In Search of Aesthetic Judgment: Shaftesbury’s “Sensus Communis” and “Soliloquy”

The emergence of aesthetic thought in the eighteenth century poses something of a puzzle for us. While discussions of beauty prior to the eighteenth century are abundant, the notion that aesthetic thinking constitutes a distinctive mode of cognition and perception is nearly unique to the period.  But why does the discourse arise at this particular moment? What function does it serve? My paper will suggest that the project of aesthetics becomes an urgent one as a response to certain impasses of ends-oriented thinking and, above all, the absence of an adequate account of judgment. After showing briefly how these impasses manifest themselves in the work of Locke and Mandeville, I propose to examine closely Shaftesbury’s response to these dilemmas by way of his turn to aesthetics. His concepts of “sensus communis” and “soliloquy” will both become important for a later aesthetic tradition. But to what extent are they able to counter the reductive account of motivation prevalent in empiricism? Are they able to legitimate ends-oriented thinking? And can they provide the grounds for a robust model of judgment? I will focus in particular on the way that “sensus communis” struggles to free itself from the market model of cognition that dominates empiricism and the way that the notion of “soliloquy” attempts to exploit an unexpected opening for reflective judgment in chapter 2.21 (“Of Power”) of Locke’s Essay.