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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 67-87
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The Concept of Disinterestedness in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics
1. "Aesthetic Disinterestedness" and Modern Aesthetics
IT WOULD BE COMMONPLACE TO OBSERVE that it is only in the eighteenth century that the various matters now comprised under the name of aesthetics--say, beauty and related qualities, in art and in nature, and the experiences and activities of human beings in relation to these--are first brought together as a single field of philosophical concern. It would also be commonplace to observe that British philosophical writers such as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, and Francis Hutcheson, played a major part in this development. The interesting question is: what part did they play?
According to one view, the major contribution of these writers to the development of aesthetics was to identify disinterestedness as the distinguishing mark of aesthetic experience. This view owes to the work of Jerome Stolnitz. 1 For Stolnitz, writing some forty years ago, the concept of disinterested perception was the core of the concept of the aesthetic attitude, and consequently central to the definition [End Page 67] of aesthetics itself. 2 From his perspective, to show the origins of this concept in the work of eighteenth-century writers was at once to enhance the philosophical interest of those writers and to demonstrate the durability of the concept itself by lending it a venerable pedigree. 3 Today, the theory of the aesthetic attitude has little role in philosophy other than as a dummy set up in aesthetics courses to be knocked down by the onslaughts of George Dickie. 4 Yet Stolnitz's account of the origins of the central concept of that theory, the concept of disinterested perception, retains an influence that the theory itself has long lost. 5 Philosophers and others writing about eighteenth-century aesthetic thought continue to attribute such a concept to Shaftesbury and his successors, and continue to cite Stolnitz's essay as authority for such an attribution. 6
If Stolnitz's view of history were correct, then the aesthetic thought of Shaftesbury and the rest would be of note chiefly as the source of a now discredited (or at least discarded) idea. I shall argue, however, that his historical view is [End Page 68] not correct at all. The writers Stolnitz discusses are indeed sources of modern aesthetic thought, but they are not sources of the concept that he purports to find in them, that of so-called "aesthetic disinterestedness." Some of them used the concept of disinterestedness--not Stolnitz's technical concept, but the ordinary one--in their various accounts of our enjoyment of beautiful things, but for none of them did it characterize a specifically aesthetic mode of perception, a specifically aesthetic mode of attention, or a specifically aesthetic mode of anything else. The nearest thing that any of these writers had to a concept of "the aesthetic" was the concept of taste, which differs from Stolnitz's concept of the aesthetic in several essential respects; notably in that it is not defined (though it is sometimes characterized) by the concept of disinterestedness. The decline of the theory of the aesthetic attitude therefore should not be allowed to take the eighteenth-century writers with it: they are worth recovering from Stolnitz's own recovery attempt. I shall return to these matters at the end of this essay.
The chief writers discussed by Stolnitz are, in chronological order, Shaftesbury, Addison, Hutcheson, and Archibald Alison. 7 I shall discuss these writers, and Stolnitz's accounts of them, in that order, after which I shall draw some general historical conclusions. Before that, though, some preliminary clarifications must be made.
2. What is "Aesthetic Disinterestedness"?
There are, so far as I am aware, three distinct senses in which the word "disinterested" is used outside of philosophy. (1) Frequently, indeed perhaps more often than not these days, it carries the sense of "uninterested." Such a use of the word, for all the disgust and distress that it causes to the verbally...