This Week’s Special: David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”
By Daniel A. Kaufman
One of the central topics in Aesthetics is the justification of our evaluative judgments of works of art. Questions regarding the warrant for our valuations are always challenging, because of the quite common intuition that values and valuation are inherently subjective. The trouble lies in the fact that there is an equally common intuition that they are also normative – that when we say “x is good” or “x is bad,” we imply that others ought to agree with us – and it is unclear how a judgment can be both subjective and normative.
David Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1742) is one of two of the most venerated efforts to reconcile the subjectivity of artistic value with the normativity of our ascriptions of it. The other is Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790).
Hume begins by establishing that beauty – and what goes for beauty will also go for other aesthetic values – is a subjective property of things, where by ‘subjective’, he means “perceiver dependent.” This idea is in keeping with his conception of the other subjective qualities that things have – the so-called “Secondary Qualities” – such as color, smell, taste, as well as moral qualities such as rightness and wrongness. Like many other philosophers of the Enlightenment, Hume takes this view after reflecting on the fact that these sorts of properties may vary widely from perceiver to perceiver, whereas qualities like mass and volume – the so-called “Primary Qualities” – do not. As Hume puts it:
All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard… Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. (I.XXIII.8)
Hume also notices, however, that our ascriptions of beauty are intended to command agreement. They are made, that is, with the idea that they should carry normative force. Indeed, so strongly is this force meant that people may react to disagreement over matters of beauty as intensely as they might react to someone’s rejection of some obvious, demonstrable matter of fact.
Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON,” Hume observes, “would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. (I.XXIII.9)
Hume’s proposed solution to this problem is by way of what we might call a “competent judge” approach. A value-judgment made about a work of art is warranted – and thus, normative – if it is the value-judgment a competent judge of art would make. The question, then, is what characterizes a competent judge.
It is interesting to note that both Hume and Kant take this approach to the problem, but they arrive at very different conclusions, because they have a very different conception of what constitutes a competent judge of artistic value. For Hume, competency in judging beauty is a function of a person having certain qualifications, while for Kant, it is a function of a person eschewing all manner of interest and thereby reacting as a “universal human” would.
The characteristics that qualify a judge of beauty for Hume include “delicacy of the imagination,” by which Hume means the capacity to perceive minute and subtle differences between an artwork’s characteristics, breadth and depth of experience, with respect to works of art, and the capacity to put oneself in the position of the work’s intended audience.
While it is difficult to deny that these characteristics are crucial to our capacity to make sound judgments about works of art, it is impossible to imagine that such an account of the competent judge could serve as a standard of taste – one that would provide the warrant needed to render a subjective valuation normative. Undoubtedly, two judges, both of whom possessed these characteristics, could nonetheless come to entirely different conclusions as to a particular artwork’s merit. Consequently, the possession of these characteristics is not sufficient to tell us “what a competent judge would say,” because there is no single thing a judge, thus characterized “would” say.
Categories: This Week's Special