The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: A Study in Divine Semiotics

By Stephen H. Daniel | Go to book overview

VII

THE KNOWLEDGE OF BEAUTY

The centrality of a doctrine of beauty in Edwards' philosophy contrasts markedly with the general subordination of aesthetics in modern philosophy. The previous chapter partially indicated why the concept of beauty or excellence plays such a prominent role in his thought. For Edwards, insofar as anything exists at all, it exists as the disposition to that which transcends it and which, in virtue of that transcendence, gives it significance. The beauty or excellence of a thing consists in its relations to others. Since the very existence of a thing consists in those relations, the ontological and aesthetic dimensions of the thing cannot ultimately be differentiated, without reducing its moral relations to mere accidents.

As Edwards demonstrates in his discussions of virtue, the attempt by theorists like Francis Hutcheson to establish a firmer foundation for judgments of value by appealing to a moral sense provides no ontological justification for such a move.1 What is needed, he suggests, is a theory that explains how virtue not only is recognized, but also contains the grounds for its own validation.

By insisting on this need to identify virtue in terms of that which provides for its rationale, Edwards appeals to an ontology that does not employ terms like virtue, beauty, or excellence without attempting as well to show the a priori conditions for how such terms can have meaning. As Edwards recognizes, to say that virtue is the consent of being to Being or that excellence is the agreement of one thing with another begs not only the question of what is meant by consent or agreement, but also the question of what strategy of thought could justify such definitions.

Accordingly, his explanation of the meanings of consent and agreement rejects the mentality of substantialist predication in terms of which most of his expositors attempt to describe his thought. Within that mentality virtue and beauty become honorific titles mutually applied to one another (as in "the beauty of virtue"). Furthermore, notions of consent, agreement, fitness, proportion, and harmony, are thrown around with such abandon that one often gets the impression that the meanings of such terms must certainly be self-evident.

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1
On the historical relations of Edwards' moral theory, the most useful sources are: Paul Ramsey, introduction, notes, and appendix 2 ( "Jonathan Edwards on Moral Sense, and the Sentimentalists") in Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey; and Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards's Moral Thought and Its British Context.

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