Goldsmith: a coda to the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy

David Berman places the publishing of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful as marking the end of the Irish Golden Age of Philosophy.“Irish aesthetics begins in the 1720s with Hutcheson, and it may be said to end in 1757 with Burke” (Berman, p. 129) As well as distinguishing between the terms “sublime” and “beautiful”, Burke also argued against George Berkeley’s utility theory of beauty: “‘…beauty riseth from the appearance of use …’. (Berman, p. 130 (quoting Alciphron, III. 9.) and p. 131) Burke notes

if the utility theory were correct ‘the wedge-like snout of a swine, with its tough cartilage at the end, the little sunk eyes, and the whole make of the head, so well adapted to its office of digging and rooting, would be extremely beautiful’.

In a coda to the Irish aesthetics debate, and to the Golden Age itself, Oliver Goldsmith reviewed Burke’s book in the Monthly Review in which he described the book, and argued against some points in footnotes. In one, he suggested that utility can in fact lead to ideas of beauty:

Some, even among the adult, have no idea of what is called beauty in animals with which they are not conversant, as the beauty of horses, dogs &c. but an acquaintance with these animals, and a knowledge of their fitness, by particular symmetries, &c., to answer their own or our purposes, soon discover to us beauties of which we could otherwise have had no conception. Hence a great part of our perceptions of beauty arises not from any mechanical operation on the senses, capable of producing positive pleasure, but from a rational inference drawn with an eye to self-interest, and which may, in many instances, be deduced from self-preservation. Therefore, some ideas of beauty have their origin in self-preservation.

In this way Goldsmith arranged himself on the side of Berkeley, whose life he was to write two years later.

Goldsmith is best known as a writer and poet. Though included in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, he was not a systematic philosopher. He espoused humanitarianism and cosmopolitanism, while at the same time arguing for monarchy. He died on this day in 1774.


David Berman (2009) “The Culmination and Causation of Irish Philosophy” in Berkeley and Irish Philosophy, Continuum

Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)Featured Image: Detail of the Goldsmith statue outside Trinity College Dublin
Source: Wikicommons/CC (Edit)

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