Gerard, Alexander (1728–95)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB032-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Alexander Gerard was Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic (1752) and Professor of Divinity (1759) at Marischal College, and Professor of Divinity (1773) at King’s College, Aberdeen. A leading member of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, he wrote a new plan of education for Marischal College as well as works on divinity. He is best known, however, for his Essay on Taste (1759). In 1774, he returned to the subject with An Essay on Genius. Gerard was associated with Thomas Reid (1710–96) in the Philosophical Society until Reid’s transfer to Glasgow in 1764. The work of David Hume (1711–76) was a principal influence.

Alexander Gerard’s aesthetic philosophy is a response to the theories of Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) and David Hume (see Hume, D. §3). Like Hutcheson, Gerard made use of the concepts of an internal sense and of association to explain the subjectivity of taste. However, Gerard’s use of an internal sense, which he called a reflex act, must be severely qualified. He distinguished two ways of considering taste:

It may be considered either as a species of sensation, or as a species of discernment…. Taste considered in the former of these lights, in respect of what we may call its direct exercise, cannot properly admit any standard… But notwithstanding this, there may be a standard of taste in respect of its reflex acts: and it is only in respect of these, that a standard should be sought for.

(1759: 214–6)

This distinction distances Gerard from Hume’s more radical reliance on sentiment and Hutcheson’s elaborate theory of an internal sense. Gerard depended on a species of induction (perhaps derived from another Aberdeen philosopher, George Turnbull) to correct immediate sensation.

Gerard’s own theory rests on a view of the imagination as exercising the mind. Freed of the need for the actual presence of objective sources, which limit the external senses, the imagination combines reflective ideas supplied by fancy. The operation of the imagination exercises the mind, and when that exercise falls within a moderate range, it is experienced as pleasurable. If it is either too languid and easy or too excited and difficult, discomfort (or indifference) results. From the beginning, these were the controlling principles of Gerard’s discussion. But the terms of the problem set for him (and in some sense his essay was a set piece for the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture) come from Hutcheson’s internal sense theory and Hume’s search for a standard of taste. So Gerard used ‘taste’ as a vehicle to explain the faculty of the imagination. He was not always consistent, and sometimes it seems that he forgot that the problem of taste arose because an internal sense would lack the checks and confirmations of an external sense.

Gerard tended to multiply senses because they were little more to him than aesthetic predicates. Association establishes the reference for such predicates. Thus, while continuing to use the language of taste and internal sense, he was moving decisively in the direction of Archibald Alison’s more elaborate scheme of imaginative and associative aesthetics (see Alison, A.). At the same time, Gerard remains within the scope set by Reid and his school.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. Gerard, Alexander (1728–95), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB032-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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