1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Thomas Reid. Sir William Hamilton. John Ruskin.

(Part 27)


Thomas Reid. Sir William Hamilton. John Ruskin.

The next writer of consequence on the intuitive side is [Thomas] Reid. In the eight of his Essays on the Intellectual Powers he discusses the faculty of taste. He held, on the ground of common sense, that beauty must exist in objects independently of our minds. As to the nature of the Beautiful, he taught that all beauty resides primarily in the faculties of the mind, intellectual and moral. The beauty which is spread over the face of visible nature is an emanation from this spiritual beauty, and is beautiful because it symbolizes and expresses it. Thus the beauty of a plant resides in its perfection for its end, as an expression of the wisdom of its Creator. Reid’s theory of beauty is thus purely spiritual.

The celebrated Lectures on Metaphysics of
Sir [William] Hamilton do not, unfortunately, contain more than a slight preliminary sketch of the writer’s theory of the emotional activities. He defines pleasure, following very closely the theory of Aristotle, as "a reflex of the spontaneous and unimpeded exertion of a power of whose energy we are conscious" (vol. ii. p. 440). And, in perfect agreement with this conception, he divides the various feelings according to the faculties or powers, bodily or mental, of which they are the concomitants.

In the scheme thus faintly shadowed forth, the sentiments of Taste are regarded as subserving both the subsidiary and the elaborative faculties in cognition in other words, the Imagination and the Understanding. The activity of the former corresponds to the element of variety in the beautiful object, while that of the latter is concerned with its unity.

A beautiful thing is accordingly defined "as one whose form occupies the Imagination and Understanding in a free and full, and, consequently, in an agreeable activity" (p. 512). In this way, the writer conceives, he comprehends all pre-existing definitions of beauty.

He explicitly excludes all other varieties of pleasure, such as the sensuous, from the proper gratification of beauty. The aesthetic sentiment is thus regarded as unique and not resolvable into simpler feelings. Similarly, he denies any proper attribute of beauty to fitness.

The essence of the sentiment of sublimity he finds, much in the same way as Kant, in a mingled pleasure and pain; "of pleasure in the consciousness of the strong energy, of pain in the consciousness that this energy is vain."

He recognizes three forms of sublimity: those of Extension or space, of Protension or time, and of Intension or power.

Finally, he thinks that the Picturesque differs from the Beautiful appealing simply to the imagination. A picturesque object is one whose parts are so palpably unconnected that the understanding is not stimulated to the perception of unity.

A very like interpretation of beauty, as spiritual and typical of divine attributes, has been given by Mr.
[John] Ruskin in the second volume of his Modern Painters. This part of his work, bearing the title "Of Ideas of Beauty," has a very systematic appearance, but is in fact a singularly desultory series of aesthetic ideas put into a very charming language, and coloured by strong emotion.

Mr. Ruskin distinguishes between the theoretic faculty concerned in the moral perception and appreciation of ideas of beauty and the imaginative or artistic faculty, which is employed in regarding in a certain way and combining the ideas received from external nature. The former, he thinks, is wrongly named the aesthetic faculty, as though it were a mere operation of sense.

The object of the faculty is beauty, which Mr. Ruskin divides into typical and vital beauty. The former is the external quality of bodies that typifies some divine attribute. The latter consists in ‘the appearance of felicitous fulfillment of function in living things." The forms of typical beauty are -- (1.) Infinity, the type of the divine incomprehensibility; (2.) Unity, the type of the divine comprehensiveness; (3.) Repose, the type of the divine permanence; (4.) Symmetry, the type of the divine justice; (5.) Purity, the type of the divine energy; and (6.) Moderation, the type of government by law.

Vital beauty, again, is regarded as relative when the degree of exaltation of the function is estimated, or generic if only the degree of conformity of an individual to the appointed functions of the species is taken into account.

Mr. Ruskin’s wide knowledge and fine aesthetic perception make his works replete with valuable suggestions, though he appears wanting in scientific accuracy, and lacks, as Mr. Mill has pointed out, all appreciation of the explanatory power of association with respect to the ideal elements of typical beauty.

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