Alison, Archibald (1757–1839)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

Archibald Alison was born in Edinburgh but was educated at Balliol and ordained in the Church of England. He returned to Edinburgh in 1800 as an Anglican clergyman and served there until his death. His published works included collections of sermons, but he is best known for his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste. This work was published in 1790, the same year as Immanuel Kant’s third Critique; but it became popular only after a second edition appeared in 1811.

Archibald Alison, Anglican clergyman, born in 1757 in Edinburgh, broke with earlier eighteenth-century theorists of taste in two respects. He denied that taste is a product of an internal sense, and he described the emotion of taste as complex rather than simple. Earlier theorists had developed taste using the analogy of sense perception. The exact nature of this sense varied. In some cases it was taken quite literally; in others, it was little more than a convenient analogy. In general, however, an internal sense was a reflexive, immediate response of the mind to qualities presented by objects. Alison abandoned such a sense altogether. Instead, the emotions of taste are the product of mental operations to which the mind contributes and in which the mind discovers its own qualities. Such emotions are inherently complex. Alison reasoned that if a simple perceptual quality such as colour were the source of an emotion of taste, that emotion would always accompany perceptions of colour. Such is not the case. Only when the mind operates on the perception in a certain way does the emotion of pleasure identified with taste occur.

In place of a simple emotion and an internal sense, Alison introduced expression, imagination, and association as the key aesthetic terms. Imagination is a faculty which acts upon simple emotions. It suggests other images which are not directly present but which share the emotional qualities of the perception. The emotional links themselves are formed by association. So both imagination and association are necessary conditions for emotions of taste. When, in addition, the emotions are expressive of qualities of mind, one has emotions of taste – what Immanuel Kant and later theorists came to call aesthetic emotions. Alison projected the following schema: natural objects are suited to produce simple emotions; those simple emotions are extended by association and take on qualities of mind (for example tenderness); the imagination is the faculty which accomplishes this extension. When the imaginative associations are unified throughout an occasion, the result will be a special emotion of taste – either beauty or sublimity, depending on the emotion. Pleasure always accompanies this extension.

Alison went substantially beyond earlier theorists in the way that he developed expressiveness as a quality of mind and in the way that he used association. Earlier eighteenth-century theorists, including Joseph Priestley, Alexander Gerard, and Thomas Reid, all spoke of a certain kind of mental exertion as intrinsically pleasurable and thus as a key element in taste. They were thinking of a physiological phenomenon, however. Strong, violent mental exertion could not produce the calm passions of beauty, but neither could a too languid mental operation. The emotions of taste were conceived of as belonging to the middle range – neither too strong, nor too mild. Alison, on the other hand, thought not of the exertion of the mind, but of qualities which, through association, became expressive of the mind’s own powers. A natural quality becomes beautiful by acquiring mental associations.

Alison’s theory of association is also substantially different as a consequence. Earlier theories of association, particularly that of David Hartley, sought to account for how the mind could produce ideas in the absence of immediate experience. The function of association was thus to extend experience and to provide a mechanism for the recall and production of mental images. Hartley’s account is strongly mechanistic, for example. Alison used association differently. By itself, a colour would produce no emotion, he reasoned. But association connects perception with other experiences so that the emotional qualities of the complex are produced by the perception as well. So red can be exciting, white pure, and so forth. Association brings together disparate images and ideas into a complex which has emotional consequences. Its faculty is imagination, and its consequence is expression. Beauty is the complex result of a kind of associative network. These associations give rise to a multitude of predicates, and Alison made extensive use of language as an indicator of what emotional associations a particular kind of perception had acquired.

Alison distinguished natural from relative beauty. Natural beauty arises from the associations the mind forms in its direct encounters with the world. Alison’s paradigms for natural beauty are scenery and gardens. Relative beauty depends on associations which suggest a fitness and utility; it includes design, skill, and art. Thus Alison established an implicit hierarchy, in which art is secondary to nature as an aesthetic source. Design, fitness, and utility presuppose a mental order and a mind, so they are expressive and beautiful. But their expressiveness depends on complex emotions such as tenderness, grandeur, and majesty, which are first inspired by the imagination acting on natural scenes. The common feature is that both produce a special form of pleasure, which Alison, like Kant, called delight.

Alison continued a century-old tradition of speculation about taste and beauty along empiricist lines. He shared with that tradition a reliance on experience and an attempt to classify and codify elements of experience into a theory of beauty. Alison extended that empiricism in a significant way, however. His analysis relies on language, particularly emotive predicates. Association is based on similarity – which may be perceptual or metaphorical, but is always created by the mind itself. The imagination becomes a creative faculty, and aesthetic theory is less concerned with standards and epistemological questions than with the production of emotion. Alison remained a moralist. Nature, not art, is the source of emotion, and nature is God’s handiwork, not ours. But it is a short step from Alison’s forms of imagination and expressiveness to that of the Romantics who use many of the same terms. The aesthetic ground has shifted substantially.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. Alison, Archibald (1757–1839), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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