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date: 22 November 2017

Hume, David

Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Peter JonesPeter Jones, Mary MothersillMary Mothersill, James GrantJames Grant

Hume, David. 

To analyze Hume’s contribution to aesthetics, this entry comprises three essays:

The first is a survey of Hume’s philosophy and the place of aesthetics in it. The second essay is an in-depth analysis of his major essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” while the third essay analyzes his theory of beauty in detail. For Hume’s views on tragedy, see Tragedy. For related discussion, see Taste.

Survey of Thought

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) was born and died in Edinburgh. He entered the university there at the age of twelve, but left after three, or possibly four, years without graduating, as was usual for the time. He then embarked on a long and private study of philosophy. Between 1734 and 1737 he lived in France, where he wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, which was published anonymously in 1739–1740. To boost disappointing sales of the work, he then published an anonymous summary of its main theses. This pamphlet, now known as the Abstract, singled out precisely the tenets he selected for discussion in rewriting the original three volumes for publication as three separate works between 1748 and 1752. These are now known as An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and A Dissertation on the Passions (1757).

Hume did not obtain full-time employment until he was over forty. He twice failed to become a professor of philosophy, first in Edinburgh in 1745, and then in Glasgow in 1752; on both occasions, hostility toward his overtly skeptical and antireligious views combined with local political ambitions to prevent his appointment. In 1752, however, he became Keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, which later became the National Library of Scotland. Using the magnificent collection, Hume was able to publish between 1754 and 1762 the six volumes of The History of England. This work was immensely successful during Hume’s lifetime and into the following century. Earlier, in 1741–1742, Hume had published anonymously two volumes of Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, and in 1752 in his own name another set of essays on political and economic topics titled Political Discourses.

Hume served in Paris from 1763 to 1766 as secretary and then chargé d’affaires at the British embassy. He became friendly with most of the great writers and philosophers of the day, such as Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but to their mutual regret he never met Voltaire. Hume returned to London and in 1767 became undersecretary of state, handling diplomacy with foreign powers to the north of France, including the Russia of Catherine the Great. Hume retired to Edinburgh in 1769 and played host to all the city’s important visitors, including Benjamin Franklin. His closest friend was Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations appeared in 1776, shortly before Hume died. Smith adopted a great deal from Hume’s philosophical work, including emphasis in moral philosophy on imagination and sympathy. Moreover, like Hume, Smith embedded his economic theory in his account of moral philosophy and the nature of society.

The scientific, political, and social contexts in which Hume was writing were different from those of the early twenty-first century, and the full force of many of his claims and concepts cannot easily be translated into contemporary forms. Hume himself was most influenced by the writings of the Roman politician Marcus Tullius Cicero, the seventeenth-century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche, and several other contemporary French writers. He read widely and expected his equally learned audience to recognize his other allusions and debts. Hume’s letters reveal how much his public life, which began after publication of almost all his works, influenced his views about what mattered most: moral conduct in civil society. His published writings must therefore be carefully anchored in the contexts in which they were conceived and produced. The only works he revised after his government service were new editions of his History and his posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Hume accepted the traditional view that the only way to plan for the future is to understand how and why things change; only a knowledge of causes can help us dispel our fears, explain the past, and influence what happens. But he held that many philosophers had misunderstood the nature of causal knowledge and had thus failed to benefit from it. To start with, an examination of the natural world must be grounded on a study of the investigator himself; a study of the nature of man should reveal the nature and extent of his knowledge, and enable us all better to conduct our lives. Hume argues that we are all governed less by reason than philosophers have typically claimed, and that we are motivated essentially by our passions; moreover, our capacities for interpreting experience, from which all our ideas ultimately derive, are extremely varied. This means both that we should not overintellectualize human activities and that we must learn to live with probabilities rather than certainties. Such philosophical views yield intensely practical benefits, as is proper, because the goal of philosophy is to achieve understanding that enhances life.

Only after Hume’s death did aesthetics achieve recognizably modern form, as a result of many intellectual and social factors, such as the spread of wealth, which hastened the emergence of an informed, but nonpracticing, “public” for the arts with the leisure to travel, buy, and comment. Hume’s own scattered reflections on art are firmly anchored in his conception of social life, which is why he embeds his account of both making and responding to art within his general analysis of other human actions. Almost all his claims are based on literature, in which his entirely orthodox tastes are anchored in classical, and modern neoclassical, works. Even so, his interest in drama and poetry is markedly less than his interest in history and philosophy, and he shows almost no knowledge of the other arts.

Hume derived many of his central views about the arts from a single book, and he saw his own task as that of underpinning those claims by reference to his own theory of human nature. The abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos was secretary of the French Academy from 1723 until his death in 1742; he had been a friend of the Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, whose encyclopedic and skeptical works had inspired Hume. In 1719 Du Bos published Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, and the book dominated European thinking about the arts for the next fifty years. Hume frequently referred to the work from the 1730s onward, drawing from it extensively in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” Unlike Du Bos, however, who signaled his awareness of important differences between the arts, deriving in part from their various mediums, Hume usually ignored such differences and generalized his remarks on the basis alone of a broad concept of literature.

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume discusses the nature of judgment and disinterested evaluation on which he grounds his later views about literary criticism. His passing remarks on beauty are also of interest, however. He holds that beauty is an indefinable “power” in objects that causes a pleasurable sentiment. Beauty is itself not a sentiment, nor even a property discernible by the five senses, but rather a property whose presence is felt (by a sixth or seventh sense, as Du Bos and Francis Hutcheson, respectively, said) only when objects with certain detectable properties causally interact, under specifiable conditions, with minds having certain properties ([1739–1740] 2007, T.; [1741–1742] 1987, pp. 164–166; 1998, app. 1.15). Discussion of something in which a person takes delight can alter his perception of it, and thereby set off a new causal chain that results in a new sentiment.

Hume argues that two important principles operate when we make judgments about beauty: comparison functions in our classification of objects, and sympathy operates whenever we think of things in association with people. Beauty is species-relative and culture-relative, and we can justify our judgments only by reference to the species and nature of the object claimed to be beautiful. We must know precisely what kind of thing we are talking about before we can decide whether it is beautiful. Although beauty is detected by a sentiment, it is as “real” as color and other supposedly secondary qualities. Three factors secure the objectivity of judgments in such contexts: the conventions of language, the universal psychological makeup of human beings, and the possibility of publicly shareable viewpoints. It is crucial to recognize, Hume argues, that human beings cannot agree in the absence of either a shareable literal or metaphoric point of view: that alone can ground the general standards that are necessary for general evaluations. Strictly speaking, a general point of view should be understood as a cognitive attitude in which we think of things in certain ways, whatever we may privately feel to the contrary; and although the standards formulated in this frame of mind are general, they are also revisable, because they serve the needs of the community and those needs may change. It is thus contingent on which standards are accepted within a particular context, although it is necessary that there be some standards, in the sense that agreed anchors and conventions are the only guarantees of mutual understanding and communication.

This overall position led Hume toward a view, signaled more prominently in his History, and much more explicitly in the writings of his friend Jean d’Alembert, that all our concepts are tools, invented by us to address specific tasks in particular contexts. As these contexts change, the usefulness of the tools alters, and they can unintentionally become obstacles to tackling later tasks. This means that our concepts have histories, are in principle obsolescent and, even when adapted or modified, may retain obstructive elements from their past. Naturally, most of us, most of the time, are quite unaware of all these matters, and Hume often assumed the relatively stable meaning and implications of certain concepts, especially in religion and politics, when his own evidence had shown the contrary. And like many of his contemporaries, Hume was reluctant to abandon an assumption of the universal psychological make-up of human beings, or any commitment to the timeless merit of certain “classical” works from antiquity—although both his close friends Allan Ramsay and Adam Smith had done so. Moreover, since at least the 1670s, when the brothers Charles and Claude Perrault published their views on architecture, physics, music, and the relative merits of the ancients and the moderns, with which Hume was familiar, theories and principles had become increasingly accepted as merely generalizations from previous cases—which could neither embrace the particularities of every individual case, nor predict the nature or implications of changing contexts. It followed that rules, principles, theories, in the arts or anywhere else, could be no more than perennially provisional, revisable, and challengeable. The implications of such a view for religions and politics, for economics and the law, for social structures and even morality were so profound that many preferred not to confront the challenges.

All these views demonstrate that Hume understood the central importance of context to critical judgments, and that he was one of the first British writers to do so. In the finer arts, he insists, “it is requisite to employ much reasoning” (1998, 1.19). Here Hume followed Du Bos closely, agreeing with him both that we can derive sustained pleasure from a work only if we understand it in some way, and that the role of reason is to justify our verdict of sentiment by picking out those features of a work that have affected us.

Hume’s most influential essay on aesthetics, “Of the Standard of Taste” (in 1987, pp. 226–249), was published in 1757, in a context of lively debate by his friends in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and further afield. Apart from Allan Ramsay, Hume, and Smith, at least five other writers published their views, including Alexander Gerard, Lord Kames, John Gregory, Thomas Reid, George Campbell, and James Beattie; and manuscript notes by Sir John Dalrymple, James Adam, and others exist in several archives. Within little more than a decade all these discussions had disappeared from circulation and general knowledge. Hume seeks to find in human nature as well as in social practices a resolution for a problem that Allan Ramsay, the painter, and to some extent Adam Smith, located only in social practices. Hume holds that some so-called judgments of taste are palpably foolish and indefensible. Accordingly, he tries to show that criticism can be a factually based, rational, and social activity, capable of integration within the rest of intelligible discourse.

A purely passive attitude toward things is inadequate for detecting their most subtle properties: an observer must self-consciously attend to the object in question and be in a proper state of mind when doing so. A merely causal reaction will be replaced by an appropriate causal interaction, to which the observer crucially contributes. Hume adopts Du Bos’s list of the “causes” why people fail to respond appropriately to works of art: they are all technical notions from seventeenth-century French debates. A person may lack “delicacy,” or sensory discrimination; may lack “good sense,” or the capacity to make true sensory rather than true intellectual judgments; and may be “prejudiced.” The point about prejudice is that, having made up one’s mind in advance, one does not fully attend to the matter at hand, and may even fail to perceive that one’s prior judgment was verified. Two steps are necessary for proper judgment: practice and comparison. Practice is necessary in order to overcome any superficial or incomplete first impressions, and to ensure that all relevant aspects of a complex work have been discerned. Comparison is necessary in order to determine not only the boundaries of a work, but the similarities and differences between it and anything else, as well as its relations with other things.

Hume’s discussion trades on a deep ambiguity in the French and English term “sentiment,” which covers both physical feelings or sensations, and mental thoughts, opinions, and judgments, but his general model of aesthetic response and judgment emerges clearly. Someone becomes conscious of pleasure in a certain object, and this induces him to pay closer perceptual and intellectual attention to it, with the aim of sustaining the pleasure. If the spectator can make sense, in some way, of what he perceives, he will experience new sentiments that may loosely be described as enhancing the original ones. In the broadest sense, works of art are pleasurable means of communication between human beings, and so the preconditions of effective communication apply to art as much as to other means of communication. Works please because of the particular properties they possess, and one of our tasks is to identify these causes in order to enable others to share in our enjoyment. We cannot comprehend a work, however, merely by being in its presence. Two properties that belong to human actions, and that are goals of our comprehension, are meaning and value: neither is discernible by the five ordinary senses alone. The mind must be actively involved. Just as inference beyond present data is necessary for all factual reasoning, so interpretation is necessary to establish the meaning of what another has done, and for that an understanding of context is essential. The cognitive engagement of an artist requires a reciprocal engagement by the audience.

Intensive modern scholarship on the reception of Hume’s works by his contemporaries, and his close successors across Europe, reveals that almost no one read his texts as do twenty-first century professional philosophers and historians. Almost none underlined what later interpreters have claimed to be his own emphases or priorities and almost everyone merely “took” what they needed from his texts, often quite randomly, for their own contextual agendas. Although his discussion in “Of the Standard of Taste” secured close interest within academic circles for its possible implications only in the late twentieth century, modern readers of Hume’s essay have also generally “used” it for their own contextual agendas, evincing little or no interest in, or knowledge of, the different contexts in which he was living and writing. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hume rarely gave examples to illustrate his ideas, and his apparently minimal interest in music, painting, architecture, or the “applied” arts and crafts raises doubts about the applicability of his ideas in these realms. Ramsay had insisted that “betwixt musick and painting there is no likeness at all” and Hume’s much admired colleague Dr. Charles Burney had long argued, and agreed with his French predecessors, that any listener’s response to music which treated it as a “text” overlooked the essentially dynamic and improvisatorial character of every particular musical performance and responses to it. So the central questions for a listener, particularly one with little knowledge of how to compose or perform music, or its varied traditions, were what to think, how to respond, and what to say. These were, however, precisely the questions that challenged every spectator confronted by something apparently made by a fellow human being, whether the primary senses involved were those of sight, hearing, touch, or smell.

Hume’s brief essay is an early attempt to give an experientially grounded account of the nature and requirements of critical response and judgment that escapes the accusation of being merely causal and recognizes the ineliminable role of the mind in interpretation of the selected data.

[See also Beauty: Overview; and Du Bos, Jean-Baptiste.]

Works by Hume

“An Abstract of a Book Lately Published: Entitled A Treatise of Human Nature, c. Wherein the Chief Argument of That Book Is Farther Illustrated and Explained” (1740). In A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007.Find this resource:

Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1778). Edited by Norman Kemp Smith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1935; 2d ed. London: Thomas Nelson, 1947.Find this resource:

“A Dissertation on the Passions” (1757). In A Dissertation on the Passions: The Natural History of Religion, edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007.Find this resource:

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.Find this resource:

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.Find this resource:

Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (1741–1742). Rev ed. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1987.Find this resource:

The History of England (1754–1762). 6 vols. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Classics, 1983.Find this resource:

“A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh: Containing Some Observations on … the Principles … said to be maintain’d in … A Treatise of Human Nature” (1745). In A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007.Find this resource:

The Letters of David Hume. 2 vols. Edited by J. Y. T. Greig. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932.Find this resource:

“The Natural History of Religion” (1757). In A Dissertation on the Passions: The Natural History of Religion. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007.Find this resource:

New Letters of David Hume. Edited by Raymond Klibansky and Ernest C. Mossner. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954.Find this resource:

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007.Find this resource:

Other Sources

Beattie, James. Essays: On Poetry and Music as They Affect the Mind. London, 1776.Find this resource:

Brunius, Teddy. David Hume on Criticism. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1952.Find this resource:

Burney, Charles. A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789). New York: Dover, 1957.Find this resource:

Crow, Thomas E. Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

D’Alembert, Jean. Mélanges de literature, d’histoire, et de philosophie. Rev. ed. Amsterdam: Chatelain, 1770.Find this resource:

Dubos, Jean-Baptiste. Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (1719). Rev. ed. 3 vols. Utrecht, The Netherlands: E. Neaulme, 1732–1736.Find this resource:

Fitzpatrick, Martin, et al., eds. The Enlightenment World. London: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Fleming, John. Robert Adam and His Circle in Edinburgh and Rome. London: John Murray, 1962.Find this resource:

Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de. Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688). Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.Find this resource:

Fubini, Enrico. Music and Culture in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Translated by Wolgang Freis, Lisa Gasbarrone, and Michael Leone. Edited by Bonnie J. Blackburn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994Find this resource:

Gerard, Alexander. An Essay on Taste (1759). New York: Garland, 1970.Find this resource:

Gregory, John. A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man. London, 1765.Find this resource:

Harris, Eileen. British Architectural Books and Writers, 1556–1785. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Hipple, Walter J., Jr. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957.Find this resource:

Home, Henry, Lord Kames. Elements of Criticism. (1762). Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2005.Find this resource:

Hunter, J. Paul. Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New York: Norton, 1990.Find this resource:

Johnson, David. Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. “The Aesthetics of Adam Smith.” In Adam Smith Reviewed, edited by Peter Jones and Andrew S. Skinner, pp. 56–78. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. “Hume on the Arts and ‘The Standard of Taste’: Texts and Contexts.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hume, 2d ed., edited by David Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. Hume’s Sentiments: Their Ciceronian and French Context. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. “Introduction: Polite Culture and the Arts.” In The Enlightenment World, edited by Martin Fitzpatrick, et al., 249–252. London: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. “Smith on Taste and Criticism: Texts and Contexts.” In New Essays on Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy, edited by Wade I. Robison and David B. Suits. Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter, ed. The Reception of David Hume in Europe. 2d ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.Find this resource:

Kivy, Peter. The Seventh Sense: A Study of Francis Hutcheson’s Aesthetics and Its Influence in Eighteenth-Century Britain. New York: B. Franklin, 1976.Find this resource:

Mossner, Ernest Campbell. The Life of David Hume. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1954.Find this resource:

Pears, Iain. The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680–1768. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Perrault, Claude. Les dix livres d’architecture de Vitruve (1673). 2d ed. Paris, 1684.Find this resource:

Ramsay, Allan, Jr. “A Dialogue on Taste.” In The Investigator: Number CCXXII (1755). 2d ed. London, 1762.Find this resource:

Rykwert, Joseph. The First Moderns: The Architects of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Saisselin, Rémy G. The Enlightenment against the Baroque: Economics and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.Find this resource:

Summerson, John. Georgian London. London: Pleiades, 1945.Find this resource:

Turnbull, George. A Treatise on Ancient Painting (1740). Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1971.Find this resource:

Ulman, H. Lewis, ed. The Minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society 1758–1773. Aberdeen, U.K.: Aberdeen University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Wollenberg, Susan, and Simon McVeigh, eds. Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2004.Find this resource:

Peter Jones

“Of the Standard of Taste”

In his introduction to the Treatise of Human Nature (1739) David Hume announces his intention to deal systematically with “Logic, Morals, Criticism and Politics.” “In these four sciences,” he wrote, “is comprehended almost every thing, which it can in any way import us to be acquainted with, or which can tend either to the improvement or ornament of the human mind.” As it turned out, criticism was the one science that he did not get around to, either in the Treatise or in his subsequent publications. It was not that Hume lost interest: Observations about the arts and about critical judgment occur in all his principal works as well as in his essays and in his letters, but his one and only formal statement is the essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” which was published in 1757, when Hume was forty-six years old. Frequently reprinted and respectfully anthologized, the essay has not been exactly neglected, but until fairly recently, it was regarded as being of greater interest to the historian of ideas than to the philosopher. It does precede the recognition of aesthetics as an autonomous field (or “subject”)—the Germans get credit for that—and it does endorse a number of commonplaces (some would say clichés) of neoclassical criticism. Peter Jones, one of the most learned and most sympathetic of Hume scholars, has remarked: “It is unfortunate, perhaps, that in the absence of alternative texts, a single, condensed, derivative essay of under twenty pages should be taken as representative of Hume’s considered views on art and criticism” (Jones, 1982). It is true, as has been demonstrated by Jones and others, that taken individually, not one of Hume’s main points in the essay is original with him. In addition to his British sources—Joseph Addison, Francis Hutcheson, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury—Hume borrowed copiously, sometimes word for word, from the French author Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos (Réflexions critiques sur la poésie and sur la peinture, 1719): Philosophers in those days did not go in for acknowledgments or citing their sources; think of René Descartes or Baruch Spinoza. It was not plagiarism, we are told, because the assumption was that educated readers would recognize borrowings and did not need footnotes. To identify and trace the history of Hume’s ingredients is interesting and helpful, but it should not keep us from appreciating the brilliant and innovative way that he organizes these familiar materials.

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) is the first modern work in philosophical aesthetics, and Kant in our own day seems to be overshadowed by G. W. F. Hegel. Aesthetics, as it is taught, is linked to the history of art, to the social sciences, to culture criticism, and to an interest in the spirit of the age. Such questions as whether the judgment of taste stands in need of a transcendental deduction are not in the forefront. Hume’s ideas, in particular those that inspire the essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” foreshadow Kantian doctrine on a number of central points. Although Kant scholars might protest the claim, it can be argued that it was Hume, in this “condensed, derivative essay of under twenty pages,” who set the stage for discussion of the central issue for philosophical aesthetics. The present essay summarizes Hume’s arguments and adds some brief comments.

Hume begins by observing that it is obvious even to “men of the most confined knowledge” that tastes differ within “the narrow circle of their acquaintance” and as, through travel and education, they become less provincial, they are increasingly struck by the “inconsistence and contrariety” of tastes. Initially, we tend to dismiss as “barbarous” the preferences of “distant nations and remote ages,” but when we find that they return the compliment, we become less dogmatic and more tolerant.

The opening paragraph is an epitome. It sums up the conflict that the essay is designed to resolve. In the sort of situation that Hume is imagining, one’s first thought might be, “If you think that’s beautiful, you’re out of your mind!” But people differ from one another in many ways, and one person can admire what another finds boring. Tastes differ; that is a fact of life.

Actually, Hume continues, there are greater differences both in taste and in morals than appear on the surface. “There are certain terms in every language which import blame and others praise.” Everyone agrees that elegance, propriety, and simplicity are what one looks for in a writer, just as heroism and prudence are virtues in a man of action; conflicts arise when it comes to deciding who is entitled to claim such merits. (Homer’s heroes might not strike us as good role models.)

True enough, although Hume goes on to draw a contrast with “matters of opinion and science,” which is very unclear.

Hume continues: “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.”

If one begins by consulting our everyday intuitions, one finds an inconsistency between what Hume calls “two species of common sense.” The first species, as it happens, echoes the “skeptical” views of philosophers in holding that there is a big difference between “judgment and sentiment.” Judgments “have reference to something beyond themselves” and are either true or false, but:

A thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and organs or faculties of the mind; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being … To seek the real beauty or real deformity is as fruitless an inquiry as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter; According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes.

The second species of common sense points in the opposite direction:

Whoever would assert an equality of genius 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 Tenerife or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there be found persons who give preference to the former authors, no one pays attention to such a taste and we pronounce without scruple, the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.

Hume’s task will be to tell a story that allows a place for both species of common sense, which are (although he does not quite admit it) flatly inconsistent. Something has to go. What will it be? Hume can hardly jettison the distinction between sentiment and judgment, because from the time of the Treatise, it has been central to his whole system. (It has, however, been noted that for Hume, as for his French forbears, the term sentiment encourages ambiguities because it can mean not only feeling or affect but also opinion.) The real sticking point is the first species’ claim that “a thousand sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right.” That cannot be if the person who prefers Ogilby to John Milton is not merely mistaken but “absurd and ridiculous.” The trick will be to show that the sentiment-judgment distinction does not entail commitment to what Hume calls “the natural equality of tastes.” Does Hume in the end pull it off? Opinions differ. Some think that a causal theory in which a judgment of taste articulates a response to a candidate work of art precludes the possibility of a judgment’s being mistaken, or “absurd and ridiculous.” That thesis, however, requires supporting argument; otherwise, it is mere dogma and has little to recommend it. An aesthetic judgment—what Hume calls a “pronouncement”—is an event and hence may be presumed to have causes. But it is also an assertion—a speech act—and to ask whether it is true is to raise a completely different question.

Hume suddenly changes gears and lays it down as “evident” that the “rules of composition” are not established a priori but are based on observation of “what has universally been found to please in all countries and in all ages.” He speaks as if everyone knew what the “rules” are; he gives no examples; to anyone inclined, following neoclassical convention, to assume, for example, a rule of verisimilitude—that art “holds the mirror up to nature” and so forth—Hume observes that “many of the beauties of poetry and even of eloquence are founded on falsehood and fiction, on hyperboles, metaphors and an abuse of perversion of terms from their natural meaning.” He then goes on to what amounts to an attack on the whole idea of rules: A poem either works or it does not, and, if it does, then the fact that it breaks the rules is irrelevant. Ariosto pleases, not by his faults (e.g., his “monstrous improbable fictions”) but by “the force and clearness of his expression, the readiness and variety of his inventions.” (Note that these are examples of those “general terms” that “import praise.”):

And however his faults may diminish our satisfaction, they are not able entirely to destroy it. Did our pleasure really arise from those parts of his poem, which we denominate faults, this would be no objection to criticism in general; it would only be an objection to those particular rules of criticism, which would establish such circumstances to be faults, and would represent them as universally blameable. If they are found to please, they cannot be faults; let the pleasure, which they produce, be ever so unexpected and unaccountable.

The putative “rules of composition” are supposed to be grounded in laws of taste, that is, in generalizations to the effect that certain qualities are causes of pleasure to everyone in every age. Here Hume is in a bind: he is going to claim that a judgment of taste is justified or vindicated when a critic correctly identifies the features of a poem that account for the pleasure that reading the poem affords; and Hume’s conception of causality is that it depends on the observation of repeated sequences. This suggests that the critic is seeking a causal law on the order of “A poem that manifests ‘force and clearness of expression’ has some claim to beauty.” On the other hand, it would have been obvious to Hume that such a law holds only because it is definitional and based “on reasonings a priori,” and that for reasons he has indicated, a substantive law (or rule) has no teeth; a violation (or disconfirmation) does not unseat the judgment. (“If they are found to please, they cannot be faults.”)

A stroke of genius on Kant’s part was to recognize that if there were rules (or laws) of taste, then a judgment of taste could be supported in the one case deductively, and in the other by induction, and that either possibility is absurd. (For one thing, it would follow that one could assess the beauty of a poem without ever reading it, just by ascertaining that it had or lacked the relevant properties.) It would be nice to be able to credit Hume with having anticipated Kant, but even with special pleading, there is too much that tells against it. One can say this much for Hume: He recognized that there was something fishy about the notion of laws, principles, or rules of taste, and nothing, it can be argued, in his positive theory depends on the supposition that there are any such. Hume very much wanted to be famous as a man of letters and the critical establishment of his day was committed to aesthetic generalizations, usually of a rather bland and innocuous sort. The French, whom he admired, tended to go on and on about “propriety” and why Jean Racine is more correct than William Shakespeare. It is to Hume’s credit that although he did not, like Kant, flatly dismiss this talk as hot air, he did not trade on it either.

Next Hume moves to an interesting, and rather tricky, step in his argument. In his summary of the first species of common sense, he had said that “beauty is no quality of things in themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty.” This is (perhaps intentionally) a sloppy way of putting a point that he had made quite clearly in the Treatise and in subsequent works: Beauty is not a perceptible property either of works of art or of a critic’s mind. We ascribe beauty to a poem when we find that not just once, but on repeated readings, it is a cause of pleasure for us and if we suppose, with or without reason, that it will be a cause of pleasure to others. Beauty, as Hume says repeatedly in the Treatise, is to be thought of as a “power” (what one would call a dispositional property) and, as such, it is a supervenient property. Sometimes Hume likens it to color, a so-called secondary property, and he is eager to insist that being supervenient is not being somehow illusory or unreal. (Actually, in Lockean terms, beauty should be listed as a tertiary property, because secondary properties—for example, color, at least in the visual arts—are among those on which beauty supervenes.)

We pronounce a work beautiful when our encounter with it is a cause of pleasure, but the causal relation here is not simple: it is not as if the poem were a magnet and the pleasurable response iron filings. The “power” of a poem may escape notice if the test conditions are not exactly what they should be:

Those fine emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favorable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. 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.

Hume’s idea, as it starts to emerge here, is that although the sentence “O is beautiful” (where O is the name or description of an individual) cannot be true or false, it may or may not be justified. It is justified if the speaker is correct in identifying the cause of his pleasure and if he has reason to suppose that O will be a cause of pleasure to anyone who satisfies the test conditions. This is a plausible view, but then why say that it is an expression of sentiment and not a judgment? If “O is soluble” or “O is green” qualify, why not “O is beautiful”?

What follows the provisos for reliable test procedures is a panegyric:

The same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religions and language, have not been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator … On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with. Envy and jealousy have too much place in a narrow circle; and even familiar acquaintance with his person may diminish the applause due to his performances: But when these obstructions are removed, the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments, immediately display their energy and while the world endures, they maintain their authority over the minds of men.

Hume takes seriously the notion that time will tell, that genuine poetic excellence is notably durable. In part, this may be a reflection of Hume’s own taste, which was old-fashioned and somewhat conventional. (It was also limited: Hume actively disliked music and had little interest in the visual arts: Literature, which for him included history and philosophy, was the major art form and his preferences were for classical authors.)

His celebration of Homer does suggest an idea that is consistent with his own theory and that would get him off the hook on the topic of laws and rules of taste. It goes as follows: The beauties of Homer, those qualities that are “naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments,” are not qualities that the Iliad has in common with the Aeneid; they are qualities that are distinctive to the Iliad—to the original and perhaps to every adequate translation. This would mean that if we praise both the Iliad and the Aeneid for, for example, “clearness of expression,” that term will have to be flagged as indexical. A reader could still attribute his pleasure in the Iliad to its “force and clearness of expression” without committing himself at all to admiring the Aeneid and might well insist that (in its own way) the Aeneid has “force and clearness of expression.”

Throughout Hume’s essay, the reader is left wondering about “the standard”? What is it that it is “natural for us to seek”? What are we looking for? At times, it seems to be a criterion, and one that has explicit conditions of application. In the Euthyphro, Socrates pretends to be seeking instruction and asks Euthyphro to tell him what feature it is that makes every pious act pious—just giving examples will not do. It sounds as if he is asking for a definition. What Socrates says is that, for his own purposes, he needs a “standard”—which is a plausible translation of the Greek paradigma. But a paradigm in Greek, as in English, need not be a rule: It can be a clear instance, a central case. Now, Hume may be thinking that it is the great works that set our standards. If asked to evaluate someone’s epic poem, and one takes the request seriously, one reads the poem in the light of the Iliad—and similarly for novels, string quartets, and other art forms that Hume does not consider. That would not be a bad idea.

What about the appeal to posterity? There certainly is something impressive about real perennial favorites. Highbrow critics are apt to dismiss popular art as junk, which it mostly is, but it is ephemeral junk. Hume thinks of Homer; we would probably think of Shakespeare, who has always been popular. (Hume, incidentally, regards Shakespeare as a genius but lacking in taste—no doubt a further instance of the French influence.) The question—one that could not have failed to occur to Hume—is: How we are to be guided in our assessment of our contemporary poets? What are we supposed to be doing while waiting for the verdict of posterity? Hume’s answer, and the final major theme of the essay, is that we should be guided by the opinion of those critics we have learned to trust—whom Hume calls the “true judges.”

Hume lists the requirements for the good critic, and they turn out to be a good deal more complicated than his earlier suggestion about “perfect serenity of mind” and so forth. (This is the section in which Hume follows most closely the pattern set by Du Bos.) The first is “delicacy of imagination,” a term used (rather oddly) to mean the capacity to make fine analytic discriminations. A good critic not only can say what makes for excellence in a poem as a whole but can also explain in detail what each line contributes to the overall effect. By way of illustration, Hume cites from Don Quixote the story of Sancho Panza’s kinsmen; they were laughed at for claiming to detect the taste of iron and of leather in wine submitted for their approval but were vindicated when a key with a leather thong was discovered at the bottom of the barrel. Hume finds a parallel with the good critic, who can distinguish qualities of the work that are inconspicuous and escape the attention of others. (The paragraphs in which Hume draws what he sees as the moral of this tale are thoroughly confused. It is a good exercise to try to see where and why he went wrong.) The second thing a critic needs is practice. First impressions are apt to be vague and sentiments uncertain, but if one works hard, “the mist dissipates.” Competence is no more easily come by for a critic than for a creative artist: “The same address and dexterity which practice gives to the execution of any work is also acquired by the same means, in the judging of it.”

Practice develops skill at making comparisons, the third virtue of a critic and an important one, because it is only by comparison that one is able to determine the correct degree of praise or blame that a poem merits. (This harks back to the opening section, where Milton’s “elegance and genius” are highlighted when his work is contrasted with Ogilby’s.) But, for comparisons to be illuminating (and this is the fourth virtue), the critic must free his mind of prejudice. If I am asked to judge the work of “a different age and nation,” or if I have some personal feelings for the author in question, “I must depart from this situation; and considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances.”

Finally, the critic must have good sense, which means that he must be able to take account of an author’s intentions and to appreciate in detail the steps the author takes to achieve them. Moreover, the critic must have a developed feeling for logical and dramatic coherence: “Every kind of composition, even the most poetical, is nothing but a chain of propositions and reasonings; not always, indeed, the justest and most exact, but still plausible and specious, however disguised by the colouring of the imagination.”

Hume’s summary: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

Is this the final answer to the question raised at the outset of the essay? Does the “joint verdict” give us a rule for deciding among “the various sentiments of men” which to confirm and which to condemn? Surely not: Whether a poem is any good is not something to be decided by appeal to the experts, if for no other reason than that such an appeal would mean that the only valid judgments of taste are secondhand—which is absurd. The only available recourse is to become oneself a “true judge,” and that, as Hume correctly observes, may be a lifetime’s vocation.

On the other hand, the role of authority in critical as in moral debates is extremely murky. If one cannot in good faith assert, “This has got to be right (beautiful) because he says it is,” one is nonetheless swayed by the opinions of those whose judgment one has come to trust. Here there are many issues that need to be explored.

Two points, as if afterthoughts, are raised at the conclusion of the essay. The first is that, although (as Hume sees it) “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature,” there are preferences that have to do with personal idiosyncrasies and should simply be accepted; so there is one limited field in which it is useless to dispute about tastes. The second point raises weightier issues and certainly deserves more attention than Hume is willing to allot. It is that, despite the need to free ourselves from prejudice in considering the work of another age or nation, we cannot and should not suspend our moral conviction. It would be silly to take exception to characters from the historical past because of their quaint costumes:

But where the ideas of morality and decency alter from one age to another, and where vicious manners are described without being marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation, this must be allowed to disfigure the poem, and to be a real deformity. I cannot, nor is it proper I should, enter into such sentiments; and however I may excuse the poet on account of the manners of his age, I can never can relish the composition.

Hume’s claim is reminiscent of Plato at his least enlightened. The only poets or playwrights allowed in the Republic are those who are careful to depict the good guys in glowing colors and the villains as despicable. It is hard to associate such a view with Hume’s own temperamental and moral commitments; the truth is that he does not say enough in the essay to give a clear picture of what he really has in mind.

The issues raised, if not settled, in “Of the Standard of Taste” are central to aesthetics. The essay is a remarkable performance and deserves careful study.

[See also Taste: Modern and Recent History.]

Works by Hume

“Of the Standard of Taste.” In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, rev. ed., edited by Eugene F. Miller, pp. 226–249. Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyClassics, 1987.Find this resource:

Other Sources

Carroll, Noël. “Hume’s Standard of Taste.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43, no. 2 (Winter 1984): 181–194.Find this resource:

Cohen, Ted. “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote Story in Hume’s Essay on Taste.” In Institutions of Art: Reconsiderations of George Dickie’s Philosophy, edited by Robert J. Yanal. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Dickie, George. “Taste and Attitude: The Origin of the Aesthetic.” Theoria 39, no. 1–3 (1973): 153–170.Find this resource:

Guyer, Paul. “The Standard of Taste and the Most Ardent Desire of Society.” In Pursuits of Reason: Essays in Honor of Stanley Cavell. Edited by Ted Cohen, Paul Guyer, and Hilary Putnam. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. “Hume’s Aesthetics Reassessed.” Philosophical Quarterly 26, no. 102 (January 1976): 48–62.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. Hume’s Sentiments: Their Ciceronian and French Context. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Kivy, Peter. “Hume’s Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle.” British Journal of Aesthetics 7, no. 1 (January 1967): 57–66.Find this resource:

Korsmeyer, Carolyn W. “Hume and the Foundations of Taste.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35, no. 2 (Winter 1976): 201–215.Find this resource:

MacAchlan, Christopher. “Hume and the Standard of Taste.” Hume Studies 12 (1986): 18–38.Find this resource:

Mooij, J. J. A. “Hume on Is-Ought and the Standard of Taste.” Journal of Value Inquiry 14, no. 3–4 (Fall–Winter 1980): 319–332.Find this resource:

Mothersill, Mary. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Clarendon, 1984. See chap. 7.Find this resource:

Mothersill, Mary. “Hume and the Paradox of Taste.” In Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, 2d ed., edited by George Dickie, Richard Sclafani, and Ronald Roblin, pp. 269–286. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.Find this resource:

Potkay, Adam. The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Rose, Mary Carman. “The Importance of Hume in the History of Western Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 16, no. 3 (Summer 1976): 218–229.Find this resource:

Savile, Anthony. “Progress and Common Sense: Two Approaches to a Problem in Criticism.” British Journal of Aesthetics 17, no. 4 (Autumn 1977): 305–319.Find this resource:

Wieand, Jeffrey. “Hume’s Two Standards of Taste.” Philosophical Quarterly 34, no. 135 (April 1984): 129–142.Find this resource:

Mary Mothersill

Theory of Beauty

The theory of aesthetic judgment developed in “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757) is Hume’s best-known contribution to aesthetics. Hume’s theory of beauty, which must be pieced together from remarks scattered throughout his writings, is less well known.

What Beauty Is.

We can distinguish in Hume’s writings an earlier and a later theory of beauty. The earlier theory appears in book 2 of A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739. Hume argues that “beauty is nothing but a form, which produces pleasure” ( This claim is not meant as a definition, as Hume says that beauty cannot be defined. He argues that countless examples of beautiful objects support this view, as does the fact that we can discern beauty only by feeling pleasure.

In the Treatise Hume repeatedly describes beauty as a quality in objects. For instance, if a man’s beautiful house causes him to feel pride, we can distinguish “the quality, which operates upon the passion, and the subject, in which the quality inheres. The quality is the beauty, and the subject is the house” (; see also–2,, His early theory commits him to this, for if beauty is a form, it is a quality.

The later theory of beauty appears in several of Hume’s writings from 1742 to 1757. Hume now claims that beauty is a sentiment (“The Sceptic” [hereafter Sc], 165; M App. 1.14). Beauty is not a form that produces pleasure: it is the pleasure produced. Accordingly, “beauty is not a quality” of beautiful objects (ibid.). Being a sentiment, beauty does not exist until a mind takes pleasure in an object (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals [hereafter M], App. 1.15;). It “is felt, more properly than perceived” (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [hereafter U], 12.33).

Others had also held that beauty is a mental entity. Francis Hutcheson, an important influence on Hume, had written in 1725 that “Beauty, like other Names of sensible Ideas, properly denotes the Perception of some Mind” (Hutcheson, 2004, p. 27). A model for this conception of beauty was provided by a common conception of secondary qualities, according to which colors, flavors, and smells are in the mind rather than in objects. Hume explicitly compares beauty to secondary qualities thus conceived (Sc 166n3; (“Of the Standard of Taste” [hereafter ST], 234).

His argument for the later theory is that one can know or explain all the qualities of a beautiful object without knowing of, or saying anything about, its beauty. For example, a person can know all the planetary movements postulated by Copernican astronomy, or know everything in the Aeneid, but be ignorant of these things’ beauty; Euclid fully explained all the qualities of the circle, and Palladio and Perrault explained all the parts and proportions of various pillars, without saying anything about the beauty of these objects (Sc 165–66; M App. 1.14–15). Therefore, beauty cannot be a quality of the object. The only plausible alternative, given that beauty is discerned through sentiment, is that beauty is itself a sentiment.

Hume gives three reasons why we mistakenly believe beauty to be a quality in objects. First, different people are more likely to respond in the same way to a beautiful object than to an object that provides bodily pleasure. Because of this, “There is something approaching to principles in mental taste; and critics can reason and dispute more plausibly than cooks or perfumers” (Sc 163). This makes it seem as if beauty is a quality. Second, the pleasure beautiful objects cause is calm, and a calm sentiment caused by an object is hard to distinguish from the perception of that object (Sc 165). Third, we project the sentiment that is beauty onto the object. Taste “has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation” (M App. 1.21).

The Sentiment of Beauty.

If beauty is a sentiment, we can understand it better by considering the sentiment beautiful objects cause.

Hume says little about the intrinsic nature of this sentiment. It is normally calm, though “the raptures of poetry and music” are frequently violent (Treatise of Human Nature [hereafter T], It is also a mental rather than a bodily pleasure. Using the terminology of the Treatise, Hume describes pleasure in beauty as an “impression of reflection” (ibid.), which implies that it is not a bodily pleasure, for all bodily pleasures are impressions of sensation (T Hence he says that it is a pleasure given “to the soul” (T, and contrasts it with lust and pleasure in wine, and mental taste with bodily feeling (T,; Sc 163). Finally, this pleasure is a kind of approval or evaluation. We do not infer that something is beautiful because it pleases. Rather, “in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is” beautiful (T

Does the sentiment that is beauty feel different from every other sentiment? Hume says that “beauty of all kinds gives us a peculiar delight,” “gives a particular kind of pleasure,” and pleases in “a particular manner” (T,–4). The way beauty feels, Hume seems to think, distinguishes it from every sentiment that is not beauty.

One would have thought, however, that Hume thinks objects that only seem beautiful can cause a sentiment that feels the same as beauty. Bad poetry and oratory, he says, can appeal to a false taste (ST 233). One would also have thought that such objects cannot cause the sentiment that is beauty. Only what is actually beautiful can do that. So the way beauty feels, one might object, is not sufficient to distinguish it from every other sentiment.

Hume does not address these concerns directly. However, there are at least three things he might say in response to them.

First, he might deny that objects that only seem beautiful do cause a sentiment that feels like beauty. False judges believe their pleasure feels the same as beauty, but they are wrong. Hume certainly thinks it is possible to confuse one sentiment with another. We often mistake our hostility to an enemy for moral disapproval. These sentiments “are apt to be confounded, and naturally run into one another” (T Nevertheless, “the sentiments are, in themselves, distinct; and a man of temper and judgment may preserve himself from these illusions” (ibid.). Beauty does feel different from all other sentiments, Hume might claim, but that does not prevent us from mistaking other sentiments for it.

Second, Hume might claim that objects not genuinely beautiful can indeed cause the sentiment that is beauty. But they do so in virtue of qualities that are genuinely beautiful. When Hume discusses objects that only seem beautiful, he often says they have genuinely beautiful qualities. “The coarsest daubing contains a certain lustre of colours and exactness of imitation, which are so far beauties. … The most vulgar ballads are not entirely destitute of harmony or nature” (ST 238). Beauty exists only if caused by something beautiful, but the beautiful cause need not be an object.

Third, Hume could have accepted that the way beauty feels cannot distinguish it from every other sentiment. His comparison of false judges of beauty to jaundice sufferers (ST 233), who were thought to see everything as yellow, might indicate that he did accept this view. Jaundice sufferers have visual impressions just like those caused by yellow objects; perhaps false judges have sentiments just like the sentiment that is beauty. Hume’s account of true judges indicates a respect in which beauty differs from sentiments that feel the same. A sentiment is beauty only if it is, or could have been, caused in a person with the right characteristics. Hume could not consistently maintain that a sentiment must actually be caused in a true judge to be beauty: for he allows that bad judges sometimes perceive beauty, as when true judges help them relish a “fine stroke” (ST 243). He might, therefore, hold that a sentiment is beauty only if it could have been caused in a true judge by the same object or quality. This view would introduce complications: it implies that beauty is not felt by those pleased with the beauties of coarse daubings and vulgar ballads, because these pain true judges familiar with superior beauties. Nevertheless, the general shape of the reply Hume might offer is clear.

Hume has little else to say about the intrinsic nature of the sentiment of beauty. He has a great deal more to say, however, about its causes.

Causes of the Sentiment.

We can divide the causes Hume discusses into what I shall call internal and external causes. An internal cause is a psychological characteristic or response in virtue of which we feel the sentiment of beauty. An external cause of the sentiment is a thing that is beautiful or a quality that makes it beautiful.

External Causes.

Hume mentions, as examples of the beautiful, several things we do not often think of as beautiful, such as pieces of reasoning, conversations, and even our sensitivity to beauty itself (“Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion” [hereafter D] 4, 5; ST 241; M 7.28). Notably, actions, virtues, and people’s characters can be morally beautiful (T,,; M 5.4; D 6–8). Hume often refers to moral beauty, and some of his arguments succeed only if the morally beautiful is literally a species of the beautiful (e.g., T,–20; M 1.9). His belief in moral beauty also explains his insistence that an artwork’s immorality mars its beauty (ST 246–247). Indeed, the beautiful often seems to be the model for Hume’s account of moral virtue. Virtue, he says, is a mental action or quality that pleases “by the mere view” or “survey” of it (T,; M App. 1.10). This reflects the influence of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, who also emphasized the similarity between aesthetic and moral experience.

Hume does not try to identify a quality in virtue of which all beautiful things are beautiful. Indeed, “there is nothing common to natural and moral beauty … but [the] power of producing pleasure” (T Accuracy (of representation, imitation, or expression), suitability of behavior (to one’s sex, character, or status), and normalcy of proportions can all be beauties or make something beautiful (U 1.8; ST 238, 242; M 8.12; T By far the most important of the qualities Hume discusses, however, is utility.

Utility is a thing’s tendency or fitness to give pleasure to its possessor or user. Hume makes bold claims about it. First, a thing’s utility always makes it beautiful (T Second, most beautiful artifacts, and many beautiful natural objects, are beautiful because of their utility (ibid.).

Hume gives many examples to support these claims. A fine house is beautiful primarily because of “the convenience of the apartments, the advantages of their situation, and the little room lost in the stairs, anti-chambers and passages” (T A pillar ought to be more slender at the top because this makes it appear more stable (T Utility can even make an artifact more beautiful than geometrical regularity would. A ship with a useful shape is more beautiful than one with a more regular but less useful shape (M 5.1). Doors and windows are less beautiful if they are perfect squares than if they are adapted to the human body (ibid.). Similar considerations can be extended to “tables, chairs, scritoires [sic], chimneys, coaches, sadles [sic], ploughs, and indeed to every work of art” (T In living things, features that confer or signify strength, agility, or health—such as the proportions of a fast horse, or a man’s broad shoulders and firm joints—are beautiful (T,,–4; M 6.24–25).

The idea that utility explains beauty was not new. Plato discussed it (1997, 295c–e), and Hume quotes Quintilian’s assertion that “beauty is never, in fact, separated from utility” (T; M 5.38n21). In 1732, George Berkeley argued that all beauty derives from utility (1950, p. 128). A beautiful door, for instance, would not be beautiful if laid on its side, because it would not be easy to enter (ibid., p. 125). In [1725] 2004 Hutcheson replied that a more useful item is not always more beautiful: coffin-shaped doors would be better adapted to the human figure than normal doors, but would not be more beautiful. Moreover, we find many things beautiful even if we do not anticipate using them, such as horses and oxen we do not own. What is distinctive about Hume’s contribution to this debate, as we shall see below, is his explanation of why utility pleases, which provides a partial answer to Hutcheson.

Internal Causes.

In “Of the Standard of Taste,” the most important internal causes of the sentiment of beauty are the characteristics of true judges (e.g., good sense and delicacy) and the ways in which a true judge responds to artworks (e.g., by surveying them repeatedly, comparing them with other works, and considering himself as “a man in general”). Prior to 1757, however, the principal internal cause Hume discusses is sympathy.

Sympathy is our propensity to have sentiments or opinions as a result of thinking similar sentiments or opinions to others (T, Our pleasure in most kinds of beauty results from sympathy (T An object gives us an idea of the pleasure it causes, or is liable to cause, in others. Our idea of others’ pleasure is then converted into the pleasurable sentiment of beauty. This is a specific case of the way Hume thinks sympathy generally operates (see T–7, for Hume’s theory of sympathy).

Hume’s main argument for this is that it is the best explanation of why we feel the sentiment of beauty when we recognize the utility of someone else’s property. Self-interest cannot explain such pleasure: we do not necessarily anticipate benefitting from the other person’s convenient house, swift ship, or fertile field (T–18). The mere form of such things also cannot explain our pleasure: we must not only perceive their form, but apprehend their utility, to feel the pleasure we feel (T, 18). Thus our pleasure clearly results from recognizing their fitness to satisfy interests. Since these interests are not our own, our pleasure must result from sympathy.

Hume thinks sympathy operates even when we do not believe anyone will actually get pleasure from using the object. We need only recognize that it is fitted to give others pleasure. A chained prisoner’s strong limbs are beautiful even though he cannot use them (T Words and sentences that would be easy to read aloud are found beautiful even if we only imagine hearing them read (T; M 5.37). At times, Hume says we need not even believe a thing is fitted to give pleasure: it is enough if it only appears fitted to give pleasure. We find a building ugly if it looks tottering, even when we know it is sturdy (T

This gave Hume a partial answer to Hutcheson. Hutcheson held that pleasure in beauty is disinterested. But when a thing’s utility explains our pleasure in it, he thought, our pleasure is self-interested. Hume’s account blocks that conclusion. Indeed, Hume is so concerned to preserve the idea that pleasure in beauty is not self-interested that he even tries to explain pleasure in one’s own beauty as an effect of sympathy: we find the regularity of our own features beautiful because we “consider ourselves as we appear in the eyes of others, and sympathize with the advantageous sentiments they entertain with regard to us” (T

Sympathy with the user or possessor of something is not the only kind of sympathy that causes us to find a thing beautiful or deformed. Sympathy with people represented in a work also influences us. A figure in painting or sculpture not balanced on his proper center of gravity “is ugly; because it conveys the disagreeable ideas of fall, harm, and pain” (M 6.28; cf T Sympathy with a work’s intended audience, too, is often needed to feel its beauty (ST 239–240). Sympathy with an author, however, can cause us to enjoy his work more than the equally beautiful work of another author (ST 243–246). A true judge does not allow such preferences to affect his judgments.

Hume emphasizes that we cannot always explain, by reference to intellectual or imaginative processes, why something causes the sentiment of beauty in us. Sometimes the mere appearance of visible objects pleases us immediately, and not because we have reasoned about them or because of sympathy (M 1.9; T Similarly, in some morally beautiful behavior, “there is a manner, a grace, an ease, a genteelness, an I-know-not-what” which pleases immediately, and we cannot explain why (M 8.14).

Finally, Hume claims that our sense of beauty is natural. This means that our disposition to enjoy beautiful objects is not produced in us by “the artifice or contrivance of men” (T Our sense of justice, by contrast, is implanted in us by society (T One aim of the Treatise is to establish the naturalness or artificiality of various sentiments and dispositions. But in that work Hume does not explicitly claim that the sense of beauty is natural. It is not until “Of the Standard of Taste” that we find him repeatedly insisting on its naturalness. A typical example is his claim that “Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please” (ST 233). He says or implies that our sense of beauty is natural at least nine other times in the essay (ST 232–235, 237, 241, 243).

Hume’s evidence for this appears to be that everyone, regardless of where or when they live, is capable of getting pleasure from beautiful works. In the Treatise, the universality of a disposition is evidence of its naturalness. It is apparently not, in Hume’s view, conclusive evidence, because the sense of justice is also universal (T But Hume plainly regarded it as strong evidence. For example, “if we cast our eye upon human nature, and consider that in all nations and ages, the same objects still give rise to pride and humility,” we will be persuaded “that ’tis from natural principles this variety of causes excites pride and humility” (T, Likewise, we are able to discern “the relation, which nature has placed between the form [of an object] and the sentiment” of beauty “from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion” (ST 233). Homer once pleased at Athens and Rome, and now pleases in London and Paris (ibid.).

Though our sense of beauty is a natural disposition to feel pleasure, the conditions for the manifestation of this disposition are not always natural. We sometimes need others to direct our attention to beautiful qualities, or to teach us the necessity of shedding our prejudices, before we can take pleasure in something beautiful. The disposition to feel the pleasure we then feel, however, is not implanted in us by others. Cultivating this disposition, so that it operates “with facility and exactness,” makes available to us “all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible” (ST 232, 236).

[See also Attitude; Beauty; Berkeley, George; Cooper, Anthony Ashley; Hutcheson, Francis; Morality; Pleasure; Realism; and Taste.]

Works by Hume

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Edited by Peter Millican. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. References to this work take the form: section.paragraph.Find this resource:

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. References to this work take the form: section.paragraph.Find this resource:

Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Rev. ed. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1987. this resource:

“Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion” (1741). In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller, pp. 3–8. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1987.Find this resource:

“Of the Standard of Taste” (1757). In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller, pp. 226–249. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1987.Find this resource:

“The Sceptic” (1742). In Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller, pp. 159–180. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1987.Find this resource:

A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740). Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. References to this work take the form: book.part.section.paragraph.Find this resource:

Other Sources

Berkeley, George. Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher (1732). Edited by T. E. Jessop. Vol. 3 of The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne. London: Thomas Nelson, 1950.Find this resource:

Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury. Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). Edited by Douglas Den Uyl. 3 vols. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2001. this resource:

Costelloe, Timothy M. “Hume’s Aesthetics: The Literature and Directions for Research.” Hume Studies 30, no. 1 (2004): 87–126.Find this resource:

Guyer, Paul. “Beauty and Utility in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics.” In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, pp. 110–128. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Guyer, Paul. “The Standard of Taste and the ‘Most Ardent Desire of Society.’” In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, pp. 37–74. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Hutcheson, Francis. An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises (1725). Edited by Wolfgang Leidhold. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2004. this resource:

Jones, Peter. “Hume on the Arts and ‘The Standard of Taste’: Texts and Contexts.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hume, 2d ed., edited by David Fate Norton and Jacqueline Taylor, pp. 414–446. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Jones, Peter. Hume’s Sentiments: Their Ciceronian and French Context. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982. See chapter 3.Find this resource:

Kivy, Peter. “Hume’s Neighbour’s Wife: An Essay on the Evolution of Hume’s Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 23 (1983): 195–208.Find this resource:

Plato. Greater Hippias. Translated by Paul Woodruff, in Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, pp. 898–921. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1997.Find this resource:

Shelley, James R. “Hume and the Nature of Taste.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998): 29–38. With Zangwill, 2001, one of the few discussions of Hume’s remarks on the naturalness of taste.Find this resource:

Zangwill, Nick. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. See chapter 9.Find this resource:

James Grant

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