Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Feigning Fictions: Imagination, Hypothesis, and Philosophical Writing in the Scottish Enlightenment

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Feigning Fictions: Imagination, Hypothesis, and Philosophical Writing in the Scottish Enlightenment

Article excerpt

Imagination, fictionality, the experience of pleasure, and the appreciation of beauty have long been grouped together in perceptions of the "literary," and all, despite the varied attacks of "theory" and historicism in what can still feel like recent times, retain a certain resonance and power for students and scholars of literature. For those to whom such concerns are readily associated with "literature," however, Francis Hutcheson's Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) might pose something of a problem. In the course of an argument which seeks to establish the existence of a "moral sense," by which virtue is experienced as pleasurable, Hutcheson allows himself a digression to discuss the aesthetic pleasure given by the combination of variety and uniformity, a combination evident, he claims, in the theorem:

   The Beauty of Theorems, or universal Truths demonstrated, deserves
   a distinct Consideration, being of a Nature pretty different from
   the former kinds of Beauty; and yet there is none in which we shall
   see such an amazing Variety with Uniformity: and hence arises a very
   great Pleasure distinct from Prospects of any farther Advantage.

   FOR in one Theorem we may find included, with the most exact
   Agreement, an infinite Multitude of particular Truths; nay, often an
   Infinity of Infinites: so that altho [sic] the Necessity of forming
   abstract Ideas and universal Theorems, arises perhaps from the
   Limitation of our Minds, which cannot admit an infinite Multitude of
   singular Ideas or Judgements at once, yet this Power gives us an
   Evidence of the Largeness of the human Capacity above our
   Imagination. (1)

Hutcheson's interest in the "Theorem" is due to its collecting together many instances of "particular Truths," and thus its fulfillment of his aesthetic prescription of variety and singularity united. According to such a prescription, the Theorem must be found to be beautiful, but Hutcheson's enthusiasm for theorems almost exceeds the bounds of his own aesthetic categories here. As he addresses the "Power" which "gives us an Evidence of the Largeness of the human Capacity above our Imagination," there is a suggestion of what later writers would theorize as the sublime, an experience potentially greater--more elevating, more destabilizing--than the mere pleasure which has occupied him thus far. Although Hutcheson has set out to demonstrate how theory is beautiful, his argument hints that, more than an object of beauty for safe and pleasurable contemplation, the theorem might provide access to an experience beyond the imagination of Hutcheson's treatise itself. As his discussion progresses, this suggestion of a near-sublime experience, and of an imaginative capacity constantly being exceeded, recurs, as a particular language of mental and aesthetic experience is deployed to describe the subject's engagement with theories: they provide a transition from an "uneasy state of Mind" to "Satisfaction"; their pleasure is heightened if "being less obvious, [they] give us some Surprize in the Discovery" (31, 33). By the time he reaches his conclusion--that mental "Delight ... necessarily accompanys the Discovery of any Proposition" (36)--it is clear that the celebration of theory here also involves the construction of a particular kind of philosophical, and aesthetic subject, to whom very particular pleasures of the mind and the imagination might accrue.

Rather than opposing theory to imagination, in a move which would be familiar to followers of the late twentieth-century "theory wars," Hutcheson makes theory the object of imaginative speculation, as well as the means by which the imagination's capacities are opened and realized. He grounds his discussion of theory on a consideration of the imaginative and aesthetic experience yielded by it, and in doing so reminds us that thinking about theory has a long history, one closely allied here to thinking about the imagination. …

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