Reid, Thomas (1710–1796)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

6. The beautiful and the sublime

For Reid, taste is a power of the mind by which we are capable of discerning and enjoying both the beauties of nature and whatever is excellent in the fine arts (1785:VIII) (see Artistic taste). In the end, we always judge that there is some real excellence in beautiful objects. In some cases that excellence is distinctly conceived and can be pointed out (for example, a primary quality), while in other cases objects appear beautiful at first encounter without our being able to specify any excellence (for example, a secondary or occult quality).

When confronted by a beautiful object we should distinguish the pleasure produced in us from the quality in the object that causes it. Nevertheless, Reid emphasizes that since beauty is found in things so various and so very different in kind, it is at least difficult to say in what beauty consists. ‘What can it be that is common to the thought of a mind, and the form of a piece of matter, to an abstract theorem, and a stroke of wit?’ If the beauty of a stroke of wit were its excellence, and the beauty of a proof its excellence, there would be a negative answer to this question. However, since ‘excellent’ does not express an attribute or combination of attributes save when conjoined with a genuine substantive, this answer poses no problem for Reid’s account of significance for full-blooded general terms.

Reid holds that the excellence of an object justifies the judgment of beauty. Our taste ought to be accounted most just and perfect when we are pleased with things most excellent of their kind, and displeased with the contrary. Every excellence has a real beauty and charm that makes it an agreeable object to those of good taste. Of course, Reid thinks that since judgments of taste are either true or false, there must be first principles of taste. But does every judgment of beauty depend for its truth on some excellence the object has (pace Kant)?

Reid does indeed allow that some objects appear beautiful at first sight without our being able to specify any excellence that could justify our judgment, citing the plumage of birds and butterflies as examples. But he claims that by a careful examination of such objects we may perhaps discover some real excellence in them. This claim is implausible. For I may rightly exclaim, ‘What a lovely butterfly!’, confronted by a less than perfect specimen. Moreover in some cases, such as the starry heavens, any excellence to be found in the object upon deeper investigation may be in a respect quite unconnected with the features of it that first impressed me. But then if an ugly object shares that excellence, why may it not count as beautiful too?

Might a basis for my exclamation be found in the novelty of seeing such a specimen? We are so constituted, claims Reid, that what is new to us commonly gives pleasure upon that account, provided it be not in itself disagreeable. However, if ‘beautiful’ can be properly used in a case of novelty, Reid is in difficulties. For some uses of ‘beautiful’ would not then serve to represent anything in the object.

Reid avoids such difficulties by accepting the common division of the objects of taste into novelty, grandeur and beauty. In order to understand his views on the nature of beauty we should consider his thoughts on grandeur. True grandeur is such a degree of excellence as is fit to raise enthusiastic admiration; it is found originally and properly in certain qualities of mind, and only derivatively in objects of sense. (One immediately wants to ask why it is not a department of beauty.) There is no grandeur in mere matter. There is, according to Reid, a real intrinsic excellence in such qualities of mind as power, knowledge, wisdom, virtue and magnanimity. These in every degree deserve esteem, but in an outstanding degree merit admiration, and lead to imitation of what is admired. When we contemplate such vast objects as the earth, the sea or the planetary system, it seems absurd to deny there is grandeur in them; yet it deserves to be considered whether all the grandeur we ascribe to such objects is not derived from some qualities of mind of which they are the effects or signs. Thus a great work such as the Iliad, is a work of great power, wisdom and goodness, well contrived for some important end; but power wisdom and goodness belong to the work figuratively, being really in its author.

It cannot be without reason that things as different as a flower and a song are called ‘beautiful’. The grand is the proper object of admiration. The beautiful is the proper object of love and kind affection. A distinction can analogously be made between original and derived beauty. Original beauty is to be found in certain qualities of mind, such as innocence, gentleness and humanity, which are amiable from their very nature. Knowledge, good sense, wit and cheerfulness draw our love as do many other useful qualities. Clearly Reid needs to establish the claim that what we call beautiful among humankind, inferior animals and the inanimate, are either signs or expressions of such amiable qualities of mind or else the effects of design, art and wise contrivance (see Beauty; Sublime, The).

Citing this article:
Gallie, Roger. The beautiful and the sublime. Reid, Thomas (1710–1796), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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