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Of The Standard Of Taste Summary

Summary and Analysis of Of The Standard Of Taste by David Hume

Of The Standard Of Taste is a phenomenal essay by the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume. It was first published in 1757 and focuses on the branch of philosophy of aesthetics. In this essay, Hume attempts to address and discern a standard of taste because of their relativity, or great variations within the judgments of taste. Therefore, Of The Standard Of Taste resonates with the notion of a subjective taste of beauty and thus, Hume challenges such a notion to determine a standard of taste.

Of The Standard Of Taste | Summary

Hume begins his essay by emphasizing his observation associated with his argument for discerning a standard judgment of taste. He mentions, “The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world”, and upon which, “Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance”. Such a statement, undoubtedly, evokes its subjectivity. To understand the standard of taste, Hume brings forth the system of values of the standards of morality with the standard of taste because they share the basis upon which they are determined, which are sentiments and emotions rather than purely on reason.

From herein, Hume conceptualizes two rules to determine the standard of taste. They are rules of composition and rules of criticism. The former is based upon the rules composed by the artist that becomes developed through empiricism or sensory experiences and reason and thus, are based on subjective feelings predominantly. On the other hand, the latter rule is determined on the grounds of practice or upon the cultivation of critical faculties. But there is no final grounding to the standard of taste because, throughout the essay Hume bounces around a variety of contradictory statements, even contradicting his own arguments. When he asks about the basis of the determination of a true critic and to this, he argues that identifying an ideal critic is objective. This throws the reader back to the beginning argument and perplexes them to wonder whether a standard of taste can be unquestionably determined as purely subjective and objective.

Of The Standard Of Taste | Analysis

The variety of taste, Hume points out, is undoubtedly obvious to “the most careless inquirer”. The sentiments of the men with respect to the general discourse of “beauty and deformity” are the same but on the other hand, the particulars of them, the critics disagree upon, and the “unanimity” that gets manifested in the discourse of the general taste, disappears. But Hume brings the domain of science to juxtapose this and thus discerns that the difference among men within this domain lies in the general discourse, which becomes debatable rather than agreed upon. From observing this, Hume brings forth the similarity between morality and taste because they come together as they are both based on sentiments.

For instance, the morality of virtue as good and that “implies praise”, and the morality of vice as bad and that echoes “blame”, can be undoubtedly agreed upon. These are general principles of morality. But as we come to the particular factors of these moralities about the specific virtues and vices that can be considered as good and bad, respectively, we fail. Humeformulates thus :

“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”.

This can be considered as a contradictory statement from the side of the philosopher, because if the taste is perceived as subjective, then seeking a particular rule to judge the taste could be quite impossible. Hume conveys such an impossibility as he writes about the branch of philosophy:

“There is a species of philosophy, which cuts off all hopes of success in such an attempt, and represents the impossibility of ever attaining any standard of taste”.

From within this branch, Hume moves on to convey and discern the difference between judgment and sentiment, which becomes very crucial to determine the rules of the standard of taste. The former has a “reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact”. If an individual has an argument, it can be judged, proved wrong or right, by referring to a fact. The latter cannot be corrected or uncorrected, because “sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself”. Thus, such a definition of sentiment puts forth the statement that, if “a thousand different sentiments” are “excited by the same object”, then none of them are wrong and they “are all right”. Hume compares sentiments to beauty and they too, “exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty”, or simply, all sentiments of beauty are correct. Therefore, once again, we reach the conclusion that a standard of taste or an aesthetic agreement is impossible to discern. But then again, Hume continues this attempt to determine rules for the standard of taste.

There are two rules and they are the rules of composition and rules of criticism. The former is composed by the artist and they are based on an experience like empirical science. And with these rules of composition comes the rules of criticism that a critic uses. The rules of composition or the rules of art are based upon subjective sentiments of experience and observations because for instance, if an individual finds beauty in a particular art and which the critic finds flawed, then the critic here can be considered to be wrong. However, Hume observes, “it appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste”, that “some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease”. Herein, Hume brings out the rules of criticism or the judgment of taste to be determined based on “a perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object”.

Yet once more, Hume points out “envy and jealousy”, two factors that can cloud judgment and may lead to the diminishing of the “applause” of beauty. But then when we eliminate these “obstructions”, it displays “the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments”. And thus, even though beauty and deformity “are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external”, they are allowed to come up, because “there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings”. Another contradictory statement forwarded by Hume, with respect to the subjective sentiments and a standard of taste.

Herein, Hume addresses the five characteristics of a true and ideal critic, upon whom we can judge and thus, determine the standard of taste within the rules of criticism. These characteristics are suggested here, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice”. The characteristic strong sense of a perfect composure of mind, we already discussed, and the delicate sentiment refers to the “delicacy of imagination”, upon which we can judge the taste and determine it lacks a delicacy of imagination and thus, a delicacy of taste.

The characteristic of practice is defined by Hume as such that “the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united” in practice and therefore, the critical faculties can be improved. Otherwise, if a critic is not “aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation” and hence, the significance of the practice. But along with the practice, requires the characteristic of comparison. Because, the factor of practice can only be elevated with the factor of practice and as Hume observes :

“It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other”.

Finally, the characteristic of freeing of prejudice within one’s mind and this means, the critic “must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination”. Here, we see a negation of the factor of comparison as Hume asks the critic to consider examination and observation only of “the very object” in sight of the critic. Hence, these are the factors that can determine “the true standard of taste and beauty”.

But once again, Hume is confronted with the perplexing question of, how we discern a true and an ideal critic. This is determined based undoubtedly on an objective perspective rather than a subjective one. Thus, Hume pinpoints that, although true critic is found to be rare, “they are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind.”.

Nonetheless, their standard of taste will also fail because they may manifest “different humours” and even more, they may exhibit a difference in the “particular manners and opinions of our age and country”. In spite of the fact that Hume as a philosopher challenges to ascertain a standard of taste, even an impractical one, the essay resists providing any grounding conclusion to establish a standard of taste because as we witnessed, it is abundant with contradictory and perplexing statements.




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