chapter

Introduction

In Britain as well as on the Continent, the eighteenth century was witness to the rise of a so-called ‘science of aesthetics’ as an autonomous field of intellectual theorising. Whereas in the past the onus of theoretical reflection had mainly been put on poetry, the Age of Enlightenment gradually included the other arts in the discourse on the beautiful. Theorist after theorist endeavoured to define and understand man’s ‘sense of beauty’, that is, man’s peculiar ability to be moved by beautiful objects, whether natural or man-made. This discussion was multifarious. In Britain, there is no doubt that Joseph Addison’s celebrated Essays on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’, published in the Spectator in 1712, 1 proved greatly influential, especially as they introduced a new perspective concerning the importance of the perceiving subject in the enjoyment of a beautiful object. Whereas the classical tradition upheld by the scholastics of yore insisted on the respect of the formal rules of composition, handed down from master to pupil generation after generation, Addison based his approach on the new epistemology resulting from the discoveries of Newton and, above all, Locke. 2 According to the latter, man’s knowledge depended on the gradual accumulation, in time, of information conveyed to the mind by the senses. There were no innate ideas, Locke asserted, and the ‘blank page’ of the mind had to be filled by data gathered from the outer world. Time itself thus became an essential element in the acquisition of knowledge. This implied moreover that knowledge became much more relative than before, since no two persons could have exactly the same experience and their respective knowledge was then bound to differ. This entailed a general theory of relativity and tolerance. In the Essays on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’, Addison thus turned his back on the prescriptive dogmatism of the past and, instead, laid the emphasis on man’s personal response to the stimuli provided by the contemplation of a beautiful scene or object.