Discussions of Taste in Scottish societies

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Juan Gomez writes…

The Royal Society of London (RSL) is perhaps the most known academic society of the early modern period. Some of the most famous scientists of all time were members of this society, among them Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton, just to name a few.  The society had such an impact that it inspired intellectuals all across Europe to establish academic societies modelled on the RSL. Scotland was no exception, and arguably its philosophical societies were the birthplaces and testing grounds for some of the most influential ideas of the time. For example, Adam Smith presented at the Aberdeen Philosophical Society drafts of his work to be discussed among the members (Thomas Reid, George Campbell, and Alexander Gerard among them). This is just an example of one of the many philosophical societies established in Scotland during the eighteenth-century. In this post I wish to draw attention to one of the topics with which the enlightened members of these societies were preoccupied: the matter of taste.

One of the features of eighteenth-century British ‘aesthetics’ is the focus on the concept of taste. Perhaps the most famous discussion is found in David Hume’s essay Of the standard of taste. Hume was not the only one discussing the topic. The Scottish literati in general found this topics worthy of discussion in their learned societies.

If we examine the extant question lists of four of the most important Scottish philosophical societies (the Belles Lettres of Edinburgh (BLE), the Select Society of Edinburgh (SSE), the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (APS) and the Glasgow Literary Society (GLS)), we come up with 138 total questions regarding issues that we would now call ‘aesthetic.’ The contents of the discussions cover a wide range of issues: beauty, pleasure, and taste, as well as the characteristics of the particular arts, on particular artists, on genius, on criticism, and on the connections amongst ‘aesthetics’, morals, and society. This wide variety of topics is by itself evidence of the importance enlightened Scotsmen placed on discussing ‘aesthetic’ issues. Let’s look at some of these questions in more detail.

Pleasure

Eighteenth-century thinkers investigated of the origin of the pleasure that we experience from objects of art and how this process occurs. For example, Hutcheson focused on uniformity amidst variety, and Hume talked about qualities in the objects disposed to cause pleasure. The topic was also discussed in the learned societies:

  • In the BLE they asked “From what principle in human nature can the pleasure arising from inhuman spectacles be accounted for?”
  • In the LSG Dr. Robert Trail, Professor of Divinity at University of Glasgow read some reflections on theories concerning the sublime and beautiful.
  • In the APS George Campbell proposed to discuss a question, namely “What is the cause of that pleasure we have from representations or objects which excite pity or other painful feelings?”
  • In the SSE they considered the pleasure from the artists’ perspective asking “Whether doth one author feel more pleasure or pain.”

Taste

Taste, probably the element most commonly associated with eighteenth-century aesthetic theories, was also a topic of discussion in the meetings of the societies:

  • In the BLE, Mr. James Rose gave a discourse “on the connection of taste and judgment”
  • In Glasgow, Dr, Robert Trail read some “reflections on taste”, and Dr. William Wight, Professor of Church History, considered the following question:  “Are there any certain principles upon which we can judge of the production of poetry and the finer arts, or is there any criterion of taste?”
  • In the SSE they debated two questions regarding taste, namely, “whether a fine taste is the gift of nature or the product of experience and may be acquired?” and “whether is there any such thing as taste?”
  • The Aberdeen intellectuals also discussed the issue, proposed by James Beattie who presented two discourses on the “principles which determine our approbation in the fine arts.” They also discussed the question “Is there a standard of taste in fine arts and polite writing? And how is that standard to be ascertained?”

Genius

A closely related topic to taste, one characteristic of the eighteenth-century, was the concept of genius. This was a very popular topic and was brought up with certain frequency in the debates of each of the societies.

  • In the BLE they discussed a question, namely “What are the chief concurring circumstances that contribute most to the polishing the genius or natural parts of mankind?”
  • In Glasgow Mr. Robert Foulis, university printer gave a discourse on “the discovery and culture of genius,” and later on Mr. George Muirhead, professor of Humanity focused on one particular genius, Homer, and proposed two questions to be debated: “What is the reason we have seen no such poet as Homer arise in a savage country?” and “What were the chief causes which account for the excellences of Homer as a poet?”
  • In the SSE they also discussed the genius in particular with this historical focus, when they proposed the question “Whether are the greatest efforts of genius made at the revival of letters after an age of barbarism?”
  • The members of the APS discussed a number of questions on the topic: “In the perfection of what faculty does genius consist? Or if in a combination of faculties, what are they?”; “Whether there is any degeneracy of genius in the moderns?”; “Whether music or poetry gives the greatest scope to genius?” and “Whether any account can be given of the causes, why great geniuses have arisen at the periods which have been most remarkable for them, and why they have frequently arisen in clusters?” Alexander Gerard presented drafts of what was later to become his Essay on genius.

This is only a sample of the aesthetic topics discussed in the learned societies. In a future post, I will show how these discussions informed and aided the development of the thought of some of the most influential thinkers of the period.

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