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WHETHER Taste be an original faculty, or an acquired power of discriminating such qualities in sensible and intellectual being, as produce certain pleasing emotions in the mind, all writers are not agreed; but whether it be original or acquired, we all agree in acknowledging the dignity of its nature, and the extent of its influence. It is conversant with all the objects of animate and inanimate creation, nor are even the unembodied forms of intellectual being placed beyond the expansive range of its dominion--a dominion, however, the precise limits of which seem not as yet distinctly marked out by the critics, though it has been frequently made the subject of critical and philosophical investigation. It is acknowledged, however, to belong only to him who possesses that exquisite discrimination which distinguishes, in all the works of nature, whatever qualities are most pleasing and agreeable to man, and which discerns whether these qualities are happily combined and contrasted with each other, when transferred from the subjects in which they are originally found to the imitative productions of art. It deduces its principles from the observations which it makes upon, and the maxims which it deduces from, the nature and diversity of the emotions produced by the primary and associated qualities of sensible and intellectual being. Poetry, painting, gardening, and the improvement of real landscape, sculpture, architecture, music, the drama, eloquence, and composition in general, are therefore indebted to it, if not for their origin, at least for their progressive improvement and ultimate perfection. It is therefore unnecessary to enlarge on the importance of the subject; but, as it has already exercised the talent and the intellect of the most refined and critical writers, it may be necessary to say a word relative to the motives that led to the present work.
Beauty and Sublimity have been generally considered the proper objects of taste; but beauty and sublimity are, in themselves, qualities so occult in their nature, that they have hitherto eluded the exploring and detecting acumen of human genius. From all that has been as yet written on the subject, who can pretend to determine in what beauty consists? Of this truth Mr. Dugald Stuart has been so well convinced, that he concludes from it the impossibility of discovering any common quality in beautiful objects. His“ Essay on the Sublime” equally proves its abstractedness, and the difficulty of determining its nature and essence. If, then, sublimity and beauty be the proper objects of taste, and if these objects be involved in doubt and obscurity, it requires no argument to prove, that taste itself—that faculty, as it is called, which professes to discover the beauty and sublimity of the material and intellectual world-partakes, in no inconsiderable degree, of that perplexity and confusion in which its proper objects are as yet enveloped. Hence it follows, that an Inquiry into the nature and principles of Taste is still open to any writer who can either remove a part of this obscurity, or who can lift up the veil at once, and permit us to view it in its naked and original simplicity. If the reader, therefore, should find, that he has a more correct view of its true nature and office after perusing this work, thap he has been able to collect from the labours of former writers, he will admit the propriety of the views that have led to its production; and he will equally admit the propriety of a philosophical Inquiry into the nature and distinct character of those qualities which produce the emotions of the Beautiful and the Sublime, notwithstanding all that has been already written on the subject. In this inquiry I am at present engaged,
from a belief, whether well founded or not the public only can ultimately determine, that I have discovered those common qualities which are to be found in all objects that excite the emotions of the sublime and beautiful, and which have been so fruitlessly, though so diligently, sought after by former writers. I have been, however, careful to confine myself, in the present work, to the consideration of Taste alone, without any regard to the theory which I intend to adopt on the subject of Sublimity and Beauty, and which I expect shortly to submit to that tribunal from whose judgment there can be no ultimate appeal.
As the subject has been already discussed by several eminent writers, with many of whose opinions the theory which I have adopted has obliged me to disagree, I thought it proper to state these opinions, to enter into a philosophical investigation of their truth, and to assign the reasons which have led me to dissent from them. This, I think, is a duty which necessarily devolves on every writer who would redeem his subject from popular and philosophical error. Without it the public is not qualified to judge between him and the writers to whom he stands opposed; and different theories may be offered to the public at the same time, each of which may be sufficiently specious to influence the judgment of the critical reader, without leaving him any clue or criterion