If we contemplate any natural object, especially any part of animated nature, fully and in all its bearings, we can arrive only at this conclusion: that there is design in the mechanical construction, benevolence shown in the living properties, and that good predominates: we shall perceive that the sensibilities of the body have a relation to the qualities of things external, and that delicacy of texture is a necessary consequence of this relation.
Scottish surgeon Charles Bell is remembered today primarily for the discoveries he made in the 1820s about how nerves connect to the spinal cord, but in a little book from 1833 he was not so concerned with the intricacies of the nervous system. Instead, he elaborated at length on “design,” a translation of the Italian disegno. Yet even while Bell’s use of the term “design” cleverly resonated with debates surrounding disegno e colore that had preoccupied sixteenth-century Italian painters (the hand, after all, is the organ that draws), it also departed from them. Neither did the kind of “design” that Bell discussed in the book conform to the dichotomy that characterized the intellectual skirmishes in seventeenth-century France over whether art should strive to appeal to the mind or to the senses. Instead, Bell inquired into a more fundamental question that preoccupied philosophers as well as artists: How can we even assume a relationship of correspondence between the mind of the subject and the sensations received from the world that is its object?
Bell’s solution to this philosophical conundrum was that the correspondence between the subjective and the objective had been “designed” as such from the outset. One needed only to look around: not only the human anatomy but everything in the universe—from the “heavenly bodies” to “a globule of blood”—had been designed with benevolence. Bell thus concluded: “we cannot resist those proofs of a beginning, or of design prevailing everywhere, or of a First Cause.” In other words, Bell described the divine author that others might have called the Creator as the “Designer.”
If Bell’s use of the term in the early nineteenth century is any indication, “design”—at least in the broader sense that we use it today—seems to have appeared in the English language with a distinctly theological subtext. As Matthew Craske has noted, in the century preceding Bell’s usage of the term, “design” was used in England to describe the perceived machinations of the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, a new culture of well designed artifacts developed in the eighteenth century, in part, as “bulwark” against the devious schemes of Catholicism. Little surprise, then, that Bell’s book had a Protestant subtext. In fact, the text was published as the fourth installment of the Bridgewater Treatises, commissioned by Reverend Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, shortly before his death in order to demonstrate “the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God” as manifested in “the variety and formation of God’s creatures.” The series was an important outlet for the English Natural Theology movement, theorized by the likes of the Anglican William Paley, who, unlike his Catholic counterparts, sought to prove God’s existence through an examination of the “book of nature.” This was called “argument from design.” Much like arguments of “intelligent design” in our day, it asserted that for anyone who knew to look, the evidence of the hand of a benevolent Designer was everywhere.
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