1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Dugald Stewart. Alexander Bain.

(Part 31)


Dugald Stewart. Alexander Bain.

[Dugald] Stewart’s chief merit in the aesthetic discussions, contained in his Philosophical Essays, consists in pointing out this unwarranted assumption of some single quality (other than that of producing a certain refined pleasure) running through all beautiful objects, and constituting the essence of beauty.

He shows very ingeniously how the successive transitions and generalizations in the meaning of the term beauty may have arisen. He thinks it must originally have connoted the pleasure of colour, which he recognizes as primitive.

His criticisms on the one-sided schemes of other writers, as Burke and Alison, are very able, though he himself hardly attempts any complete theory of beauty.

His conception of the Sublime, suggested by the etymology of the word, renders prominent the element of height in objects, which he conceives as an upward direction of motion, and which operates on the mind as an exhibition of power, namely, triumph over gravity.

Of the association psychologists James Mill did little more towards the analysis of the sentiment of beauty than re-state Alison’s doctrine. On the other hand, Professor
[Alexander] Bain, in his treatise The Emotions and the Will, carries this examination considerably further. He asserts with Stewart that no one generalization will comprehend all varieties of beautiful objects.

He thinks, however, that the aesthetic emotions, those involved in the fine arts, may be roughly circumscribed and marked off from other modes of enjoyment by means of three characteristics – (1.) Their not serving to keep up existence, but being gratifications sought for themselves only; (2.) Their purity from all repulsive ingredients; (3.) Their eminently sympathetic or sharable nature in contrast to the exclusive pleasures of the individual in eating, &c.

The pleasures of art are divided, according to Mr. Bain’s general plan of the mind, into (1.) The elements of sensation -- sights and sounds; (2.) The extension of these by intellectual revival -- ideal suggestions of muscular impression, touch, odour, and other pleasurable sensations; (3.) The revival, in ideal form also, of pleasurable emotions, as tenderness and power, and in a softened measure of emotion painful in reality, as fear; (4.) The immediate gratification, that is in actual form, of certain wide emotional susceptibilities reaching beyond art, namely, the elating effect of all change of impression under the forms of artistic contrast and variety; and, secondly, the peculiar delight springing from harmony among impressions and feelings, under its several aesthetic aspects, musical harmony and melody, proportion, &c.

The details in Mr. Bain’s exposition are rich and varied in relation to the psychology of the subject. He finds the effect of sublimity in the manifestation of superior power in its highest degrees, which manifestation excites a sympathetic elation in the beholder.

The Ludicrous, again, is defined by Mr. Bain, improving on Aristotle and Hobbes, as the degradation of something possessing dignity in circumstances that excite no other strong emotion. The pleasure accompanying the impression may be referred either to the elation of a sense of power or superiority ideally or sympathetically excited, or to a sense of freedom from restraint, both of which have in common the element of a joyous rebound from pressure.

Thus it will be seen that Professor Bain recognizes no new mental principle in aesthetic effects, but regards them as peculiar combinations and transformations, according to known psychological laws, of other and simpler feelings.

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