Hume on the Standard of Taste

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of David Hume. 
My personal comments are in red. 


Hume focuses on the case of comparisons of literary works. Suppose someone says that author A is better than author B. These judgments, if based on anything, are based on the speaker's personal preference for A over B. In other words, these comparison's are a reflection of literary taste. (Hume presumes that what he says about literature will extent to the other "finer arts.")

The problem is this: taste involves a response to something, and the preference is based on the pleasure that we receive in that response. If A gives more pleasure than B, then there does not seem any basis for denying that A is better than B, provided we understand that "A is better than B" is reporting the speaker's findings (and not making any claim that we will get more pleasure from A than from B).

On the other hand, we want to say that some people are just wrong when they say these things, even when we know that they really do like A more than B. In other words, we cannot seriously believe that everyone's taste is equally legitimate.

So what's the standard of taste? That is, what rule or principle shows whose taste is not worth knowing about?

It is important to notice that our pleasures are rule-governed, that is, they are not entirely random. (Most people enjoy ice cream on a hot day. If you tell me that you cannot eat it because you have a bad tooth and it will cause you pain, I understand. But if you tell me that it tastes bad to you, I am likely to think that there is something very unusual about you -- the normal rules don't apply.)

Where rules of normal response are present and apply in a predictable way, then the resulting pleasure can be used as a basis for recommending something.

Next, note that some rules say that only a small number of people will notice and enjoy certain things. Literature (and the other arts) stimulate our mental ("internal") taste, and a lot of literature falls into the category of stuff that will only interest and please a few people.

Most people aren't "delicate" enough; their literary tastes are just too crude to serve as a basis for comparing most authors. Among other things, their tastes are insufficiently educated. Our tastes for art are cultivated by education and practice. (People with no previous exposure to opera are likely to be bored.)

Education aside, not everyone is even capable of noticing some of the important things that are important to the experience. It's like wine tasting -- some people are simply more capable of tasting what is there. If you cannot "taste" an artwork because you cannot perceive what's in it, you are in no position to make recommendations to others about it.

The story of Sancho's kinsmen is introduced. The point seems to be that, even if the majority think a work of art is good, it might really be terrible, because the majority are often in no position to judge most artworks. Most people will lack the required delicacy of taste.

Artistic style is a major obstacle -- our tastes have to be educated to deal with changing styles.

Through lack of delicacy, lack of practice, prejudice (you won't give it a chance because it's not familiar or related to your social situation at the present time), or other distortion of taste, most people are not good judges.

However, no matter how delicate you naturally are, or how much you practice, etc., there will be obstacles to becoming a true "critic" of art:

(1) Inborn personal disposition -- we want art that reflects our general sensibility (some people just literally can't respond to irony).

(2) Differences in morality -- we cannot approve of art that too strongly assaults our basic sense of right and wrong (although we can adjust for "innocent" differences that we see as allowable cultural differences).

                        Last updated July 6, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk