Physico-Theology and Taste: 1650-1720
300 Wheeler Hall
Alexander Wragge-Morley, Postdoctoral Fellow, California Institute of Technology
This talk offers a reconsideration of the workings of one of the key claims made in the canonical physico-theological texts published in England between 1650 and 1720. These include works by Robert Boyle, William Derham, Nehemiah Grew and John Ray. It is well known that the physico-theological authors, most of whom were also practising naturalists, urged that physico-theology was distinct from other varieties of natural theology because it depended upon the evidence of the senses to help lead people to a better knowledge of God, and an improved moral disposition. The aim here is to reconsider this fundamental claim in the light of a range of different types of evidence, internal and external to physico-theology, showing that this embodied theology was bound up with concerns about the affective mechanisms of sensation and cognition. Ray and his contemporaries urged that pleasure followed naturally from the apprehension of God’s beautiful and purposeful designs. At the same time, however, they recognised that many people simply failed to experience the pleasures that they found so obvious.
This paper will explore the responses offered by Ray and his contemporaries to this difficult dilemma, arguing thatphysico-theology invoked standards of taste, grounded in contemporary discourses about (what we would now call) aesthetic and stylistic judgments. It will also explore the possibility that the emergence of aesthetic theorizing in early eighteenth-century England owed something to the aesthetic-moral claims of physico-theology. (Wragge-Morley)
Co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion.