Of the Standard of Taste

Of the Standard of Taste

Of the Standard of Taste is a groundbreaking essay by David Hume, the enlightenment era Scottish philosopher, published in Four Dissertations in 1757.

This essay, aiming to define beauty and taste, has been very influential in the field of aesthetic and art criticism. So influential that when you search its title in Google, you find pages after pages of academic essays written generations later defending or arguing against it.

I have yet to find a summary of Hume's essay written in plain, easy-to-digest English on the internet, so I read the Hume's original work and organized it for you. My personal critique to the essay is attached at the end.

TL;DR

  • When we talk about beauty, we are not talking about the property of an object, we are talking about our perception of it.
  • We cannot reach an agreement on the standard of beauty, because we are forming sentiments.
  • We however can reach an agreement on the standard of taste, because taste is judgement.
  • People that have all components of good taste are true judges, society should rely on their verdict of what beauty entails.

Introduction

We all experience different feelings when we try to perceive art. This individuality is part of our human nature. Within art, there's the question of taste. It's natural to seek a "standard of taste". We will get to that later. In order to define taste, we must first examine the differences between sentiment and judgement.

Sentiment

"You feel what you feel." All sentiment is right, because sentiments contain no references beyond themselves; a sentiment doesn't represent the object we are trying to perceive. It is merely marking a conformity, a relationship between the object and the viewer's mind.

Judgement

Not all judgement is right, because it is referring to an object's property. In fact, among a thousand opinions on the same object, only one is exactly right. However it's hard to detect which one with human's imperfect nature.

Beauty and taste

Beauty therefore is not a quality of things, it exists only in viewer's mind. When we talk about an object being beautiful, we are really talking about the viewer's perception of beauty.

To seek the real beauty, as in the true nature of an object's property, is a pointless journey, because the sentiment of beauty varies on conditions.

Different people may have different sentiment of beauty. For example, we all agree that elegant objects are good, but it is impossible to select a group of objects that everyone can agree on its elegancy.

Therefore, it is nearly impossible to come up with a standard of beauty; we can however reach an agreement on the standard of people's judgement of beauty, which is taste.

Taste are the lenses of how we see the beauty in art.

In this chapter, we will try to come up with a set of common senses, a set of principles or elements that we can use to determine people's taste.

Great works

All the general rules of art are founded only on experiences and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature.

The masterpieces of art, such as Homer's epics, can be appreciated throughout the millennia, because it touches the general principles beauty that resonate with all human's mind. In the contrary, popular fantasy fiction (of the author's time) are not great works of art because they become unfavorable quickly, thus do not hold up against the test of time.

We can use these great works to determine a person's taste: if you like Homer's masterpieces, you must have good taste.

Delicacy

Delicacy is how developed your organs, your sensory apparatus, are to interact with art. A person's organs can be so fine, so exact that she is able to perceive every ingredient in the composition, convey the sensibility of the finest emotions… this is required to form the proper sentiment of beauty; a must to have good taste.

To perfect a person is to perfect her senses; delicacy is always a desirable quality because it's the source of all the finest enjoyments, which human nature craves.

Practice

While people's sensory delicacy can be widely different, and sometimes cannot be improved upon, practice is the only certain way to improve one's talent.

Practicing an art makes you better at judging it. Another way to improve your taste is to practice the judgment of art; this must be done through the great works.

Comparison

When judging a piece of art, a person of good taste will be able to form comparisons between difference species, genres and degrees of excellence, and examine such relationships, to achieve a holistic sense of understanding.

Comparison is an important component of good taste and can be practiced upon. One must be accustomed to see, examine, weigh works in different ages and cultures to rate the merits of a work properly.

Prejudice

A critic of art must clear all prejudice from her mind to fairly survey a work of art, to form a sound judgement. Prejudice can take different forms, including prepossessions against the work or the author.

A person that cannot be free of prejudices will lose all credit and authority when it comes to judge works of art fairly.

True judges

As we are inherently imperfect, it is highly unlikely that most of us developed perfectly delicate sensory organs, let alone the other aspects of good taste.

It's not all people have equal taste, some men's taste in general will be acknowledged by universal sentiment of society to be preferable. These men of delicate taste are easily distinguished by their superior definition of art. We call them true judges.

The true judges of fine arts are always rare among societies, and we should rely on the joint verdict of the true judges, as they are the closest we will get to the quality of beauty.

But where to find these judges? this seems like an impossible question to answer. Hume did not answer this question in full detail.

Variations of taste

There are two major sources of taste variation.

The first factor is humors, or preferences; people prefer different styles of art and look for different things in works of art.

The second factor is our background. We naturally prefer works with familiar culture backgrounds, because we need to relate when forming judgements. It's harder to get sensibly touched by ancient works than contemporary ones. It's also why comedy is harder to translate into other languages due to its context dependency.

My personal critique

In "Of the Standard of Taste", Hume tries to give a definitive answer to art's subjectivity. But Jerold Levinson's essay "Artistic worth and Personal Taste", 2002, has since convinced me that Hume's explanation might be contradictory.

True judges, if not nonexistent, are hard to find; and it's no guarantee that they will always reach a consensus. Any of these conditions goes wrong, it will render the judgement of art inaccessible to the general public.

There is also another argument of art's subjectivity: true judges' verdict should have no effects on an individual's personal enjoyment of art. I'm still on the fence about this statement; this is a problem that has been debated for thousands of years and I do not see it ending with Levinson and Hume.

But I think what's more interesting here is that as early as the enlightenment era, Humes has demonstrated the inherent inaccessibility of taste: taste is a class-based construct. Which class do you think these "good judges" belong to?