- The Beauty of Judgment
Some three hundred years after the "invention of the aesthetic" in the eighteenth century, its values of disinterestedness, impartiality, and objectivity have come to seem outmoded if not hopelessly naïve. We are so accustomed to seeing aesthetic disinterest as a fig leaf concealing the nakedness of self-interest and ideological partiality, that it has become all but impossible to imagine the circumstances that called forth such an unusual project in the first place. As the ironies of history would have it, we can only understand the aesthetic through the lens of the very ideologies it was designed to combat, the reductive and debunking hermeneutics of a Hobbes or a Mandeville.
Resisting this temptation, Karen Valihora's Austen's Oughts sets out to trace the development of the aesthetic across the century from the viewpoint of its own architects, rather than following the tradition of such debunking hermeneutics. Deliberately embracing neoclassical aesthetic values, Valihora describes how the aesthetic emerged in response to particular developments within empiricism. She reconstitutes sympathetically the justifications that gave rise to the aesthetic project in the first place and reminds us what it was that this project ideally hoped to achieve. Drawing attention to empiricism's difficulties with conceptualizing the practice of judgment, she shows how aesthetics [End Page 106] developed as a series of attempts to secure incontrovertible standards, not only for aesthetic judgment, but also for moral judgment. Indeed, Valihora rightly sees the efforts to secure the threatened capacity for judgment against empiricist encroachment as one of the defining intellectual struggles of the period: "'Just judgment' is the most pressing problem of the literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century" (40). Ultimately, she argues that Austen's fiction is best understood as a sophisticated redeployment of a neoclassical aesthetics and its moral concerns, against the growing number of its detractors (27).
The story Valihora tells is compelling. She begins with Locke, who sets the terms for the problem of judgment as well as for its acceptable solution by privileging the immediacy of sensation. Although Locke attempts to sequester judgment to the margins of his theory of mind, Valihora shows that judgment is ubiquitous and built into even the simplest sensations. Nevertheless, following Locke's valorization of sensation, we find that throughout the century, the grounds for moral judgment are sought in some form of moral feeling or moral sense. For Valihora, it is Shaftesbury who capitalizes on the turn to sense made possible by Locke, locating the capacity for moral discrimination in a sensus communis. Though many have taken Shaftesbury for a moral intuitionist because of this, Valihora astutely shows that his "common sense" is anything but immediate (41); it must be carefully crafted through a practice of mental discipline and aesthetic reflection, thereby opening wide the space of judgment only implicit in Locke. If Shaftesbury must be credited with a profound contribution to the period's thinking, it lies here, in the way that perceiving aesthetic forms enables moral judgment. Aesthetic theory in the period is an ongoing effort to make good on Shaftesbury's promise of a deep link between acquiring aesthetic experience and cultivating moral sense.
Subsequent chapters follow the vicissitudes of an aestheticized moral judgment in Hume and Smith, as well as in Richardson's Clarisssa. Chapter 2 shows Hume adapting Shaftesbury's sensus communis as the "sentiment of humanity," even as he reveals the difficulties generated by the recourse to moral sense: the tension between the objectivity and relativity of moral values (123); the simultaneous desire for immediacy and aesthetic distance (117-18, 120); the circularity of the appeal to moral sense (110, 112). By opposing a moral sublime—an individualized rather than social sense of morality, "beyond the conventional" (132)—to the sentiment of humanity, Hume explores the paradoxes of relying on a sensus communis or shared sense of morality and beauty. As Valihora explains, "Frequent references to the sublime generate a tension with this system, . . . suggest[ing] something prior to the community of feeling that frames the work of art" (133). She...