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Eighteenth-century aesthetics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M059-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 25, 2024, from

Article Summary

Article Summary

1. Origins.

Among the dominant influences on eighteenth-century aesthetics are divisions between classicists and modernists, between the rationalism of Descartes (1596–1650), Leibniz (1646–1716), and particularly Christian Wolff (1679–1754) and the followers of Newton (1642–1727) and Locke (1632–1704), and between commercially motivated authors and critics and the talented polite learning of the nobility. A. G. Baumgarten (1750/1758) coined the word ‘aesthetics’ from the Greek αισθητικοσ, having to do with perceiving by the senses, but the word did not come into widespread use prior to Immanuel Kant’s (1790) adoption of it, and by then it was being used very differently than in Baumgarten’s rationalist project. Thus to use the word at all with regard to most eighteenth-century discussions centred on the arts is anachronistic.

2. The ancients and moderns: science and art.

Eighteenth-century aesthetics is formed out of a debate within criticism and the arts over the relative priority of classical and modern arts and artists and the originality of artists, a debate that is itself a part of a larger argument over the relative merits of modern versus classical learning and culture. To many in the eighteenth century it seemed that the ancients achieved a perfection in the arts that no modern could challenge; thus, originality in the arts is an aesthetic problem. In the arts, the authority of classical authors and the achievement of classical artists placed taste and reason on the side of the ancients except in painting, where technical skill in perspective and a lack of ancient examples favoured the moderns.

3. Rationalism and empiricism.

The strength of modern science favoured empiricist approaches to aesthetic issues, however. Both a Wolffian rationalist aesthetics and Lockean empiricist aesthetics appeal to experience and thus to the modernist, scientific side of the argument. The differences between rationalists and Lockean empiricists turn on how reason is understood. Reason is either the innate source of principles and rules or principles are based on experience alone. For a Lockean empiricist, beauty is only in the mind of the beholder, while for a Wolffian rationalist, beauty is not sensuous and confused but universal and clear. True beauty is order, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1740, §20) argued, while Francis Hutcheson (1725) follows the Lockean model and defines beauty as the individual experience of uniformity amidst diversity. Both Hutcheson and David Hume (1739) attempt to map the passions as forms of sensory input combined with mental oversight. (Hume is more extreme, however, in limiting that oversight to sentiment itself.) In France, both Denis Diderot (1748) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1761, 1762) appeal directly to sentiment and promote it to aesthetic control. The result is a subjectivism that is a problem for critical judgement. The point is not to blur the lines between rationalists of the Cartesian and Wolffian traditions, as represented by Baumgarten and Gottsched, on the one hand and the followers of Locke and Newton like Hutcheson, Hume, and Alexander Gerard (1759) on the other, but to emphasise that all are working out a modernist, scientific break with classical forms of aesthetics that depends on subjective, individual experience.

4. The arts and nature.

The concept of the fine arts was itself a product of an evolving re-orientation of the arts in the eighteenth century (Kristeller, 1951, 1952). Artists were instructed to follow nature, and that command led the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1711), David Hume (1739), and Rousseau (1761, 1762) to sentimentalism in the arts. Nature is the opposite of caprice, changeableness, and chance, however. To follow nature is to rely upon probabilities, as Hume argued. In France, Charles Batteux’s, The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle (1746), argues that the imitation of what Batteux calls belle nature is an underlying principle of all of the fine arts.

Following nature is completely compatible with following rules, however. At issue is the nature of the rules. The affective aesthetics of Shaftesbury, Hume, Diderot (1773) and Rousseau (1761, 1762, 1764–6) follows from the Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos’s theory (1719) which claimed that only the effect determined the quality of a work.

5. Taste.

For much of the eighteenth century, taste replaces beauty as the most important theoretical concept. It is first of all an individual, prudential concept (Gracián, 1674). Taste individualises judgement and locates it in the perceiver’s response. Criticism disciplines taste and provides a means for discrimination. Eighteenth-century aesthetics can be viewed as a struggle between taste and criticism, just as it reflects the struggle between the authority of the ancients and the originality of the moderns.

6. Sentiment and the passions.

For those within the tradition that values sentiment, taste combines both normative and affective judgement. Sentiment is not simply pleasant; it is good or bad depending on how it fits into a larger system. Hume (1739) in particular makes sentiment and thus taste the master in the master–slave relation of reason and the passions.

7. A standard of taste.

Appeals to taste were widespread in the eighteenth century. Taste was both defended as a form of polite learning accessible to everyone and reviled as an invitation to vulgar display and immoral subjectivity. Two issues having to do with taste shape the aesthetics of the mid-eighteenth century. The first is the question whether and how taste can be formed. The metaphor suggests that taste is as immediate and invulnerable to modification as its gustatory counterpart on the analogy of a palate in wine tasting. That makes delicacy of taste the controlling faculty, but it leaves judgements of taste wholly subjective. To counter that implication, Edmund Burke (1759) denies that in the arts taste is a separate faculty, and thus it is no longer a sense. To solve that problem, Hume turns to a different question that seems more amenable to factual distinction: the character of the judges. Where that can be determined, true judges can be identified, and then their judgements provide a standard.

Hume’s contemporaries were not prepared to trust sentiment quite so far as he did, however. They viewed sentiment as one more subjective form of emotion. Alexander Gerard (1780) tries for a natural philosophy of taste that would provide principles of taste. Regarded in the light of a common human nature, taste can be predicted. Lord Kames’s (1762) belief in a standard of taste depends in large measure on his conviction that there is a common human nature, a view he shares with Charles Batteux (1746) in France. Most of those who regard taste as something positive in itself appeal to an assumed common nature to sort good from bad taste.

8. Imagination and expression.

Taste is a responsive faculty. Its productive parallel is the faculty of the imagination and its creative form is genius. The imagination replaces an internal sense as a source of ideas in aesthetic theories. The imagination can then be separated into distinct kinds, especially the sublime and the picturesque; John Baillie (1747), Burke (1759) and Uvedale Price (1796) all distinguish the sublime as a separate aesthetic emotion. Imagination and genius make the activity of the mind itself the source of aesthetic experience through association of ideas just as the experience of the world is the source of ideas through the senses. Archibald Alison (1790) turns associationist psychology to a different end than it originally served by combining it with a theory of the mind’s expressive powers to produce an extensive theory of aesthetic effects and predicates. Alison does not go all the way to a unique form of aesthetic pleasure, however. That is left to Romanticism in the next century that arises, especially in Germany, after Kant (1790).

9. Cultural forces.

Eighteenth-century aesthetics does not develop in cultural vacuum. In the course of the century, painters and authors changed from dependence on patronage to entrepreneurs who lived by the sale of their work. Patronage itself becomes more middle class. New economic forces mean new audiences. Private reading, professional critics, circulating libraries, salons, exhibitions, and serial publications transform aesthetic expectations. Academy exhibitions in France anticipate the museum culture that is already emerging from the classical collecting impulses of the eighteenth century and the opening of great houses and collections to picturesque tourists such as William Gilpin (1748). We should recognise that the eighteenth century is at once the root of our modern aesthetic and at the same time very different from it. We make a serious mistake if we view the century only with post-Kantian eyes.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. Eighteenth-century aesthetics, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M059-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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