David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, further developed the idea of "taste" that came to dominate thinking about the arts in the eighteenth century. (See Francis Hutcheson for more about this idea.) By talking about taste rather than about objective beauty or harmony, enlightenment thinkers shifted the focus of thinking about the arts from the qualities of the work to the experience of the viewer, listener or reader, and prepared the way for talk about "the aesthetic experience" as well as for later talk about "aesthetic properties". In "Of the Standard of Taste", Hume attempts to reconcile two apparently contradictory notions. On the one hand, it seems clear that tastes differ. In the immortal words of Big Bird (I think), "What you think is really terrific may be awful and yucky to me!" That's as true for art as it is for ice cream. Taste is a matter of sentiment, of how I feel about things. And how I feel is how I feel; once I'm clear about it there's no room for argument. If something feels beautiful to me, then to me it is beautiful. End of discussion.

But should the discussion end there? It seems that taste is not a completely relative matter after all; for everyone would agree (to bring Hume's examples up to date) that Shakespeare is a greater author than John Grisham, Coltrane is greater than Kenny G, Picasso's work is better than what you find on Hallmark cards, and so on. Even if someone could be found to defend the opposite opinion, and no doubt someone could, "no one pays attention to such a taste…; we pronounce [it]…absurd and ridiculous." (See Ross, pp. 80, 81, for Hume's way of stating these two opposing points.)

Hume reconciles the two extremes by saying that there are, indeed, standards of taste. They represent a consensus, derived from experience, about "the common sentiments of mankind." The reason not everyone's taste follows these standards is that, in Hume's words, "Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine." Thus it is true, in a way, that 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' Nevertheless there is a "catholic and universal beauty", because of "[t]he relation which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment."

How do you tell, then, when a work belongs with the Picassos, and when it belongs with Elvis-on-velvet? Hume suggests two tests. One is not worth much for new work; it's the test of time. What has been received as great by many generations of appreciators must be great, for universal human sentiment approves it. The other is not really a test; it's more of a recommended procedure for art critics and appreciators. Here, in brief, are Hume's rules for art appreciation and criticism:

1. Start with the right equipment. To discern "the sentiment of beauty" reliably requires "a delicate imagination."

2. Practice makes perfect. The more experience you get in looking at works of art, the more discerning your judgment becomes.

3. Take several looks. What you miss on the first examination may become clear on the third or fourth.

4. Compare the work with others like it. This will help you see what you might otherwise miss.

5. Free the mind from prejudice. As much as possible, forget about any special personal interest you might have in the work (e.g., that it was made by a relative of yours, or that you paid a large amount of money for it, or that you agree or don't agree with the point the work is making). Try to be a disinterested observer.

It is not easy to meet all these qualifications; that's why, in Hume's words, "a true judge in the finer arts is . . . [a] rare character." All the same, such true judges can be found, and their judgment provides the standard for criticism. "Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty" (Ross, p.87). While one might think this makes critical judgment far too elite a matter, Hume thought that the judgement of such critics would be confirmed, where it was accurate, by other observers. Because the underlying basis of the standard of taste is "the universal sentiments of mankind," there will be a tendency for others to agree with a sound critical judgement, even if they wouldn't have arrived at it on their own, once the relevant features of the work are drawn to their attention. Think about whether you think this is true, or to what extent it is true, and to what extent you think taste is a culturally determined matter, or a matter of class status.

Hume closes his essay with two qualifications. Not every question about the merits of a work can be settled by "the standard of taste." There is a natural variation in sentiments, as a result of which what appeals to some will not appeal to others. Hence the young may prefer love stories, the old philosophy. Here no standard applies; the one taste is not better than the other, just different. The same is true in some cases where taste varies from culture to culture. What is funny to an American may not be funny to a Korean, and vice versa. This is simply a matter of cultural difference, and there is no cross-cultural truth of the matter as to what is really funny.

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