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Hume's Success in Establishing a Standard of Taste

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Like much of his epistemology, David Hume’s writings on aesthetics, in particular his attempt to establish a standard of taste, have had a profound influence upon subsequent interpretations of how aesthetic taste should be classified. For Hume acknowledges the apparent paradox—the clash between subjective taste and the commonsensical adherence to the principle that some art is objectively better than other art—, and sought to establish a standard of taste that could deny extreme relativism whilst equally respecting the inherent disposition to beauty and pleasure that certain art forms seemingly require all sound humans to feel. In accordance with his sentimentalist outlook, Hume held that, “all sentiment is right: because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself and is always real,” in turn advocating a doctrine that denies both a deliberative role of ‘cognitive’ states in the aesthetic and the existence of an aesthetic reality altogether (Hume 1965: 4). However, also fundamental to Hume’s philosophy, in his view, since humans naturally assent to similar things, is that ideal critics can serve as true judges for those who suffer from certain defects that hinder the prospect of perceptual acuity. Herein, it will be argued that although Hume’s conclusions regarding the establishment of a standard of taste are moderately successful in that we are left with a subtle relativism that allows one to make normative claims on the grounds of probability and joint verdicts, but the methodology he uses to argue his points relies upon multiple suppositions that never allow Hume to fully escape the paradox he sought to defeat. Part I will consider Hume’s conception of aesthetic experience—specifically commenting upon his decision to undermine the role of reasoning that appears relevant to aesthetic pleasure. Onward, Part II will analyze the ideal critic, and whether Hume gives us adequate reason to respect the opinion of a critic that is not, well, us. And finally, Part III concludes with an overarching summation of Hume’s conclusions, what they entail, and how the shaky premises of his argument ensure a weaker standard of taste that he argued for.


Part I

            In short, Hume, like the majority of the Enlightenment aesthetics, holds that, “aesthetic appreciation and pleasure as indissolubly and immediately linked in a way that precludes the operation of reasoning,” thus modeled on the notion of unmediated perception independent of interpretive reasoning (Carroll 1984: 186). Yet, as raised by Noel Carroll, we appear to constantly reason throughout the process of aesthetic appreciation; reasoning prompts us to “return to great artworks in hopes of further appreciation,” and furthermore one can appreciate something’s aesthetic value without feeling any pleasure or fondness towards the work (Carroll 1984: 187). In fact, a critic’s role is fundamentally to use reason to determine a work’s aesthetic value—regardless of the extent to which Poe’s gloominess or Hemingway’s existentialism impacts them personally. Alas, Hume appears to equate “experience” with “having a certain sensation,” but he never justifies any grounds for doing so. If anything, in removing reasoning from the aesthetic experience, one can never fully appreciate a work in its entirety—the reflective (and at times preemptive) contemplation is nullified in favor of the mere causal instantaneous, biological sensation of perceiving the work. Reasoning may not play a role in the sensation that a work causes, but it surely enhances the appreciation or lack thereof in all works. Hume’s rationale for precluding reasoning from the aesthetic experience may lie in that the diversity in human reasoning would prove troublesome for his claim of general universal human sentimentalism, but nevertheless, in denying reasoning’s two-fold interconnection to the overall aesthetic experience, Hume limits the totality of aesthetic appreciation.


Part II

            In addition to the dilemmas that develop when Hume excludes reasoning from the aesthetic experience, his description of the ideal critic also faces its fair share of obstacles. As ascertained by Jerrold Levinson, “it is not perfectly clear in Hume’s essay whether he is proposing the convergent approval of ideal critics as an identifying rule for the beautiful in art or a conceptual analysis of the beautiful in art,” and even if Hume were to endorse one of these viewpoints, it does not seem clear that either would be compatible with sentimentalism—for beauty does not exist externally outside of the subject’s respective perception (Levinson 2002: 228). Thus, beauty cannot amount to the approval of ideal critics—though Hume would claim that their approval would be strongly indicative of the presence of something causing a disposition to feel a certain way. Moreover, strictly, the ideal critic cannot detect beauty, and inevitably this causes ambiguity. Naturally, it follows that anyone could be an ‘ideal critic,’ and even if everyone could not be an ‘ideal critic,’ the question as to why anyone should care about what the ‘ideal critic’ thinks when the ‘izeal critic’ is already experiencing aesthetic pleasure remains openly contestable (Levinson 2002: 230). And in many cases, a lack of fineness of discrimination would actually seem to enhance pleasure—such as appreciating the raw rapid speed of a springbok without comparing it to the faster cheetah one observed in the past. Or better yet, the ‘izeal critic’ will be more likely than the ‘ideal critic’ of fast animals to have never observed a cheetah at all—rendering the aesthetic pleasure of the springbok uniquely tantalizing for the supposedly inferior critic. Hence Hume must provide an account revealing why we should care about objective judgment; for if humans assent to similar things and one’s perception of the world internally seems as reliable as anyone else’s, bluntly, there is little reason to care about an ‘ideal critic’s’ thoughts.

            In response to the aforementioned question at hand, Mary Mothersill cites, “true critics are not individuals who have grasped such nonexistent rules [of beauty], but rather ones who are attuned to greatness in art and suited to identifying and explicating such for us,” and similarly, “John Stuart Mill famously observed, the best…evidence of one satisfaction or experience being better than another is the considered, ultimate, ‘decided’ preference for the one over the other by those fully acquainted with and appreciative of both” (Mothersill 1989: 279, Mill 1906: 37). Therefore, not only is the ‘ideal critic’ attuned to great works, but for Hume it is assumed that the ‘ideal critic’ has shared experiences with the ‘izeal critic’ and is capable of experiencing ‘izeal’ satisfaction as well—presumably having blossomed from ‘izeal’ to ‘ideal’ through education. In summation, continues Levinson, Hume’s argument, “has an implicit proviso, to the effect that you are not in fundamental respects cognitively or affectively different from such critics” (Levinson 2002: 235). As has again been illustrated, Hume’s argument rests upon the supposition that humans generally feel the same way when presented with the same scenario and, when they deviate, this is merely attributable to defects in the perception of the compatibilist, passion-driven, world that we effectively function in through habituation. Henceforth a consideration of whether this account of humanity is accurate—the fundamental backbone to Humean aesthetic philosophy—will be the central focus.


Part III

            So Hume assumes a universal species-wide disposition to take pleasure in certain objects, implying agreement decides what is beautiful, and he also assumes that in the absence of impediments correct judgment will prevail (Zangwill 1994: 153-9). Thus, humans ought to feel a certain way about certain arts. But this teleological ‘ought’—derived from a disposition to correct judgment—is simply assumed. And furthermore, Hume himself writes, “a thousand different sentiments…are all right,” leaving no room for a universal correct judgment (Hume 1965: 6). He tries to marry the subjective and objective, but he is indisputably begging the question. If humans ought to feel a certain way, then a thousand different sentiments cannot all be correct because those one-thousand sentiments could not be agreed upon. This would not pose a problem if Hume accepted that his position was subtly relativistic, but in his methodology, due to universal assent, he appears to uncompromisingly attest that there is a discoverable standard of taste.

            The ultimate goal of Hume’s is to convince us that there is a normative standard of taste, but, as professed by Nick Zangwill, Hume tries to inject normativity into aesthetics by appealing to virtues and vices. “The problem is not that Hume is defining the qualities of good critics in terms of correct judgments or admirable sentiments, the problem is of seeing how the qualities would be virtues apart from their leading to correct judgments or admirable sentiments” (Zangwill 1994: 163). Necessarily correct judgment would stem from having virtuous critical ability, but since humans assent to the same dispositions upon perception, the argument is cyclical. Judgment is not correct or incorrect if it is universal—it just is. Alas, Hume says that it is perceptual acuity or lack thereof that separates ‘ideal’ and ‘izeal’. An inappropriate sentiment can never arise per se, but the sentiment may be wrong due to perceptual deficiency. This makes absolute sense, and also makes it very probable that ‘ideal’ and ‘izeal’ critics exist and that there can be a weak standard of taste. Nonetheless, the steps Hume takes to reach a slightly stronger conclusion than just granted are never rectified. If perceptual faculties are naturally ‘diseased’ in so many of us, how could we ever possibly think that there is a standard of taste completely void of our own perception? Surely, there are general principles that humans assent to and perhaps Hume actually overestimates human difference in perceptual acuity, but as stands, Hume is moderately successful in establishing a standard of taste. More emphatically, the probable existence of a moderate standard of taste is where his persuasion leaves us.   


Carroll, N., “Hume’s Standard of Taste”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 43. 2. (1984). 181-194.

Hume, D., Of the Standard of Taste, and other essays. Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill Company. (1965).

Levinson, J., “Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 60. 3. (2002). 227-238.

Mill, J.S., Utilitarianism. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (1906).

Mothersill, M., “Hume and the Paradox of Taste” in Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford / St. Martin’s. (1989).

Zangwill, N., “Hume, Taste, and Teleology”, Philosophical Papers. 23. 1. (1994). 149-165.



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