Kames's position so far. By perception we are made aware of external objects, by consciousness of internal objects. The power of perception is an external sense, the power of consciousness an internal sense. Both are passive: that is the definitive characteristic of senses. Now the term “perception” includes two distinct processes: the first, perception proper, whereby we are made aware of external objects, and the second, sensation, whereby we are made conscious (p.233) of the pleasures or pains inherent in perception. And this same distinction between perception and sensation holds both for internal and external senses. We are made conscious of a perceptual pleasure or pain—that is, we sense it—by an internal mental act which, in the case of vision, locates the feeling (correctly) in the mind, and in the case of the corporeal senses (taste, smell, touch) locates the feeling (incorrectly) in the sense organ itself.
The question before us is whether, in this perceptual scheme, there is a sense of beauty (or anything else of the kind). But before we give an answer, we must examine Kames's concept of the beautiful.
(2) Kames's theory of beauty was fully formed ten years before the publication of the Elements of Criticism in his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751), parts of which found their way, with little or no alteration, into Chapter III of the later work. The term “beautiful,” according to Kames, is applied to any visual object the perception of which gives pleasure. “With regard to objects of sight, whatever gives pleasure, is said to be beautiful; whatever gives pain, is said to be ugly.” And visual beauty is the “original” beauty; all other objects called beautiful are called so in a “figurative” sense only.
The terms beauty and ugliness, in their original signification, are confined to objects of sight . . . . But though this be the proper meaning of the terms beauty and ugliness; yet, as it happens with words which convey a more lively idea than ordinary, the terms are applied in a figurative sense to almost every thing which carries a high relish or disgust, where these sensations have not a proper name of their own.6
Kames makes the customary eighteenth‐century distinction between intrinsic beauty and relative beauty (the fitness of means to ends), the latter being a higher species.
The higher rank of relative beauty is explained by the fact that it is, in the fullest degree, an intellectual perception.
Objects considered simply as existing, without relation to any end proposed, or any designing agent, are to be placed in the (p.234) lowest rank or order with respect to beauty and ugliness. But when external objects, such as works of art, are considered with relation to some end proposed, we feel a higher degree of pleasure or pain. Thus, a building regular in all its parts, pleases the eye upon the very first view: but considered as a house for dwelling in, which is the end proposed, it pleases still more, supposing it to be well fitted to its end.7
Intrinsic beauty is an object of sense merely: to perceive the beauty of a spreading oak or of a flowing river, no more is required but singly an act of vision. The perception of relative beauty is accompanied with an act of understanding and reflection; for of a fine instrument or engine, we perceive not the relative beauty, until we be made acquainted with its use and destination.8
Of course the statement that intrinsic beauty requires merely an “act of vision” must be unpacked, in the context of Kames's perceptual model, if we are to be completely accurate. For, as we have seen, both the perception of external objects and the sensation of pleasurable or painful feelings are mental acts. Thus, it would be more accurate to say that whereas the perception of intrinsic beauty involves but two mental acts, (i) an act of perception by which the external object is brought to consciousness and (ii) an act of sensation by which the feeling of intrinsic beauty is experienced; the perception of relative beauty requires three mental acts, (i) an act of perception by which the object is brought to consciousness, (ii) an act of understanding by which the relation of means to ends is discovered, and (iii) an act of sensation by which the feeling of relative beauty is experienced. Thus, sensation is common to both. But the process of perception, in the case of relative beauty, is augmented by an act of understanding, not present in the mental act by which the external object is merely brought to consciousness.
(3) Now I think we are prepared to state whether or not there is a sense of beauty in Kames's general theory of aesthetic (p.235) perception. The conclusion must be, it seems to me, that there is not. The perception of the beautiful for Kames involves both the perception of external objects and the sensing of pleasurable feelings; but no internal sense, so far as I can see, plays a part, explicitly or implicitly, in either process. One might be tempted to call the internal act of sensation the province of an inner sense. However, Kames never does so himself, nor indeed would it be consistent with his general theory of perception. For the internal act of sensation can accompany both external and internal perception; and in both cases it is perception which is the province of the senses, not sensation. For Kames, there is no “sense of beauty” properly so called. He has no need for that hypothesis.
Kames's rejection of the sense of beauty and, with it, the mainstream of the aesthetic sense tradition does not, however, mean that he rejected the entire internal sense doctrine outright. On the contrary, he frequently appealed to inner “senses” of various kinds in a none too critical manner, a fact which has brought him a good deal of adverse criticism. Gordon McKenzie writes that Kames, “like most men, held unalterable intuitive beliefs, and being of an inquiring turn of mind he spent a good deal of his time divising arguments which would prove them.”9 All too often, these arguments ended in an innate faculty and, as Spinoza would have said, “the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.”10 (p.236)
(2.) Ibid., p. 506n.
(3.) Ibid., vol. I, pp. 1–2.
(4.) Ibid., p. 2n.
(5.) Ibid., vol. II, p. 508.
(6.) Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, in British Moralists, vol. II, p. 302.
(7.) Ibid., p. 303.
(8.) Kames, op. cit., vol. I, p. 198.
(9.) Gordon McKenzie, “Lord Kames and the Mechanist Tradition,” p. 98.
(10.) Spinoza, Ethics, Part I, Appendix.