Volume 6, Issue 2, Fall 2017
Theological Underpinnings of Joseph Addison’s Aesthetics
Joseph Addison’s Spectator papers on the imagination have been read as a landmark in the development of aesthetic disinterestedness (Stolnitz). But this is problematic in light of Addison’s theological concerns, particularly as they bear on the final causes of aesthetic pleasures. This teleology of the aesthetic is far from a Kantian understanding, but rather part of a larger discourse of physico-theology. By drawing on the work of Zeitz and Mayhew, among others, this paper shows how Addison’s theological underpinnings of the aesthetic raise the broader question of the role theology played in the emergence and evolution of philosophical aesthetics. In eighteenth-century Britain, the aesthetic belonged to a disciplinary matrix comprising a set of confluent discourses, one of which was theology. Drawing on and expanding M.H. Abrams’s scheme, which explores how concepts such as ‘contemplation’ and ‘disinterestedness’ migrated from theology to aesthetic theory, this paper suggests that the concept of ‘aesthetic pleasure’ underwent a similar transformation. With Addison, the pleasures afforded by the imagination (greatness, novelty and beauty) acquire a new dominant position which allows one to speak of a text in modern aesthetics instead of a manual of Christian apologetics.