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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 439-453

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Beauty and Utility in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics

Paul Guyer

There was considerable debate about the relationship between beauty and utility in eighteenth-century aesthetic theories from Shaftesbury to Kant. But nobody gave a plausible account of this relationship until Kant, and even he failed to give an extensive statement of the key premise on which his solution to this puzzle rests, or even an explicit statement of his solution, at least until many sections after he had first presented his solution. In this paper, I will try to make Kant's analysis of the relationship between beauty and utility clear and to expose the philosophical assumption on which his solution rests.

The debate about beauty and utility began with the third Earl of Shaftesbury. In a well-known passage of The Moralists, Shaftesbury's spokesman Theocles argues that "the property or possession" of the object of a vista, such as a vale or an orchard, is not necessary for "the enjoyment of the prospect," and then continues to press his interlocutor Philocles:

Suppose that, being charmed as you seem to be with the beauty of those trees under whose shade we rest, you should long for nothing so much as to taste some delicious fruit of theirs; and having obtained of Nature some certain relish by which these acorns or berries of the wood become as palatable as the figs or peaches of the garden, you should afterwards, as oft as you revisited these groves, seek hence the enjoyment of them by satiating yourself in these new delights. [End Page 439]

Philocles replies that a "fancy of this kind" would be "sordidly luxurious" and "absurd." In other words, he agrees that the enjoyment of a beautiful prospect is not dependent upon the possibility of the consumption of anything in it and hence upon possession of it, on which the possibility of consumption might in turn depend. 1 This insistence upon the independence of the response to beauty from the possibility of possession of an object and any property of it, the enjoyment of which might depend upon its possession, such as its utility, is often thought to be the origin of the supposedly characteristic eighteenth-century doctrine that aesthetic response and its expression in a judgment of taste must be disinterested.

Now it is clear that Shaftesbury himself did not think that the independence of the response to beauty from the sordidly luxurious fancy of consumption implies that there is no relationship between beauty and utility. For in a passage in the Characteristics's concluding "Miscellaneous Reflection" he states that the same sorts of shapes, proportions, symmetry, and order that make objects beautiful also make them well-adapted to activity, and thus that beauty and utility "are plainly joined":

'Tis impossible we can advance the least in any relish or taste of outward symmetry and order, without acknowledging that the proportionate and regular state is the truly prosperous and natural in every subject. The same features which make deformity create incommodiousness and disease. And the same shapes and proportions which make beauty afford advantage by adapting to activity and use. Even in the imitative or designing arts . . . the truth or beauty of every figure is measured from the perfection of Nature in the just adapting of every limb and proportion to the activity, strength, dexterity, life and vigour of the particular species or animal designed.

Thus beauty and truth are plainly joined with the notion of utility and convenience, even in the apprehension of every ingenious artist, the architect, the statuary, or the painter. 2 Shaftesbury's immediate interest, here, however, is in analogizing the inward beauty of the mind sought in morality to the external beauty of bodies sought in the arts, and in arguing that philosophy is necessary to achieve the former, just as artistry is necessary to achieve the latter. He does not therefore spend any time explaining precisely how beauty and utility are "plainly joined" and how, if at all, they also differ. The net result is that Shaftesbury persuaded...


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