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Two Gaps in Hume’s Essay on Taste

June 14, 2012

In his Treatise on Human Nature (Bk. I.I.I), Hume divides the “perceptions of the human mind” into “impressions” and “ideas.” Impressions are more forceful than ideas; ideas are but copies of impressions. In Bk. II.I.I, Hume draws further distinctions. “Original” impressions can be sensations from external sources (e.g. visual impressions) or sensations of the body (e.g. hunger). “Secondary” or “reflective” impressions arise either from original impressions or from ideas. These secondary or reflective impressions are either “violent” (the passions) or “calm” (our sense of beauty and deformity). Book II of the Treatise contains Hume’s thoughts on the passions; Hume’s essay, “Of the Standard of Taste,” presents his thoughts on our sense of beauty and deformity.

In the essay, a judgment of taste is a judgment of beauty or deformity. Coupling this with the anatomy of perceptions in the Treatise, a judgment of taste is a report of an occurrence in a subject of a secondary (or reflective) calm impression. Taste is the ability to have such reflective, calm impressions, an ability which presumably everyone possesses. Delicacy of taste is another matter.

“Of the Standard of Taste” can be read as an attempt to resolve a paradox. On the one hand, it seems true that beauty and deformity are subjective: “… a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. … Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” [7][i] On the other hand, it seems true that beauty and deformity are objective: “Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, 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.” [8] No wonder then, “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” [3]

To solve this paradox, Hume presents first an ontology of beauty and deformity, followed by an epistemology of how beauty and deformity can be known. His ontology consists of what I will call “the true beauty thesis.” “Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ.” [12] And a bit later: “Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings.” [16] To discern true beauty we need “A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it.” [10]

One notices the duality in these quotes: beauty belongs to sentiment, but there is a “catholic and universal beauty” which consists of “qualities in objects … fitted by nature” to produce these sentiments. In fact, Hume really does speak of beauty and deformity in two different ways: (1) as a power in objects to produces certain sentiments, or (2) as those very sentiments. The first says that beauty is objective (a dispositional property of objects); the second says that beauty is subjective (a certain sentiment of subjects). This is not a contradiction as Hume handles it, for he makes the first into an ontology of beauty, and the second into an epistemology of beauty.

The true beauty thesis is a feature of Hume’s ontology. It holds that an object is beautiful if and only if it is of a kind that will produce certain sentiments, regardless of whether these sentiments are actually produced. Here is the first gap in the essay. There is no justification offered for the true beauty thesis. And given Hume’s empiricism, it’s hard to see what justification could be offered. All we have to go on is the original impression of, say, a poem, and (typically) a secondary calm impression of beauty (or deformity). There is nothing here that supports the true beauty thesis. Indeed, the true beauty thesis seems like a claim about things-in-themselves, apart from our experience of them, as a later philosopher might have put it.

The skeptic can easily step into this gap. If we don’t know that there really are objects fitted to produce the sense of beauty (in suitably specified observers), then we don’t know that the judgments of these observers are correct reports of beauty. That true judges may agree is no evidence for the true beauty thesis. For all we know, there is nothing other than the coalescence of similar sentiments among the true judges. This coalescence of sentiment may be counted as a “standard of taste,” though the “confirming” and “condemning” of sentiment will be only a kind of sociological enterprise – at worst, an exercise in snobbery – but not a truth-seeking activity.

Hume’s epistemology of beauty follows logically from his ontology. If a poem – let it be Paradise Lost – is truly beautiful, yet some prefer Ogilby to Milton, then the taste of one or the other must be defective. This leads Hume to analogize taste (the having of secondary, calm impressions) with sensory perception. In each we can find “sound and defective states.” The man with a fever cannot judge properly of the flavor of food; the person with jaundice cannot judge properly of the color of an object. So who is fevered or jaundiced? The Ogilby-ites or the Milton-ites?

“In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty …” [12] How do we determine whose “organ” of taste is in a “sound state”? Hume’s answer to this is the Don Quixote anecdote. Two men who have a reputation as wine connoisseurs are invited to taste a hogshead of wine. Taster A pronounces it good except for the taste of metal; taster B pronounces it good except for the taste of leather. They are ridiculed for their judgments until a key on a leather thong is found at the bottom of the barrel, thereby proving that each has delicacy of taste.

Here is how Hume characterizes such delicacy. “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.” [16] The wine connoisseurs have delicacy of taste; the taste of the others is “dull and languid.” The problem is that Hume is talking about the wrong thing.

One would think that delicacy of taste to be located on the right; but the Don Quixote anecdote puts it on the left. It’s obviously necessary to have the sensory finesse to detect the “ingredients” in a composition before one can assess the composition as a whole. But it is the secondary impressions that we rely on to pronounce an object beautiful or deformed. If all the wine tasters had going for them was a very refined palate (sensitivity on the left above), they could well have detected the taste of leather or metal in the wine – and pronounced it quite an excellent wine after all!

This is the second gap in Hume’s essay: he neglects the “sound and defective states” of secondary calm impressions. The reader might object that Hume says quite a bit. When listing the qualities of the “true judges” Hume says they should be practiced in a “particular species of beauty,” and in forming comparisons among “several kinds of beauty”; they should be free of “prejudice” and be of “good sense”. On a certain level, this is unobjectionable (though one might want to add a feature or two to Hume’s list). The gap is that Hume never draws a connection between these features and the having of “sound” secondary calm impressions. Is it just a fact that these true-judge features eventuate in the having of sound secondary calm impressions? How do we know that? Indeed, we are at a loss to say how practice, comparison, and the rest hone secondary calm impressions.

I would like to address the following objection to my arguments. The Treatise was written when Hume was a young man; the essay on taste appears some seventeen years later. Why should Hume be saddled in the essay on taste with the distinctions he drew in an earlier work? There is some merit to this objection, mainly in the fact that nowhere in the essay on taste does Hume use the jargon of the Treatise. I’ll leave it to Hume scholars to decide how committed Hume remained to his original distinctions among the perceptions of the mind.

The larger point is that there is a fact-value gap which Hume does not fill. It is not the usual one of getting from “is” to “ought,” but of getting from impressions of something, however refined those impressions may be, to the valuation of that thing – and it is of little consequence if this is described as how we come to have “correct” secondary calm impressions based on refined original impressions.

In effect, Hume has told us next to nothing about the process of reflecting on original impressions. Kant, of course, tells us a great deal about this; the reflective judgment is the centerpiece of his theory of aesthetic judgment. But in Hume, it isn’t even clear in which direction the “arrow” is supposed to point (referring to my diagram above). I’ve drawn it to point to the original impression, which is a natural graphic way of illustrating the thought that we reflect on the original impression. It could be drawn the other way:


 This seems to suggest that original impressions just cause secondary calm impressions. In Book II.I.I of the Treatise, Hume describes the passions (secondary violent impressions) as arising in a causal way: “A fit of the gout produces a long train of passions, as grief, hope, fear; but is not deriv’d immediately from any affection or idea.” Possibly, he thinks that secondary calm impressions (the sense of beauty and deformity) arise in the same way. Certain objects just produce a sense of beauty.

But this just adds to the mystery. How are we to explain how impressions cause valuations? And where, in this picture, will we place the characteristics of the true judges (practice, comparison, etc.)? Do they influence the original impressions? If so, how? Do they mediate (somehow) between original and secondary impressions? What would be the mechanism of this?

I’m forced to conclude that these gaps render Hume’s essay incapable of resolving the paradox he so cogently put forward.

Robert Yanal

[i] David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” first published in 1757 as part of Four Dissertations. Cited here in its hypertext incarnation, with numbered paragraphs by Theodore Gracyk (2002).


From → Philosophy

  1. Sean permalink

    Hi Bob –

    I like what you wrote here, but I think that there is a Hume-like position that survives the objections you raise. It starts with the brute fact that we enjoy certain perceptual experiences. People of good taste enjoy the things which are correct to enjoy, which we might as well for present purposes called beautiful.

    However, if there are no mind-independent facts about what is beautiful, then what does ‘correctness’ amount to here? One option, not Hume-like, would be to go for ‘majority rules’: classes of perceptual experiences that give pleasure to the most people are correct, and the rest of us are deviants. The Hume-like position I am considering would be instead to consider the qualities of the perceiver – how powerful their perceptual faculties are, how imaginative they are, the basis they have for comparison, how prejudiced they are for and against certain cultures and styles, and so on. If the perceivers who have these qualities to the greatest degree all enjoy something, then it is correct to enjoy that thing, even if the masses do not. The brute fact that they take pleasure in that particular class of perceptual experiences is what makes taking pleasure in it correct.

    On this view the only secondary impression a critic needs to form is to reflect on whether or not he or she did sincerely enjoy in the perceptual experience. Freedom from prejudice, along with an accuracy of self-perception to go along with the accuracy of outward perception already noted, strike me as the important things to have here: again qualities of the agent. But the judgments that make you (objectively) a ‘true critic’ are just the brute facts of your being the right sort of person and taking pleasure in a perceptual experience of a certain kind.

    I am not sure if this is to the point or not but I’ll post it anyway.

    – S

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