Alexander Gerard ((1728-1795)

lexander Gerard was the son of Rev. Gilbert Gerard, an Aberdeenshire minister. Gerard was educated at Marischal College Aberdeen, where he studied moral philosophy under David Fordyce. After completing the arts course, he took a degree in divinity and gained his license as a minister when he was twenty. Just four years later, following the death of Fordyce at sea in 1751, Gerard was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Marischal. He quickly made his mark on the college by proposing a radical revision of the curriculum, and this was implemented within three years of his appointment.

One year later, he gained an equally impressive intellectual reputation when his ‘Essay on Taste’ won a competition organized by the Edinburgh Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Sciences, Manufactures and Agriculture. The judges included David Hume, whose own, much more famous essay, ‘Of the Standard of Taste’ was published one year later. With Hume’s assistance, Gerard’s essay was published in 1758. It was well received and widely read across Europe, being known to Immanuel Kant. In the third edition (1780) Gerard added a section that explicitly took issue with Hume’s essay on taste, and drew a distinction that, he held, Hume and others had failed to acknowledge.

Taste may be considered in two different lights, the not distinguishing between which, has embarrassed the question concerning a fixed criterion of its sentiments and disposed some plausibility on the assertion of the indisputable authority of every taste. It may be considered a species of sensation or a species of discernment. In the former light, it is mere feeling and perception; it is touched and affected by certain objects, and attaches us to them immediately and without reflection; it is simply the faculty by which we receive pleasure from the beauties, and pain from the faults and imperfections of those things about which we are conversant. In the other light, it is a faculty by which we distinguish the true causes of our pleasure or our dislike; by a reflex act it discerns the several qualities which are fit to excite pleasure or disgust; it estimates the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction which every object ought to produce. Taste considered in the former of these lights cannot properly admit of any standard. The feelings of every man depend, in great measure, on the original structure of his mind, which is unalterable. . . .It is not, therefore, possible that all men should be equally pleased, or that they should be pleased with precisely the same things. But notwithstanding this, there may be a standard of taste in respect of its reflex act, and it is only in respect of these, that a standard should be sought for. (Gerard 1764/2004: 113, italics original)

For Gerard, then, the role of the standard of taste is to pass critical judgment on what anyone may actually feel. It is not absurd to assert, he concludes, ‘however oddly it may sound, that in some instances, “a man ought not to be pleased when he is, and ought to be pleased when he is not.” (ibid. 115, italics original)

In 1759 George Campbell became Principal of Marischal College, and in 1760 Gerard exchanged the Chair of Moral Philosophy for the Chair of Divinity at Marischal. Four years later he served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In 1771, perhaps as a consequence of the academic and ecclesiastical status he had now obtained, Gerard transferred to the much better remunerated Chair of Divinity at the rival King's College in Old Aberdeen. He retained his philosophical interests, however, and in 1774 published a Dissertation on Subjects Relating to Genius, a greatly expanded version of the section in his Essay on Tastethat he had devoted to the topic of ‘genius’. This lengthy essay published alongside a second dissertation, on the Evidences of Christianity.

Gerard died in 1795, and his son Gilbert Gerard succeeded him as Professor of Divinity at King’s. Like George Campbell and Thomas Reid, Alexander Gerard he had been a distinguished contributor to the ‘Aberdeen Enlightenment’ and a member of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society or ‘Wise Club’, which included several other gifted intellectuals. Though his works are no longer widely read, he can undoubtedly be said to be an important figure in the development of philosophical aesthetics.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary