Hume, David

Assigned: Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste” (410-424). Also read the editors’ introduction (408-10).

“Of the Standard of Taste” (1757)

1. On 410-12 (“The great variety of Taste…”), David Hume pays due regard to the sheer variety and contentiousness of taste. What contrast does he make between “matters of opinion and science” and matters pertaining to taste in art? (411) In matters of taste, how is it that people’s general terms imply near unanimity, but when they “come to particulars [i.e., specific instances to be judged], this seeming unanimity vanishes” (411)? In essence, how does people’s language trick them into thinking they agree when they don’t? In the area of morality, why, according to Hume, is there very little value in simply “delivering true general precepts” (412)?

2. On 412-14 (“It is natural for us to seek…”), why, according to Hume, do some philosophers rule out any chance of establishing a universal standard of taste, even though it seems natural to seek one? What major difference between “judgment” and “sentiment” (412) grounds their objections? All the same, what “species of common sense” (413) does Hume say refutes this skeptical insistence? What “foundation” (413) can people look to when they make judgments about “the rules of composition,” and consequently about the quality or beauty of a work of art? Finally, what about those artists who exhibit many faults and “transgressions of rule or order” (413), and yet please the critics and the public—why don’t they puncture the notion of a viable standard of taste?

3. On 414-15 (“But though all the general rules…”), why, in Hume’s view, is it not to be expected that “on every occasion” (414) people will agree in their judgments of taste, even if there is a common standard? What conditions must prevail at the moment of judging for an accurate judgment of taste to be made? How does Hume introduce his own version of the “test of time” standard for assessing the quality of a given work of art? (414) Hume refers to the importance of the overall mental attunement or health of a person who wants to make sound aesthetic judgments; what biological or mental factors sometimes hinder a person’s capacity to perceive and judge in accordance with “those general principles, on which depends our sentiment of beauty or deformity” (415)?

4. On 415-16 (“One obvious cause, why many feel…”), how does Hume’s Don Quixote anecdote about some kinsmen of Sancho Panza help him illustrate on 416 what he means by “delicacy of taste” (416) as well as underscore its importance to his affirmation that there is a valid standard of taste, even if some people do not judge in accordance with it? How do “the general rules of beauty” prove useful in settling matters of taste when some wrongheaded person proves recalcitrant?

5. On 416-18 (“It is acknowledged to be the perfection…”), in what does “the perfection of every sense or faculty” (416) consist, according to Hume? Why is “a delicate taste of wit or beauty” (417) always a highly positive capacity to possess? How can this delicacy of taste be developed? What role does practice play in making judgments of taste? What happens when “objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination” (417) that makes practice so necessary? Why is it vital to view or experience the same work of art more than once before making a final judgment about it? In addition, why, in Hume’s view, is “comparison” (418) vital to good judgments involving taste? What kinds of comparisons is Hume referring to?

6. On 418-19 (“But to enable a critic the more…”), Hume writes that nothing is more necessary to a critic than to “preserve his mind free from all prejudice” (418). What measures can critics take to ensure that they can make sound judgments about works of art, or indeed any performance? What is a “man in general” (418), as Hume uses that term? Why is reason or understanding a necessary component of taste, and not the minor consideration we might have thought it would be? (419) Finally, what role does the ability to regard the “mutual relation  and correspondence of [a work’s] parts” as well as the “certain end or purpose” (419) of a given work of art play in aesthetic judgments?

7. On 419-20 (“Thus, though the principles of taste…”), how does Hume summarize the defects in the great mass of the people’s ability to judge works of art? In other words, what things can and do go wrong in this regard? By what summation of qualities, according to Hume, can we distinguish the rare person who is able, in spite of all these potential infelicities, to judge in accordance with the “true standard of taste and beauty” (420)?

8. On 420-21 (“But where are such critics…”), Hume admits that it is not always easy to settle disputes that arise as to who truly possesses the most finely and fully developed taste. Even so, why is it, in his view, that “in reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented” (420)? In what sense are we still dealing with “questions of fact, not of sentiment” (420)? Moreover, what contrast does Hume make between philosophical and theological precepts on the one hand and “the beauties of eloquence and poetry” (420) on the other—which of these proves more durable in the public’s approbation, and why so? What assertion does Hume make about the relative ease with which the public can discern when they are in the presence of “men of delicate taste” (421)?

9. On 421-22 (“But notwithstanding all our endeavours…”), what “two sources of variation” in taste, according to Hume, still need to be dealt with even after we admit that “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature” (421)? What is Hume’s attitude towards these two variations that affect people’s perceptions and judgments? With regard to the first variation, how does his observation that “We choose our favourite author as we do our friend” (421) aptly sum up the point he is making? With regard to the second variation, to what extent does Hume suppose the public can ever truly free itself of its bias towards what is familiar in terms of time and place?

10. On 422-24 (“But here there occurs a reflection…”), what things, according to Hume, should we avoid censuring in the ancients, even though our sentiments and notions may be very different from theirs? By contrast, in what instances is it imperative to find fault with the art of other times or places? When, for example, does religious sentiment cross the line and become a burden to a work of art? (423-24)

11. General question: In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume simultaneously asserts the existence of a genuine standard for making aesthetic judgments and concedes that individuals who can judge according to this standard are rare since a great many factors may impair a person’s capacity to judge beauty and art. On the whole—especially for such a noted philosophical “skeptic” as Hume was—he seems more optimistic than pessimistic about people’s prospects for arriving at a satisfactory state of affairs in the realm of aesthetic judgment. ? What are the grounds for his guarded but firm optimism? Explain.

12. General question: in “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume asserts that on the whole it isn’t too difficult to maintain a certain standard of taste in aesthetic affairs, but at the same time, he recognizes that various human tendencies and individual differences and “defects” get in the way of perfect agreement about such a standard. His remarks about “the different humours of particular men” (421) deserve further reflection. By “humours,” Hume is referring to what today we would simply call differences in attitude or personality as well as the differences that come with one’s time of life. For example, some people prefer satire, while others like a good love story; a youth may enjoy Romeo and Juliet, while an older person may give the nod to King Lear. How do you think your own personality traits and your time of life affect the kinds of art you most enjoy? Granted, there is much about our preferences that we simply can’t explain. But to the extent that your aesthetic preferences are available to conscious reflection, factor them in.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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