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“The Esthetic Instinct in Action”: Charles Darwin and Mental Science in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 221-244 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0054

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

If you were an esthetic philosopher you would take note of all my vagaries because here you have the spectacle of the esthetic instinct in action. The philosophic college should spare a detective for me.

(SH 186)

To finish what I was saying about beauty, said Stephen, the most satisfying relations of the sensible must therefore correspond to the necessary phases of artistic apprehension. Find these and you find the qualities of universal beauty.

(P 211)

Many critics have investigated Joyce’s use of classical, medieval, philosophical, and literary sources in creating Stephen’s theory of aesthetics in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.1 What is missing is a consideration of the theories of art and beauty articulated by contemporary scientists. No one has yet pursued the clue offered when Stephen refers to On the Origin of Species in his discussion with Lynch about aesthetics (P 209).2 It may surprise some to discover that scientists such as Charles Darwin actually thought about and worked to create theories of beauty, but, in fact, at least two mental scientists of the period theorized beauty and art, linking the aesthetics of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others to contemporary understandings of biology and physiology.3 Given that Joyce’s “method of composition was very like T. S. Eliot’s, the imaginative absorption of stray material” (JJII 250), it is not, then, surprising to discover that Joyce used these to create a scientifically plausible conception of universal beauty and the evolution of genre in art.

The three texts relevant to this study are The Descent of Man by Darwin, Mental and Moral Science by Alexander Bain (1818–1903), and Physiological Aesthetics by Grant Allen (1848–1899). Bain, the founder of the prestigious journal Mind in 1876, was a prominent philosopher and psychologist. Described on its title page as “A Text-Book For High-Schools and Colleges,” his publication was the kind that Stephen and his peers would have studied at University College, Dublin, under the guidance of their “young professor of mental science” (P 192). In fact, in Stephen Hero, O’Neill works towards a “degree in Mental and Moral Science” (SH 106). Bain’s text was, no doubt, particularly useful to students because, in addition to its clear presentation of the physiological science of the time, it provides handy lists of what previous authors such as Socrates, Aristotle, George Berkeley, and David Hume said on topics like perception, feeling, beauty, and free will. Bain notes that one of his goals in studying feelings is to improve the quality of the arts: “The Poetical and Literary Art, for example, is amenable to improvement, according as the human emotions are more exactly studied” (Science 225).

Darwin refers to Mental and Moral Science when he presents his own theory of beauty as one unlike all of the “dozen more or less different theories” Bain collects at the end of his chapter on aesthetic emotions.4 Darwin disagreed with Bain not only on the subject of beauty but also on the origin and application of sympathy. Although Bain’s text was published after 1859, it is actually a shortened version of his two-part magnum opus on psychology, The Senses and the Intellect and The Emotions and the Will.5 In A Portrait, Joyce makes use of Bain’s language and many of his ideas but takes Darwin’s side on the issues of beauty and sympathy. Joyce’s attitude towards Bain’s text may be expressed in his comparison of that professor of mental science, perhaps a stand-in for Bain himself, to “a giraffe cropping high leafage” (P 192). Since the giraffe stretching his long neck even longer to reach high leaves is the signature example of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theories, Joyce, through Stephen’s daydream,6 seems to be poking fun at the outdated Bain. In creating Stephen, Joyce fashions a character whose opinions and actions frequently support the views of Darwin, while mocking those of his contemporaries.

Allen cites both Bain and Darwin in Physiological Aesthetics but makes it clear that he is extending the ideas of both men in his own original work. On the subjects...

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