Jeffrey refutes the idea that beauty is a simple quality common to beautiful things that humans perceive. He also denies that people must expunge in themselves their viewpoint as individuals to attain to a higher taste. As an alternative to these ideas, he suggests beauty is a product of the positive associations made between emotions and things which are considered beautiful - beauty is the pleasant effect of this association, not a quality per se.
Jeffrey proposes that beautiful things have nothing in common with each other save that they remind people of emotions which they find interesting. Previous philosophers sought to discover the element common to certain objects which, when discerned by a person, produces in him an aesthetic experience. This search is based on the premise that folks sense beauty, i.e., that there is something discerned called beauty which cannot be resolved into more fundamental elements. Jeffrey rejects the premise.
radical error of almost all preceding inquiries, has lain in
that everything that passed under the name of beautiful must have some
real and inherent quality in common with everything else that obtained
that name... beauty...[is] founded exactly upon... principle of suggesting
some past or possible emotion of some sentient being.
Instead he suggests that beautiful things have in common the fact that people find them agreeable. This is not to imply agreeableness and beauty are synonymous; something agreeable is not necessarily beautiful. Neither is agreeableness a quality of the object considered, but rather is is the effect of qualities in the object. The agreeableness of beautiful objects stems from their ability to recall "those sensations of which they have been the accompaniments or with which they have been associated", which people enjoy experiencing or contemplating. For example the comely face of a youth is considered beautiful due to the association between its youthful features and the gaiety and health normally present during that phase of life, both of these conditions of youth being cherished by the observer. Anything which fails to suggest human feelings falls short of being beautiful.
power of taste is nothing more than the habit of tracing those
associations by which...objects may be connected with
There is no profit in arguing about taste where only individuals are concerned, since it is individuals' associations between objects and emotions that determine for each individual what is beautiful. Some tastes are more desirable than others, but the distinction between one taste and a better one is moral.
only use of the faculty of taste is to afford an innocent delight,
to aid the cultivation of a finer morality.
In this respect Jeffrey differs little from traditional aesthetic theory, which equates superior art/taste with an observance of or an aid to morality. His distinction between the cultivation of taste as a source of an individual's pleasure and the cultivation of taste for one who creates artistic works for others reflects a different relationship between individuals and beauty. Jeffrey advises artists to create their public works by employing "only such objects as are the natural signs... of emotions, of which the greater part of mankind are susceptible". If the intent is to produce beautiful things for the public, then these things must be amenable to the public's associations between objects and emotions. The emphasis is more on making art cater to the associations made by people than in modifying the associations made. Jeffrey's suggestion that private taste be improved by "cultivation the affections and powers of observation" does not call for people to learn how to enjoy beauty 'generally', to cast aside their peculiar associations between emotions and objects (peculiarities which aesthetic theory usually condemns), but rather to develop a greater empathy for their fellow humans.
Jeffrey's aesthetic theory, then, displays greater tolerance for diversity. He does not insist that beauty is objective. Instead, he proposes that beauty is a subjective phenomena, the result of a person's method of associating pleasantly recalled emotions with objects.