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  • On Genius: The Development of a Philosophical Concept of Genius in Eighteenth-Century Britain

This paper examines the emergence of a philosophical concept of genius based on imagination, association, and the Lockean theory of ideas, primarily in eighteenth-century Britain. It considers the background, including the work of the Abbé Jean Baptiste Du Bos, the third earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume, but it focuses specifically on the British writers William Duff, William Sharpe, and Alexander Gerard. It does not deal with the later Kantian and post-Kantian Romantic theories of genius.


genius, Du Bos, William Duff, William Sharpe, Alexander Gerard, aesthetics

The concept of genius has a long history, reaching back as far as classical Greece, depending on how one understands the Greek daemon, the good or evil genius that guides every individual. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, genius was an allegorical figure, sometimes of dubious character. E. C. Knowlton describes its history this way: “No writer offers the same portrait of the allegorical figure Genius. After his establishment on a lofty plane by Alan of Lille, Genius steadily altered for the worse, either in power or in morality. Despite his decline in the Roman de la Rose, he still maintained respectable authority, a presence more than human, even though his supernatural nature allowed him hardly less cynicism than that expressed by the celebrated mocking chimere which adorns the parapet of the contemporary cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.”1 By the mid-sixteenth century, genius functioned primarily as a literary and critical concept. Spenser, Jonson, and Milton all understand genius allegorically as a tutelary spirit that guides a poet or inhabits a place.2 These allegorical and critical uses of “genius,” though influential in many areas, fall outside the scope of this article. It is not until the concept of genius is taken over by Kant at the end of the eighteenth century that it achieves philosophical prominence as the [End Page 555] power to create without rules. That said, Kant’s transformation of the concept is quite different from that of the philosophers in the Lockean tradition and also falls outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth-century turn to empirical theories of taste, a philosophically significant concept of genius emerged in Britain as part of theories of association and imagination. The present article examines that concept and argues that it has a certain interest in its own right as a development of empiricist aesthetics, though it remains secondary to the more central concepts of sentiment and taste. Those concepts have been extensively analyzed;3 it would be beyond the scope of this article to address this extensive literature, which is well known in the field of philosophical aesthetics. I have provided an overview of the philosophical development elsewhere.4

It is not easy to disentangle an empiricist theory of genius from the less systematic but more pervasive and equally important reliance on genius in the work of philosophically cognizant critics such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Samuel Johnson and poets such as Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and particularly Edward Young, whose Conjectures on Original Composition discusses the related concept of individual originality. Young writes, “Originals are the fairest Flowers: Imitations are of quicker growth, but fainter bloom. Imitations are of two kinds; one of Nature, one of Authors: The first we call Originals, and confine the term Imitation to the second.”5 Young also treats “genius” as a power: “What, for the most part, mean we by Genius, but the Power of accomplishing great things without the means generally reputed necessary to that end?”6 Young’s point is to provide a critical basis for comparing Dryden, Pope, and Addison and ranking them relative to established geniuses such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton. For them genius tends to become a largely conventional term [End Page 556] of approbation. As Addison notes at the beginning of The Spectator, No. 160, “There is no Character more frequently given to a Writer, than that of being a Genius.”7

The questions about original genius dealt with most frequently by poets and critics concern the roles of learning and judgment. On the one hand, truly original genius needs no guidance other than its own for the development of its intrinsic powers. For example, Thomas Gray celebrates “th’ unlettered muse”8 and the poet, critic, and philosopher James Beattie worries that learning would destroy originality. In “The Minstrel,” Beattie details an uneducated boy’s journey to become a poet,9 a journey completely free from education. On the other hand, if judgment is required, then so is received knowledge. Samuel Johnson warns against the excessive claims to individual genius and subjects genius to the discipline of learning: “Men who flatter themselves into this opinion of their own abilities, look down on all who waste their lives over books, as a race of inferior beings, condemned by nature to perpetual pupilage, and fruitlessly endeavoring to remedy their barrenness by incessant cultivation, or succor their feebleness by subsidiary strength. . . . It is however certain, that no estimate is more in danger of erroneous calculations than those by which a man computes the force of his own genius.”10 Thus, the concept of original genius, if it is more than merely a general term of approbation, is both broad and loose.

In contrast to this broad critical and poetic usage, philosophers in the empiricist tradition try to establish a concept of genius that is essentially epistemological. Their concerns about originality and the power of genius arise from John Locke’s rejection of innate ideas and his consequent tracing of all specific ideas to individual experience in the mind’s encounter with the world. The so-called “way of ideas” that is advanced in Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,11 if taken strictly, rests all knowledge on individual, atomistic experiences that can be recalled, combined in the mind, and related by association. In a looser version, the [End Page 557] emphasis is simply on experience in some form, with the mind being assigned powers and abilities that are given by nature and must be developed. Lockean empiricism undercuts the supernatural allegorical figure of genius. Only individuals have genius, which depends directly on experience like all mental powers. The question then is what distinguishes an individual as an original genius—that is, someone who does not depend on received knowledge, logic, or reason.

The immediate answer is imagination. This was codified in Addison’s series of Spectator papers on the imagination,12 in which he describes it variously as a power or a faculty but, unlike more direct followers of Locke, does not develop a corresponding theory. Nevertheless, Addison’s thinking is consistent with Locke within the scope of the more popular essays intended for the audience of the Spectator. To Addison, the function of the imagination is to extend and combine ideas provided by experience. It is the adjunct of memory. Everyone depends on memory to retain ideas, and imagination is able to combine the retained ideas both to make them present and to detach them from their original occasion and give them a new occasion. It follows that genius is an instance of the power of imagination—a mental ability that all people must to some degree possess, but which is especially active in a person who possesses the additional unique power of genius. It does not follow, however, that individual genius is inevitably a positive quality. Imagination can, quite literally, run wild. When it does, it produces chimera, hallucinations, and, in extreme cases, madness, recalling some of the connotations of earlier interpretations of “genius” as daemonic and sometimes disreputable or evil. Those connotations resurface in Romantic supernaturalism, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.

Addison and others in Britain thus employed the concept of genius in a manner different from its allegorical and crucial uses; they attached genius to imagination. Others were influenced by the Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, whose Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting appeared in 1719 and was freely translated into English from a fifth edition by Thomas Nugent in 1748.13 Du Bos is important to the development of an empiricist aesthetic [End Page 558] because, like Locke, he stresses sense and experience as opposed to reasoned critical judgments. (Paul Guyer gives an excellent summary of Du Bos’s positions in his History of Modern Aesthetics. Guyer emphasizes particularly “the idea of play with the full range of human emotions.”)14

Du Bos relates genius directly to imitation and nature, the sources of individual experience. He assigns two roles to genius. First, since works of art are products that imitate the sentiments of the artists, genius is necessary to understand the relation between sentiment and product. But imitation is not simple copying. Because experience is the basis of everything, only those whose experience allows them to perceive objects as potentially aesthetic will be artists. Second, for Du Bos, genius is necessary to discover artistic truth. “This is attainable,” he writes, “only by such as are born great poets. For them it is, that nature has reserved the privilege of uniting the marvelous and the probable, without confounding the rights and limits of either.”15 Thus, genius is the ability to perceive and discriminate. Since for Du Bos the production of art is essentially choosing objects that will produce desired sentiments, the role of genius is to perceive what can be chosen effectively: “Artists born with a genius, do not take their models from the works of their predecessors.”16 Genius is a matter of greater discrimination and skill, although skill is not the primary consideration: “ ’Tis by the design and the invention of ideas and images, proper for moving us, and employed in the executive part, that we distinguish the great artist from the plain workman, who frequently excels the former in execution.”17 Genius is the ability to invent. Skill may be learned and is secondary because “design and invention” implies only that the appropriate objects are appropriately arranged.

Thus Du Bos’s theory of imitation is naturalistic and based on experience, and genius is an extension of that naturalism. Geniuses are born, not made: “Now a person must be born with a genius, to know how to invent; but to be able to invent well, requires a long and unwearied application.”18 [End Page 559] Genius is a natural talent revealed by what it produces, and there are no marks of it except its productivity. Genius learns easily from other geniuses and then follows its own course. Thus originality is a result of genius, but it is the limited originality of proper imitation operating within the limits of experience alone.

From the standpoint of the British empiricists who read Du Bos, particularly in Nugent’s rather free translation, what is most important is that the effects of art depend on individual experience. Genius is an adjunct of a kind of experience—a power to discriminate and perceive. It is dependent on what one who possesses genius chooses to imitate, but it is inventive in its presentation of its objects within the limits of individual sensibility. It is a natural talent that one is born with, but it can be developed and requires an acquired skill. Various parts of Du Bos’s theory, particularly its subjectivism, are taken up by the followers of Locke and Shaftesbury in Britain where they free it from reliance on a concept of imitation. In particular, the issues become how originality relates to the necessity of prior experience and avoids innate ideas, the extent to which artists depend on others or are inventors of ideas, and the importance of learning and artistic skill in developing a “sense” of taste. They attempt to wed Du Bos’s naturalism to the underlying epistemology provided by Locke’s theory of ideas.

The leading empiricist philosophers in Britain in the eighteenth century—Locke, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (in his character as a pupil of Locke, but not in his neo-Platonist allegiances19), Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume—make relatively little explicit use of genius as a philosophical concept, though clearly it is part of their critical vocabulary. Instead of referring to genius, Shaftesbury focuses directly on sentiment. In his “Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author,” for example, he limits genius to a tutelary role. He writes, “They [authors] should add the wisdom of the heart to the task and exercise of the brain, in order to bring proportion and beauty into their works. That their composition and vein of writing may be natural and free, they should settle matters in the first place with themselves. And having gained a mastery there, they may easily, with the help of their genius and a right use of art, command their audience and establish a good taste.”20 Shaftesbury is significant for refocusing both the artist and the critic on internal sentiments and taste, suggesting that genius is merely a means to form sentiment. [End Page 560]

Shaftesbury’s most direct follower, Francis Hutcheson, is concerned primarily with establishing the existence of internal senses, particularly a sense of beauty and a moral sense, and sees genius as related to one’s internal sense of beauty. Hutcheson writes, “It is of no consequence whether we call these Ideas of Beauty and Harmony, Perceptions of the External Senses of Seeing or Hearing, or not. I should rather chuse [sic] to call our Power of perceiving these Ideas, an Internal Sense, were it only for the Convenience of distinguishing them from other Sensations of Seeing and Hearing, which men may have without Perception of Beauty or Harmony. . . . This greater Capacity of receiving such pleasant Ideas we commonly call a fine Genius or Taste.”21 To Hutcheson, genius is essentially an unanalyzed capacity of internal sense, and therefore a form of perception. It is synonymous with fine taste.

David Hume relies directly on sentiment rather than Hutcheson’s internal sense, and he develops a theory of taste and criticism based on sentiment itself.22 Genius plays little role in that theory. When Hume does refer to genius, his usage is essentially conventional, and it is linked to taste and the characteristics of a critic, not especially to the production of art. For example, Hume writes of genius that “the pleasure of study consists chiefly in the action of the mind, and the exercise of the genius and understanding in the discovery or comprehension of any truth.”23 Elsewhere, he writes, “In order to judge aright of a composition of genius, there are so many views to be taken in, so many circumstances to be compared, and such a knowledge of human nature requisite, that no man, who is not possessed of the soundest judgment, will ever make a tolerable critic in such performances.”24 Thus genius for Hume, as for Hutcheson, is an unanalyzed capacity of the mind. Taste can be developed, but it cannot be disputed except by appeal to evidence other than taste itself.

The post-Lockean eighteenth-century aesthetic theories in Britain that deal explicitly with genius look back to Du Bos and the questions raised by critics and poets such as Johnson and Young about how genius relates to originality, skill, and learning. However, for the empiricist philosophers who follow Locke and pay explicit attention to genius and originality, the [End Page 561] competing claims of experience and learning present special problems. Those problems are addressed directly by two writers on genius—William Duff and William Sharpe—who tried to offer a more detailed analysis of genius than Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, or Hume and a more systematic philosophical account than Addison or Du Bos. Both Duff and Sharpe follow Locke explicitly but take different sides on how the theory of ideas applies to the concept of genius. While Peter Kivy dismisses Duff as “a little bit of Gerard writ large,”25 he is worth consideration if only because of the way he focuses on the problem of individual genius and brings Locke explicitly into the discussion. Sharpe is a lesser figure but deserves attention for his explicit use of the theory of ideas.

William Duff (1732–1815) was a Scottish clergyman who studied at Marischal College, Aberdeen (MA, 1755), where he would have been exposed to the thought of Alexander Gerard and Thomas Reid, who will be discussed in more detail below. His An Essay on Original Genius was published in 1767 before Gerard published his own An Essay on Genius in 1774, although Gerard explains in the advertisement to his essay that “his plan was formed, the first part composed, and some progress made in the second part, so long ago as the year 1758.”26 Duff is of interest for his explicit attempt to follow Locke’s theory of ideas as it applies to the concept of genius. Duff asserts, “Philosophers have distinguished two general sources of our ideas, from which we draw all our knowledge, SENSATION and REFLECTION.”27 Duff then claims that genius is the product of three “ingredients” based on sensation and reflection: imagination, judgment, and taste. Imagination is both a necessary and often a sufficient condition. The other elements, judgment and taste, are necessary but not sufficient.28 Duff’s primary concern in establishing this triad is to limit genius to what original experience makes available.

His theory of genius depends on a straightforward faculty psychology. Each of the three “ingredients” is itself a mental faculty. Ideas are not innate; experience and observation must precede imagination, reason, and taste, but the faculty or power itself is innate or, at least, present from an early age, and, evidently, it varies from person to person. In this view, [End Page 562] genius is not a unique ability possessed by only a few. Its presence and exercise are matters of degree. Duff’s reliance on “powers” that can be developed is not strictly drawn from Locke, but it was widely accepted by the time that Duff was writing.

Duff relies on a theory of internal sense as the mechanism by which the faculties operate, which he attributes to a very rough translation of Cicero29 rather than to Francis Hutcheson. He goes on to explain why imagination and genius are primary: “But as no reasoning can enable a man to form an idea of what is really an object of sensation, the most penetrating judgment can never supply the want of an exquisite sensibility of taste. In order therefore to relish and to judge of the productions of Genius and of Art, there must be an internal perceptive power, exquisitely sensible to all the impressions which such productions are capable of making on a susceptible mind.”30 Thus, genius and taste are linked: genius is productive, while taste makes judgments, but all three ingredients—imagination, judgment, and taste—operate more or less automatically. They are senses, not learned. What distinguishes genius from ordinary mental capacities or powers is not what it produces but its strength.

Here Duff opens the door for originality. Presumably all people have ideas and the faculty of imagination to combine them. Ordinary people remember little and retain only conventional, imitative ideas that are neither new nor particularly interesting. A genius, on the other hand, produces original combinations:

A person who is destitute of Genius, discovers nothing new or discriminating in the objects which he surveys. . . . The descriptions of such a person (if he attempts to describe), must necessarily be unanimated, undistinguishing, and uninteresting; for as his imagination hath presented him no distinct or vivid idea of the scenes or objects he has contemplated, it is impossible he should be able to give a particular and picturesque representation of it to others. A Poet, on the other hand, who is possessed of original Genius, feels in the strongest manner every impression made upon the mind, by the influence of external objects on the senses, or by reflection on those ideas which are treasured up in the repository of memory, and is consequently qualified to express the vivacity and strength of his own feelings.31 [End Page 563]

Thus, to Duff, genius is the ability to perceive ideas and produce representations of them; the imagination is the means to “present” ideas in a certain way. Originality is a matter of the newness of the combinations, the strength of their presentation, and the vivacity with which they are “treasured up” in the memory. The key elements to determining genius are ideas and the way that they are presented. Ideas range from the mundane to the original, and only when they attain a level of strength and vivacity do they achieve originality.

Originality leads Duff to contrast sentiment or feeling with some common eighteenth-century theories of imitation in the fine arts: “Imitation indeed, of every kind, except that of nature, has a tendency to cramp the inventive powers of the mind, which, if indulged in their excursions, might discover new mines of intellectual ore, that lie hid only from those who are incapable or unwilling to dive into the recesses in which it lies buried.”32 Duff believes that for a poet, sufficient intensity of feeling yields successful poems: “He must himself be wrought up to a high pitch of extasy [sic], if he expects to throw us into it. Indeed it is the peculiar felicity of an original Author to feel in the most exquisite degree every emotion, and to see every scene he describes.”33 Nevertheless, Duff retains a fundamental sense of art as imitation; as Du Bos argued, poets imitate what they feel, so imitation is still prominent. Insofar as the fine arts are descriptions, writers imitate or express what they feel rather than imitating other writers.

Duff ranks the fine arts—poetry, painting, eloquence, music, and architecture—according to their ability to express feelings and emotions originally. Painting, particularly portrait painting, ranks low, because in Duff’s estimation painting is limited to showing what actually is, while poetry and music allow freer uses of the imagination.34 While this may suggest later Romantic theories, particularly the theory of expression in Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste,35 Duff thinks only in terms of an internal sense and the theory of ideas.

The form of original genius Duff defends leads him to choose primitive simplicity over learning in the cultivation of genius, but his naturalism is naïve: “Genius naturally shoots forth in the simplicity and tranquility of uncultivated life.”36 Praise of wildness and pastoral innocence is fairly common in mid-eighteenth-century poetry, but Duff limits such praise to the [End Page 564] productive powers of a genius for poetry. Duff is no Romantic, preferring civilized life to rude genius: “The effects of Literature and Criticism in the improvement of all the sciences and all the arts, excepting Poetry alone; and the advantages of a state of civilization, in augmenting and refining the pleasures of social life, are too obvious to require pointing out.”37

Like many other eighteenth-century thinkers, Duff thinks genius operates beyond the rules of criticism: “The last cause we shall assign why original Poetic Genius appears in its utmost perfection in the uncultivated ages of society, is, its exemption from the rules and restraints of Criticism, and its want of that knowledge which is acquired from books.”38 This claim is hardly consistent with the role he assigned earlier to judgment, but then for all of his use of the theory of ideas, Duff is not a very sophisticated thinker, and his version of the theory of ideas presents him with a number of problems with which he is not equipped to deal. What makes Duff interesting is the way he transfers a Lockean approach to genius beyond its allegorical and critical use into a philosophical discussion. Duff sets out clearly what a Lockean theory of genius must look like.

It is interesting to compare Duff to William Sharpe (1728–83), who also had philosophical pretensions and sought to analyze genius as a central concept in a theory of art and criticism. Sharpe was an Anglican divine (MA, Oxon. 1749) whose A Dissertation upon Genius (1755) was not widely known.39 Nevertheless, Sharpe is worth reading, if only in contrast to Duff and Gerard. Like Duff, Sharpe subscribes to Locke’s theory of ideas, but applies it differently to genius and especially originality. Sharpe is the stricter follower of Locke. His two primary concerns are to show that genius, like all mental operations, is an acquired power, and that originality is not a part of genius since genius must be developed based on accumulated experience. Whereas Duff and later Alexander Gerard are particularly concerned to show that the association of ideas upon which the faculty of imagination depends is unique, inventive, and original in some sense of “original,” Sharpe understands the operation of genius to be a product of education, opportunity, and diligence. In his estimation, it is a much more mundane power and does not require an internal sense.

Sharpe cites Locke explicitly40 explaining that he is determined “to [End Page 565] prove . . . that Genius, or Taste, is not the result of simple nature, not the effect of any cause exclusive of human assistance, and the vicissitudes of life; but the effect of acquisition in general.”41 His point is to defend Locke’s theory of the mind as a tabula rasa: “First, I endeavour to prove, that Genius is not differently inborn, from the manner of the acquirement of all our ideas.”42 Basically, for Sharpe, everything arises from experience, and the blank slate of the “soul” must acquire its ideas. Ideas arise from sense; reflection combines them; and comparison refines and judges the combinations. Genius, then, is the ability to make the combinations and reflect on them.

Thus, for Sharpe, genius is a talent that must be developed. Sharpe comes down on the side of learning and judgment as essential ingredients in genius, but he bases his view on Locke rather than the conservative reliance on the ancients and tradition that was typical of eighteenth-century belles lettres. Sharpe has a strictly empirical and developmental view in which genius is a matter of degree: “Therefore I argue, that nature herself is universally slow in her advances till she has received a furtherance from the help of art, and that she is less difficult in proportion, as she has this assistance, which could not be the case if the Geniuses of mankind were naturally form’d for the proficiencies and superiorities, in which they shine.”43 In contrast to those who think of genius as original, inventive, and based on imagination, for Sharpe genius is a personal accomplishment based on study and learning. Every man develops his own genius: “So it is with the understanding, every man is, if not the founder, yet the refiner and polisher, of his own Genius; he can suspend or invigorate its applications at pleasure, and make it rise to importance, or let it sink into insignificancy.”44 Sharpe would find Duff’s insertion of originality into the development of genius to be problematic because it cedes too much to an original power of the mind, which, for Sharpe, must begin as a tabula rasa.

Duff and Sharpe are, admittedly, minor philosophers whose primary contribution is to help refocus discussion in the direction of a philosophical concept of genius along Lockean lines. Alexander Gerard’s An Essay on Genius (1774) offers a much clearer philosophical application of the theory of ideas to the concept of genius, focusing much more directly on a theory of association than the rather simplistic Lockean empiricism of Duff and Sharpe. Gerard’s interest in genius comes as an extension of his detailed [End Page 566] theory of taste articulated in An Essay on Taste (1759) supposedly written at the urging of David Hume.

Like Hutcheson and Hume, Gerard treats taste as a subjective product of sentiment or feeling. Following Hutcheson, Gerard uses the concepts of an internal sense and association to explain that subjectivity. However, Gerard’s use of an internal sense, which he called a reflex act, must be severely qualified. Gerard distinguishes two ways to consider taste: “It may be considered either a species of sensation, or as a species of discernment. . . . Taste considered in the former of these lights, in respect of what we may call its direct exercise, cannot properly admit any standard. . . . But not withstanding this, there may be a standard of taste in respect of its reflex acts: and it is only in respect of these, that a standard should be sought for.”45 This distinction effectively distances Gerard from Hume’s more radical reliance on sentiment and Hutcheson’s elaborate theory of an internal sense. Gerard depends on a species of induction to correct immediate sensation and avoid the subjectivity of taste. In An Essay on Genius, this reliance becomes explicit: “For this reason it requires long time, favourable opportunities, and incessant attention, to collect such a number of facts concerning any of the mental powers, as will be sufficient for deducing conclusions concerning them, by a just and regular induction.”46 He never seems to face the skeptical problems about the origin and status of ideas that haunt Hume, who acknowledges that based on taste alone, there can be no disputing about taste.

As with earlier theories of taste and genius, Gerard’s own theories rest on a theory of the imagination. Imagination acts to exercise the mind and is the faculty that combines reflective ideas supplied by fancy. It is freed from the need for the actual presence of external sources that limit the external senses, though its ideas must originate with external sense as they do for all eighteenth-century empiricists who follow Locke. When the imaginative exercise of the mind falls within a moderate range, it is experienced as pleasurable. That discomfort results if the mind’s activity is either too languid and easy or too excited and difficult is a basic critical premise established by Du Bos. These were initially the controlling principles of Gerard’s discussion. Gerard uses taste as a vehicle to explain the faculty of the imagination—but with a great deal of equivocation. He is not always consistent, and sometimes he seems to forget that the problem of taste arose [End Page 567] because an internal sense would lack the objective checks and confirmations provided by an external sense.

An Essay on Taste examines several problems: (1) what kind of sense an internal sense is; (2) whether Gerard follows Hume and treats sense and the resulting impressions as ideas or whether he follows his friend and colleague, Thomas Reid, and understands perception as realist so that ideas of beauty have an objective reality of their own; (3) whether taste is critical and thus belongs to the audience for art, or whether it is part of the artist’s ability to produce poems, paintings, etc.; and (4) whether and how there can be a standard of taste. Throughout, Gerard is inconsistent and conflicted about the role of taste. He follows Hume up to a point but gives judgment an independent role and ends with Reid. Gerard cannot accept the degree of subjectivity that Hume gives to taste.

The most apparent difference between An Essay on Taste and An Essay on Genius is that reference to internal sense largely disappears and is replaced by a simple, unanalyzed faculty or power. Imagination, which is important to taste in both Essays, replaces internal sense as the key concept. In An Essay on Genius, imagination is one of four powers—sense, memory, imagination, and judgment—and imagination is the most important for genius. Gerard conceives of imagination as essentially an ability to recall, rearrange, and select among the ideas provided by sense. It depends on sense initially, then on memory and judgment. Genius as a power or faculty is the activity of imagination. While some individuals are endowed with greater powers of imagination, the basic ability is the same for all.

Gerard attributes the power of imagination to sentiment, but he is not prepared to cede mental control to sentiment. For Gerard’s colleague and mentor, Thomas Reid, sentiment is limited by common sense, the mind’s power to grasp reality. There are simply some things that the mind, by its very nature, cannot not believe. Gerard is somewhat vaguer than Reid about how sentiment is limited and sees judgment as independent from what imagination produces.

Thus, genius is divided between a genius for science and a genius for the fine arts. Genius in science is limited to imagining experiments and their possible outcomes. It is projective, sometimes leaping ahead of what is already known, but ultimately it produces truth. The model is Baconian induction. Experience is initially random, then ordered as the imagination conceives experiments that then produce general theories that are confirmed by further experience. A scientific genius such as Newton sees in experience what lesser observers cannot see until they are shown the way.

Genius in the fine arts, in contrast, is unique. What would be a failure [End Page 568] in science—eccentricity and flights of fancy independent of nature—can be a virtue in the fine arts. Thus, the role of imagination in the arts is different from its role in science. In line with Du Bos, in the fine arts, what matters is the effect, and judgment is the ability to foresee that effect. Gerard believes that genius has an ability to produce imaginative combinations of words, images, or sounds that will be pleasing to audiences that could not have imagined them for themselves.

By distinguishing genius in science from genius in the fine arts, Gerard defines two different concepts of originality or inventiveness at work. As we saw earlier, originality is a contested concept for eighteenth-century theories of genius. Science is never original in the sense of creating something truly new; it begins with observation and proceeds by induction. So on Gerard’s view, science has a limited capacity for originality. Newton may be a demi-god, but his originality is only that of the first in line. Artists, on the other hand, have no predecessors. What they produce is one of a kind. Whenever something is original, all subsequent forms of the same kind of work will be, to some extent, imitations. Gerard is aware of this difference and the difficulty it raises for artists, and he tries to resolve it by finding a limited, but positive sense of “imitation.”

Like Du Bos, Gerard adheres to a positive sense of imitation even as his reliance on individual experience makes it problematic. In both science and the fine arts, imitation requires accurate observation. Newton imitates nature in the sense that his perception is drawn directly from nature. What later scientists learn from Newton, he has learned from nature itself. That cannot be what artists do, however. When artists were instructed by the common Augustan dictum “to follow nature” that did not account for the kind of originality that Gerard was prepared to grant them. What they imagine might well no longer have any natural origin. According to Gerard’s theory of genius, then, imitation in the arts is not imitation of nature but imitation of what is natural. What is required is consistency and recognizable emotions. A poem that is drawn from nature might be criticized as unnatural if no reader could believe what it describes, but it might be considered natural if it is about beings that exist only in fantasy, provided that they are believable. As Aristotle says, “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility”47—but Aristotle relates what is natural to universals while Gerard derives what is natural from what can be experienced in nature. [End Page 569]

Gerard’s theory of genius breaks from earlier theories of imagination in that it is primarily about association. In fact, direct references to genius disappear from part 2, sections 2 and 3 of An Essay on Genius, as Gerard works out his basic theory of association before applying it to genius. Association is the mechanism by which imagination works. Gerard identifies three principles of association, citing both Hume and Henry Home, Lord Kames: “The simple principles of association may be reduced to three, resemblance, contrariety, and vicinity.”48 Whenever ideas suggest a resemblance between their objects, the mind will move easily from one to the other; the hero of one poem will suggest another, and the idea of a hero will suggest other kinds of hero. Further,

Not only the prevalence of different forms of the same associating principle, is sufficient for producing very dissimilar turns of genius; but also one of these forms only operating in somewhat different manners, has force enough to mark genius with a perceptible peculiarity. An image is always connected with a subject by resemblance: but the image may be applied either in a comparison or in a metaphor; and one person is led by the turn of his imagination chiefly to the use of the one, and another person chiefly to the use of the other of these figures.49

Equally, if ideas are contrary, the same ease of movement will take place; a hero may suggest a villain, and the idea of a hero may suggest other kinds of characters. Vicinity, however, is a little different; it is not necessarily spatial, but more of a mental field. A reader may easily associate two poems by the same author on the same subject, even though they are quite different. Thus the varieties of genius can increase: “The separate principles of association being so numerous as they are, must be susceptible of an almost infinite number of combinations; and every possible combination of them constitutes a new ground of union among perceptions, which will be subservient to genius.”50 Therefore, “When differences so minute in the form of the same associating principles, can give a peculiar turn to the imagination, there must evidently be room for a prodigious variety in genius.”51 There will be as many varieties of genius as there are geniuses, since all will vary, just as the concept of genius as imagination varies. [End Page 570]

To relate genius to association, one must consider the nature of the relation. To produce genius, imagination “requires a peculiar vigor of association. In order to produce it, the imagination must be comprehensive, regular, and active.”52 As noted earlier, Gerard’s problem is that his characterization of genius as imaginative activity quickly becomes very broad. All people have the ability to exhibit some degree of genius, and so there are as many varieties of genius as there are people who can imagine with vigor. All thought is built on an association of ideas, and all association is combining and re-combining ideas in new ways. The distinctions that Gerard offers—comprehensive, regular, and active—are vague. This is a typical problem with theories of association. Associations can be random. Judgment must be employed to distinguish among associations, but in the case of the kind of invention needed for artistic genius, newness is just what is required. A broad sense of “genius” and a more specific sense are at work simultaneously. The old sense of genius that appeared in earlier critical theories—something undisciplined, even something quirky, dangerous, and mad—hovers in the background.

Gerard has an incomplete version of the theory of ideas drawn from Locke and Hume, and he cannot completely reconcile it with his commitments to realism about the world, which he draws from Thomas Reid. Reid introduces common sense as the way to make distinctions among different associations, but that does not work for genius as Gerard conceives it because genius may defy common sense. This conflict between the subjectivity of sentiment in imagination and realism about its objects, especially such objects as beauty, arises as soon as one introduces judgment. Gerard writes, “Judgment cannot by its own power suggest a train of ideas, but its determinations often put fancy into a new track, and enable it to extend its views. Imagination can introduce ideas only by means of their connexion with some present perception from which it sets out in search of them: and this perception is in many cases no other than a decision of judgment. Every review that judgment takes of this production of genius, discovers some relation of parts.”53 This is as close as Gerard comes to articulating the relation among ideas, imagination, and judgment. Ideas come from perception, the standard Lockean theory of ideas. Imagination is a train of ideas suggested by association. Judgment is then a reflection on the train of ideas that are produced by imagination through fancy. Judgment is a relation of ideas, therefore, and consequently part of the association of ideas—but it remains unclear how the associations themselves should be judged. [End Page 571]

Thus Gerard is led back to sentiment and sensibility as forms of judgment. Genius is the result of sensibility: “He [an inferior poet] feels not the passion, he has not force of genius or sensibility of heart sufficient for conceiving how it would affect a person who felt it, or for entering into the sentiments which it would produce in him. The sentiments which he makes him utter, might all be very proper in a description, a discourse, or a meditation, occasioned by the view of such an object; but they are not natural to a person in whom that object produces a suitable passion.”54 Genius for the fine arts is thus an extraordinarily higher degree of sensibility, combined with an imitation of what is, or seems, natural. This kind of association is peculiar to the arts, while the inductive associations that drive science are controlled by reason. Gerard continues: “To give a just representation of the passions, is one of the greatest efforts of genius; and it can be accomplished only by following those paths into which the passions naturally direct the thoughts. But the influence of the passions on the succession of our ideas, though thus important, relates only to one species of genius, genius for the arts.”55 Compare this to Duff’s claim that the poet must feel what he describes.56

Considering sensibility leads back to one of the conditions for genius: vigor. “Genius has, in some men, great force and compass: but a vigorous construction of the associating principles is sufficient to account for it, however great it be; for if they be vigorous, any one perception may introduce a great multitude of others, and that by means of many different relations.”57 Once again, genius is a matter of degree. All people will have ideas and perceptions, and the associating principles will apply to everyone. Genius will be distinguished by the vigor of associations. This is not completely consistent with the need for judgment, however, because enthusiasm may threaten judgment. Judgment cannot be as subjective as sentiment alone.

Gerard creates a further problem by treating sensations and ideas as distinct. He explains: “The present perception which introduces others, by means of the relations that they bear to it, may be either a sensation of an object, or only an idea of it. In whichever of these ways the object be perceived, it has the very same relations to others; and therefore in both cases it has a tendency to suggest the very same ideas. But it will not always suggest them with the same force or certainty in these two cases.”58 At the [End Page 572] same point, Reid denies the distinction between sensation and ideas because it separates idea and object. Perception is just the mind’s apprehension of an object; there is no gap between sensation and idea into which skepticism can insert a wedge, which is Reid’s objection to Hume and the Lockean way of ideas. Interestingly, Gerard seems to follow Hume rather than Reid by recognizing a distinction based on the strength of ideas.

One is left with the conclusion that there is nothing unique about genius itself. Instead, genius is a basic means for applying the principles of association. One might call genius applied imagination. Only when originality or inventiveness is at issue does a particular variety of genius single out a genius for the fine arts: “Where truth is the object, the passions can produce only prejudices fit to lead away from it. But genius for the arts can never exist where the passions have not great power over the imagination, in affecting the train and associations of perceptions. An imagination easily affected by the passions is peculiar to genius for the arts; and it is essential to it in all the forms which it can assume.”59 Note, however, that taste has largely disappeared. Whereas in An Essay on Taste, judgment was called upon to discriminate between the products of genius, now the passions reign.

Thus Gerard’s theory of genius is interesting for several reasons. It applies a theory of association to imagination and produces a unique theory of genius in the fine arts that anticipates future Romantic theories without abandoning altogether the basic eighteenth-century theories of sentiment, imagination, and taste. Gerard’s theory of genius promotes the passions to a degree that his earlier theory of taste did not. It stands somewhere between Hume’s direct reliance on sentiment and Reid’s rejection of the theory of ideas in favor of a common-sense realism. As a theory of association, it is more conceptual than the mechanistic versions found in David Hartley and Joseph Priestly. But it is not consistent, sometimes echoing Hume’s dependence on sentiment and sometimes Reid’s conceptual realism. It should be viewed, I think, as a transition between the strict reliance on sentiment found in Hume’s Treatise and the Romanticism that emerged after Kant’s Third Critique.

Eighteenth-century British theories of genius, based as they are on the emerging empiricist philosophy of Locke, Hutcheson, and Hume, transform the concept. They differ from the later theories of Kant and the Romantics, even though they anticipate many of the issues that occupy Kant, Schiller, and Hegel as well as the Romantic poets. In eighteenth-century Britain, genius, as Gerard recognized, is dialectically related to [End Page 573] taste. Taste experiences and judges. Genius produces art and requires judgment. As Pope put it, “In Poets as true genius is but rare, / True Taste as seldom is the Critic’s share.”60 Taste and genius go together.

The eighteenth-century British theories of genius based on imagination and association, particularly as extending from Gerard’s theory of taste, have a claim to our attention independent of the Romantic theories with which genius is most often associated. In Gerard’s An Essay on Genius, genius is given an explicitly philosophical role in the specifically empiricist form of aesthetic theory developed in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. But Gerard’s theory, particularly its ambivalence about how much independence can be granted to sentiment, limits its influence. Archibald Alison develops an independent theory of expression that is more naturalistic and does not require genius,61 and others in the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Dugald Stewart,62 likewise do not depend on genius as part of their theories of taste. One might say that genius is important philosophically in the mid-eighteenth century mainly because it maintains the connections with more directly critical theories while giving them an empiricist, philosophical development. In that respect, it is a transitional concept, and its principle advocate, Gerard, is a transitional figure. It is, I believe, of continuing interest, however, to see how the issues came into focus in eighteenth-century Britain where, arguably, philosophical aesthetics began. [End Page 574]

Dabney Townsend
Georgia Southern University.


1. E. C. Knowlton, “Genius as an Allegorical Figure,” Modern Language Notes 39, no. 2 (1924): 94–95.

2. D. T. Starnes, “The Figure Genius in the Renaissance,” Studies in the Renaissance 11 (1964): 234–44.

3. From among an extensive literature, see, for example, Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Origins of Aesthetic Disinterestedness,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20 (1961): 131–43; Stolnitz, “The Aesthetic Attitude in the Rise of Modern Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (1978): 409–22; George Dickie, The Century of Taste (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Peter Kivy, The Seventh Sense, second ed. revised and enlarged (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003); and particularly Paul Guyer, A History of Modern Aesthetics: Volume I, The Eighteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

4. Dabney Townsend, “From Shaftesbury to Kant,” The Journal of the History of Ideas 48 (1987): 287–305; and Townsend, “The Interaction of Art and Nature: Shifting Paradigms in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy,” in The Reasons of Art, ed. Peter J. McCormick (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1985): 215–21.

5. Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition. In a Letter to the Author of Sir Charles Grandison (London: A. Millar and R. and J. Dodsley, 1759), 10.

6. Young, Conjectures, 27.

7. Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 160, Monday, September 3, 1711 in Eighteenth-Century Critical Essays, ed. Scott Elledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1961), 1:27.

8. Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” line 81.

9. James Beattie, “The Minstrel,”

10. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No. 154, Saturday, September 7, 1751, in The Works of Samuel Johnson, New Cambridge Ed., vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Cooperative Society, 1912), 260.

11. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). See also John W. Yolton, Locke and the Way of Ideas (1956; Bristol: Thommes Press, 1996).

12. Addison, The Spectator, Nos. 411–21, June 21, 1712 – July 3, 1712, in Elledge, Eighteenth-Century Critical Essays, 1:41–76.

13. Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting and Music, Two Volumes, trans. Thomas Nugent (London: Printed for John Nourse, at the Lamb, opposite Katherine Street in the Strand, 1748); Beaux-arts histoire: Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (Paris: École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1993). I quote from Nugent’s translation as the text most likely to be used in Britain in the eighteenth century, though it is sometimes a free translation. The French is given from the modern edition.

14. Guyer, A History of Modern Aesthetics, 1:78.

15. Du Bos, Nugent, 1: 198–99; “Il ne me paraît donc pas possible d’enseigner l’art de concilier le vraisemblable et le merveilleux. Cet art n’est qu’à la portée de ceux qui sont nés poètes et grands poètes,” Beaux-arts histoire 1: 81.

16. Du Bos, Nugent, 1: 188; “Les artisans nés avec du génie ne prennent point pour modèles les ouvrages de leurs devanciers mais la nature même,” Beaux-arts histoire 1: 77.

17. Du Bos, Nugent, 2: 3 [misnumbered 5]; “C’est à l’intention du peintre ou du poète, c’est à l’invention des idées et des images propres à nous émouvoir, et qu’il met en oeuvre pour exécuter son intention, qu’on distingue le grand artisan du simple manoeuvre, qui souvent est plus habile ouvrier que lui dans l’exécution,” Beaux-arts histoire 2: 172.

18. Du Bos, Nugent, 2: 4; “Or il faut être né avec du génie pour inventer, et l’on ne parvient même qu’à l’aide d’une longue étude à bien inventer,” Beaux-arts histoire 2: 172.

19. Townsend, “Shaftesbury’s Aesthetic Theory,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41, no. 2 (Winter 1982): 205–13 and Townsend, “Lockean Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 49, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 349–61.

20. Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. John M. Robertson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill company, 1964), 180–81.

21. Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (London: printed for J. Darby, etc., 1725), essay I, sec. 1, para. 10, 7–8.

22. See Townsend, Hume’s Aesthetic Theory: Taste and Sentiment (London: Routledge, 2001).

23. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selbe-Bigge; revised Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), bk. 1, pt. 3, sec. 10, para. 6/13, 121.

24. Hume, “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1987), 5–6.

25. Kivy, “Genius and the Creative Imagination” in The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century, ed. James A. Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 481.

26. Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Genius (London: Printed for W. Strahan; T. Cadell in the Strand and W. Creech at Edinburgh, 1774).

27. William Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, ed. John L. Mahoney (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1978), 87.

28. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 6.

29. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 11.

30. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 16.

31. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 158–59.

32. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 131–32.

33. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 177.

34. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 190.

35. Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790) (Edinburgh: printed for Bell & Bradsute, etc., 1811; Hildesheim: Olms, 1968).

36. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 271–72.

37. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 274.

38. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 273.

39. William Bruce Johnson, introduction to William Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius (London: printed for C. Bathurst, 1755; Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1973), xvi.

40. Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius, 5.

41. Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius, 6.

42. Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius, 7.

43. Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius, 61.

44. Sharpe, A Dissertation upon Genius, 129.

45. Gerard, An Essay on Taste, fac. of third edition (1780; Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1963), 214–16.

46. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 3.

47. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Ingram Bywater, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), (chap. 24, 1460a), 1482.

48. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 109.

49. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 222.

50. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 196.

51. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 223.

52. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 41.

53. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 91–92.

54. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 172.

55. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 149.

56. Duff, An Essay on Original Genius, 177.

57. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 185.

58. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 185.

59. Gerard, An Essay on Genius, 356.

60. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, lines 11–12.

61. Townsend, “Alison on Aesthetic Experience and Expression,” British Journal of Aesthetics 28, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 132–44.

62. Townsend, “Dugald Stewart on Beauty and Taste,” The Monist 90, no. 2 (April 2007): 271–86.

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