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.

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  1. I wonder, is there multiple distinct modal qualities of beauty a person can see in one object. If there are, then is it a wash to make the sort of normative statements on beauty, because it’s all dependent on a frame of reference. When thinking on JS Mill surely we ostentate between higher and lower pleasures or higher and lower art even. But still I can see others who may, though it so painful to admit I believe I’m on the verge now of physical discomfort, enjoy Britney Spears in the way I enjoy Beethoven no.7 allegretto.


  2. It is interesting to compare this to Coleridge’s cataract. The first tourist calls it ‘sublime’ the second calls it ‘pretty’. Coleridge approves of the first response and expresses disgust at the second. CS Lewis, in Abolition of Man, refers to this and seems to consider it a dangerous error to say that the matter is entirely subjective.

    It is not entirely clear whether Lewis or Coleridge would regard the cataract as having some objective quality of sublimity.

    But if this discussion was about ‘Paradise Lost’ for example, what exactly would we be saying was sublime? There is no concrete thing that is ‘Paradise Lost’, it is entirely abstract. It would be daft to say that it is the pattern of charges on a semiconductor device in my phone that is sublime. Paradise Lost cannot then be said to have any aesthetic qualities until it is actually being read by someone. There is no more competent judge of what I am finding sublime than myself. So I would say that a work of art is not so much a thing as a relationship. Relationships are situational and relationships develop. I was first moved to read Paradise Lost by reading the Soviet film maker Eisenstein’s remark that the best way to understand the technique of montage is to read Paradise Lost. So I immediately have a different relationship to it than someone who was first forced to read it in school (and I notice that I have unconsciously placed it next to The Film Sense on by bookshelf).

    Interestingly, whereas Hume presumably intended that Bunyan was the mole-hill and Addison Teneriffe, this would not be entirely obvious to many modern readers.


  3. @Robert

    I’m sorry, but I’m a little lost on what you’re trying to say. Are you referring to ontology in your Paradise Lost example?


  4. Hi Robin – your entry point into Paradise Lost is particularly striking. I suppose it brings up readerly protocols as well as the simple fact that such an insight can motivate persistence reading a difficult text. Differences where the same person prizes simplicity and complexity in different contexts (or perhaps even simultaneously) imply to me that the judgement is fastening onto something “real”, but nothing about the emotional response. The original definition of the Sublime involving “shock and awe” seems something most people might recognize, but not necessarily enjoy or prize.


  5. It is difficult to see how judgment in art is much different from judgment in philosophy – Does one prefer platonism or nominalism in mathematics? – or in politics – Does one prefer conservative, libertarian, or progressive candidates?

    For example, politically, I can think someone who thinks conservative or libertarian candidates make good politics as being “clueless” just as, artistically, someone may think of someone who thinks the Jackass trilogy of movies is good art. (Of course, there are some who hate all politics, just as there are some who hate all art, or philosophy.)


  6. Let’s put the basic problem in its simplest terms. In order to speak about an aesthetic object of any kind, we need to speak of the form that we find appealing. However what makes this form appealing can itself be nothing formal. That’s why art can ever be defined in scientific terms. The form of a work of art can certainly be measured, but this measurement only defines an object; the appeal can not be measured, and can only be articulated within a community that shares the sense of appeal. The problem is obvious – the aesthetic object has empirical reality; but its valuation – the judgment of its aesthetic appeal – can be only have a social reality. (This of course triggers all the problematic relationships between society as a whole and the individual as agent of his/her personal desires and beliefs, that have plagued modern social theory since before Luther.)

    This problem bubbles up in Hume in weird ways. As instance, in the first half of his essay, he’s at pains to dismiss the Christian opprobrium against perceived immorality in the arts of antiquity – but in the second half he admits he finds certain acts in such arts morally unacceptable to modern tastes. Why? Because he’s a man of his own time and culture, and really cannot do otherwise.

    Personally, I think Kant’s understanding of the tension between (empirical) form and (socially determined) appreciation deeper and more inclusive; Kant knows that he has to address the problem of measure in a way that Hume didn’t.

    But both have yet another problem – that of history. Hume (professionally a historian) knows that there’s a problem, but it’s articulation eludes him. After all, how can the arts of the past be fully appreciated without understanding the cultural context in which they are created? and how can tastes change so radically over time in relation to cultural changes, without losing value for certain widely admired works of art?

    There’s an answer to these questions, to be found in texts of the third most influential philosopher of aesthetic theory – Hegel. But that’s another discussion.


  7. I appreciate learning about Hume and Kant’s contrasting approaches to aesthetics, and also see merits to each of them. In support of Hume, observe how ridiculous it would be to pick judges for a surfing contest who neither surfed, nor were even familiar with surfing. These people should obviously have little ability to grasp the things which the surfing community values in the sport. Nevertheless on Kant’s side, I can see how the most experienced surfing judges would also bring in the most extreme biases from their own personal experiences. A “competent judge” cannot thus be expected to provide us with much actual “truth,” though this certainly doesn’t establish that the quite fallible “universal human” could do so either. Nevertheless I also believe that once we’re able to figure out the fundamentals which actually constitute aesthetics, that progress should indeed be made.

    We must begin, I think, by formally identifying that which causes existence to not be perfectly inconsequential to the conscious entity — and I personally identify “qualia” in this way. I believe that if this feature were added to a computer, then the computer’s existence would have personal relevance to it (and if advanced enough, might even “appreciate art”). Similarly I believe that when qualia is completely removed from a person, existence becomes personally inconsequential for him/her. In fact I even term qualia directly as “self” — the more units of positive qualia you have over a given period, the greater your existence/self shall be for that period, with the negative being the opposite.

    Secondly I believe that we must indeed dispose of normativity, or at least in an ultimate sense. Sure the surfing community should revel in common beliefs about what constitutes “good surfing,” though in the end all matters of aesthetics should return to the subjective — or what a given conscious entity experiences at a given moment. Thus if you want to measure the value of a piece of art, whether from “Britney” or “Beethoven,” this shall be its aggregate qualic effect upon the subject (personal or social) over a given period of time.


  8. Philosopher Eric:

    Problems surrounding qualia — like spectrum inversion — are some of the stronger reasons for rejecting the idea that a computer can think.

    Qualia also cannot be measured in “units.” They are qualitative, not quantitative in nature.

    Finally, there are no “fundamentals” that constitute aesthetics. The picture of art criticism that you paint in the last paragraph is sheer fantasy — an attempt to formalize something that is inherently a matter of judgment.


  9. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your observations, since few have shown your confidence in challenging my radical ideas. Fortunately you’re far more educated than I am regarding academic beliefs and practices, and thus are in great position to legitimately test my ideas. This fantasy of mine is something that I may indeed be chided for, though the surest way for someone to know that he/she isn’t a great thinker, is lack such a fantasy. I do hope that no one considers our discussions in terms of “me versus you,” but rather “me versus an establishment that needs improving.” If it turns out that my ideas do seem solid, I also know that you’ll be a great supporter.

    First, from my definitions those idiot machines that we build most certainly don’t “think.” Even a cheap calculator does “process information” however, and thus has “mind” from my definitions, though a “non-conscious” sort. If we were to solve David Chalmers’ “hard problem,” and then build a computer that could feel pain, from my definitions the processing by which the computer experiences this would be “thought.” (This paragraph was meant to lay out these definitions simply.)

    Economists actually do identify units of qualia: “utils.” Of course in the next post Glenn Loury rightly observed that economics is just a kind of auxiliary science that’s focused upon “making money.” It’s psychology that still fails to develop the foundation behind Glenn’s field. Nevertheless, consider a spanking machine. It slaps your hand with low intensity and you call your experience a -2. Then it slaps your hand with high intensity and you call it a -50. Here you’ve made a “quantitative” assessment of your qualia.

    Finally, yes a “total utilitarian” such as myself will quantify aesthetics in terms of utility. Nevertheless this doesn’t mean that “judgement” will be lost, but quite the opposite. Judgement is a vehicle through which my qualia becomes manifested while viewing a surf competition, painting, or whatever. My aggregate qualia over a given period of time will define how good my existence was for that period, just as it does for all defined subjects.


  10. Philosopher Eric:

    It is not just a fantasy of yours. Indeed, your view is probably the prevalent one today, because so much of analytic philosophy is reductive and naturalistic.

    Economists may purport to measure qualia, but if they are not quanitatively describable, then they are not actually doing what they purport to be doing.

    An experience of redness is qualitative. There is no way to give a quantitative description of it. (And don’t give me the wavelength and frequency — that is the *cause* of the experience of redness, not the experience itself.

    If you quantify aesthetics in terms of utility, you are missing most of what is interesting about art. Instead of insisting on imposing a framework, top-down, why not read some actual art criticism and see what it’s all about?


  11. Well done Daniel — you’ve switched things around so that you’re “the rebel” and I’m “the establishment.” Of course Massimo Pigliucci didn’t see things quite this way when he told me:

    Eric, You keep using words like “good” and “bad” in a non-normative, descriptive sense. The whole idea of “x is good for y (but detrimental to the rest of society)” is at odds with what moral philosophers (and, really, pretty much everyone) mean by good or bad in a moral (as opposed to instrumental) context.

    Given that morality is so prominent in the field of philosophy, and that my own utilitarianism can be quite immoral, I’m most certainly not “mainstream.” In January a friend had me read Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” — which I laughed my way through. While I do see a bit more merit to the ideas of Ned Block, beyond his actual “access consciousness” and “phenomenal consciousness” concepts, he doesn’t tell us much about how things function in practice. If any of the big names out there profess utilitarianism remotely to the extent that I do, you’d think that I’d have come across one by now. As things stand, I find myself to be a lone rebel trying to make my way in what I perceive as a very flawed field.

    The other significant thing you’ve told me above, is that if I “quantify aesthetics in terms of utility, [I’m] missing most of what is interesting about art.” Well okay, but then I must ask about the non-qualia mechanism by which an educated person is able to experience art? To be silly I could ask, is there a “smalia” that an art criticism education might foster in me?

    If you oppose reductive and naturalistic work associated with philosophy and science, I wonder if you’re saying that you don’t believe humanity will ever gain much of a grasp of what we are? Regardless, I believe that we not only can gain such practical understandings, but I eagerly await the time at which educated professionals such as yourself, earnestly evaluate my own ideas in this capacity.


  12. Hi Dan, this was a work of Hume’s which I had not read before. It was interesting to watch him meander from ethics to aesthetics. In the end I agree with your conclusions.


  13. Philosopher Eric wrote:

    If you oppose reductive and naturalistic work associated with philosophy and science, I wonder if you’re saying that you don’t believe humanity will ever gain much of a grasp of what we are?


    I don’t believe that reductive analysis is the only source of understanding, so, no, I am saying no such thing. We can learn an awful lot about who we are, not just from social science, but from literature, theater, and the fine arts. Indeed, these teach us much more about ourselves, in the manner in which we most commonly are interested, than the physical sciences do.

    As for art, I think the hard sciences have virtually nothing of interest to tell us about it. I have been teaching art history, art criticism, and the philosophy of art, now, since the early 90s and have never once invoked the physical sciences. You develop understanding about art by way of direct experience and through good art history and criticism, not science.


  14. Sounds good Daniel. Perhaps if I weren’t so driven by the other side, I could indeed slow down and try to appreciate what it is that fine art has to teach. As it is however, my existing obsession already takes up most of my free time. And now look what I see ahead… Paul So has given us a panpsychism discussion. This is the very thing that I live for!