Kames's Naturalist Aesthetics and the Case of Tragedy

Journal of Scottish Philosophy 7 (2):147-162 (2009)
Abstract
In this essay, I discuss Kames' aesthetic theory, as presented in his essay, ‘Our Attachment to Objects of Distress’ (concerning the problem of tragedy), and in Elements of Criticism. I argue that Kames' (non-)response to the problem of tragedy – that we find tragedies painful (not pleasing), yet are ‘attracted to them through the workings of the “blind instinct” of sympathy’ – is intended to call the standard formulation of the problem of tragedy (‘why do we find such painful things pleasing?’) into question. This standard formulation, on Kames' view, mistakenly assumes that we cannot be attracted to anything but pleasure, whereas tragedy (among other phenomena) shows that human nature is considerably more complex than this. I argue, further, that Kames' treatment of tragedy exemplifies the character of his aesthetics more broadly: aesthetic values are explained by reference to general laws governing human nature (we are attracted to this sort of thing, averse to that, etc.) – or explanatory naturalism. But Kames also argues that we can, upon reflection, judge that this instinct and this exercise of it is good (as in the case of tragedy, which is, Kames argues, morally educative because it strengthens our sympathy), by contrast to other cases where instincts may not achieve their ends. Thus Kames also proposes a normative aesthetic naturalism, according to which we should educate our instinctual affective responses so that they will be appropriate to their objects and beneficial for the human goods that they are meant to promote
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