Adam Smith and the Problems of Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics

Title: Adam Smith and the Problems of Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics
Authors: Siraki, Arby T.
Date: 2013
Abstract: This dissertation examines the aesthetics of Adam Smith. It argues that, despite appearances to the contrary, Smith not only articulated ideas on the subject and was engaged in the aesthetic debates of his time, but that he in many ways innovates on and challenges received opinion—he thus differs significantly from some of his better known contemporaries, including Edmund Burke and David Hume. For this reason, he is not merely a major thinker who happened to dabble in aesthetics; on the contrary, he considered the subject, which appears in nearly all his works, important, and often interrogates its issues in a more studied way. My project thus makes a case for Smith as a significant thinker in the history of aesthetics, one who merits renewed attention. This study does so by investigating the major aesthetic issues of the day, which Smith in fact discusses. It begins by examining Smith’s remarks on taste—the aesthetic issue of the century—which occur largely in Theory of Moral Sentiments. Though seemingly tangential, his discussion of taste is significant as it argues against the predominant eighteenth-century current that maintained the existence of a standard. He also challenges theorists such as Hume who made aesthetic experience classless and, especially via sympathy, disinterested. The study next investigates Smith’s aesthetic normativity and what are for him valid aesthetic judgments, which can be reconciled with his remarks problematizing taste. Here too, Smith appears to argue against the predominant impulse that sought to ground valid aesthetic experience in the immediate; in doing so, Smith demystifies and democratizes aesthetic experience. Finally, the dissertation investigates tragedy, by far the literary genre that most interested Smith, and which also drew attention from better known theorists. The paradox of tragedy—why readers and spectators are attracted to painful representations—was an aesthetic issue that vexed many thinkers of the century, and although Smith appears to ignore the issue, we have in his moral theory a solution to the paradox, one that is unique and more satisfying than those of his contemporaries. The project concludes by examining Smith’s relation to neoclassical dramatic theory. Though superficially appearing complacent in uncritically adopting neoclassical doctrine, Smith, even here, is being original.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -