Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”

In the essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361r15.html), David Hume (1711-1776) briefly argues that although tastes, like opinions, differ, tastes are not right or wrong (as opinions might be), though sentiment does admit of varieties of delicacy that may be used to establish a kind of standard of taste. People speak of beauty with language that admits of absolutes. In comparison with moral matters, use of language like “vice” entails blame, while use of language like “virtue” entails praise—all people universally agree that vices are reprehensible and virtues are praiseworthy, the question is “what are the virtues and what are the vices?” So too in art appreciation, aspects of beauty are universally acknowledged, while individual tastes seem to differ with sentiment rather than with reason. There are many opinions, and there are many sentiments. However, while one opinion among many may be true, sentiment is always true and right: “each mind perceives a different beauty.” Seeking true taste is like seeking true sweet or true bitter. Individual dispositions of biological faculties are at play, seeming to make beauty in the eye of the beholder.

While this has passed as common truth, it is also acknowledged that we do seem to consider it absurd when tastes are widely different from the norm, and do not fit with ideals of beauty. Humans do seem to generally share (please forgive the split infinitive) a common sentiment (albeit in extreme example cases). There are, Hume argues, in the midst of the myriad differences of taste, real general principles for praise or blame. People sometimes mis-see beauty because of personal defect. Objects have certain qualities that produce particular feelings, but small amounts of differences (subtle admixtures of beauty and deformity) are more difficult to distinguish. Resemblances to the familiar brings a percipient greater pleasure, preference, and prejudice to the appreciation of a work of art and may muddy the water. However, you can prove one critic’s taste is better than another’s, and the deficient critic will acknowledge their taste indelicacy when presented with evidence derived from general principles about beauty that are universally acknowledged. Delicacy of taste in beauty requires practice, comparison, perspective, and absence of prejudice. Reason is required to check prejudice, and keep it from influencing one’s sentiment of beauty. So, although principles of taste are universal, still few people have come to the heights of delicacy to “establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.” Nevertheless, when these elite few issue joint verdict, we have on our hands the true standard of beauty and taste.

So for Hume, while judgments of taste may be based on sentiment (and sentiment may vary wildly), aesthetic relativism is not the answer. There are absolutes, and these are to be found in persons of delicate and practiced (though unprejudiced) taste. This seems to be an argument for taste elitism (a kind of tastocracy), which causes me to wonder if Hume sees himself in the ranks of this group of arbiters of true beauty? Beyond this criticism, there is potentially a more fundamental weakness with this strategy: admitting that tastes are always right, but that some tastes are better (more delicate) than others, providing a standard by which to judge tastes as good or bad, seems to say that while a particular taste may be right, it may not fit the standard (and thus be deformed, deficient and/or wrong in its verdict). For instance, in contradistinction to Hume, I find John Bunyan’s work of greater genius and elegance than Joseph Addison’s, based on sentiment. Another critic will likely disagree with me, and find the opposite (as does Hume, who characterizes detractors as “absurd” and “ridiculous”). Can we prove one taste right, and another wrong? Is my sentiment wrong or deficient? If you “prove” that, you provide reasons, which is not what taste is based on for Hume (it is based on sentiment). If sentiment is the basis of judgments of taste, no reasons may overrule my verdict. So, perhaps, as Hume seems to suggest, a better, more informed sentiment may be the basis of judgment of my taste. But what makes it better or more informed or more delicate if it is in the end still mere sentiment (is it closer to an absolute truth)? And does the verdict of the elite group turn my “true” verdict based on sentiment into a “false” verdict based on sentiment? Further, if Hume’s argument is successful (and the elite groups’ sentiments are better or more delicate than my own in regard to esteeming Bunyon’s work), this does not mean they are a standard, but that their sentiment is more well-informed (or better in some other way). Even if that is the case, it may also be that a group of even more well-informed critics later looks down their noses on these elitists’ sentiments, and are even more well-informed in their valuations and pronounce my earlier valuation as more delicate than my current detractors. In this case, is the standard of tastes getting more standard? Does an absolute standard admit of degrees? It does not seem logical that it could.

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