HUME AND A STANDARD OF TASTE
Hume believes there are universal principles of taste, meaning that certain forms and qualities of art are bound to produce feelings of beauty and value in able-bodied persons. He believes we are endowed with a perceptual organ for aesthetic appreciation, though I think he uses the word `organ' to describe a kind of intellectual function or combined perceptual/intellectual talent, rather than a physical piece in the body. The reason we all cannot immediately recognize these universal principles of aesthetic value is mainly due to problems with this `organ' or perceptual/ evaluative function. It is just imperfect in most people, due to inexperience or prejudicial cloudiness. Therefore, only a few could be qualified to perceive and explicate these rules of art. Hume would believe that if a group of people having perfect, delicate, well practiced organs of appreciation were to make judgment upon certain works of art they would all agree, assuming their organs were equal and their minds clear. So their particular sentiments concerning the works would be the true standard of good taste. Only they could make this judgment, or establish their personal sentiment as an objectively true standard.
Hume correctly distinguishes sentiment from judgment in artistic appreciation. Sentiment is how one feels about an object or work of art, and we agree by definition that there can be diverse sentiments in humanity, just as some like strawberry better than chocolate ice-cream. To say one likes something is to express a subjective opinion. But to make a judgment that a certain object is highly aesthetic is to make an objective claim about it. A judgment is not merely an expression of personal sentiment, though it can be this as well, but it is a claim of objectivity. It says "this is good" or "this is true". The affirmation should be defensible, because a judgment is in need of some verification or proof.
Hume attempts to prove that there are true principles of good art, and that true judgments can be made concerning this, by imagining that it could possibly be so, and explaining why it doesn't appear to be so due to some fault in the receiving organism. Hume cannot prove his thesis by an empirical study of man, because all he can find through this study are diverse sentiments and differences of opinion, which would seem to prove the opposite of any real, objective standards in art. But such a study of common man does not really prove anything about truth. For the most of humanity, individual sentiments will vary, according to their peculiar dispositions or different states of the apprehending organ. Because of this empirical fact of diverse tastes around the world, we might be tempted to conclude that there are no true standards or judgments of taste, and that aesthetic appreciation is entirely subjective. But Hume does not confuse empirical study of the common man with truth, that is, he does take as proof of any truth the fact that most people have differing sentiments and cannot agree on a standard of taste. Such a statistical fact is not adequate proof that objective rules of art do not exist, because the explanation could lie with the organ mediating the experience with the object.
Hume believes there are definite finer works of art, and even if most people do not recognize them, the fault lies somewhere in the person and not with the art. As Hume points out, common sense could not suppose that all sentiments are equally valid, or that all taste is equally perfect, or that a cheap romance novel is equal to a Steinbeck classic. Contemporary philosophers would probably not justify their positions by "common sense", and in my mind "common sense" is often common, acculturated prejudice, but here I must agree with Hume because such supposed equality does not make sense (intuitively) to me either. But Hume does not just appeal to common sense, for he produces some very sound arguments to back his belief in universal principles in the face of inconsistent and diverse aesthetic sentiment among humanity.
What could appear to be confusing in Hume's article is that he writes that we can discover these aesthetic rules of composition, these universal principles in the forms and qualities of art, by general observation and experience of common sentiments. What he really means is that true judgments of beauty, or the discovery of universal rules of art, will be found in the sentiment and experience of receiving subjects, and not discovered through intuition or a priori reason. Of course, these subjects could not be the average person or a statistical average of humanity, but would need to be subjects having very refined and practiced organs of appreciation. So the standard rules of art are found empirically in the actual experience of subjects, and these subjects hold the final word or judgment concerning rules of art, rules which are not found or fixed by a priori reason but instead reflect what pleases the body/mind of healthy organs. Notice that the real judge here is the body/mind or apprehending organ, and not some divine or transcendental reason.
Hume proposes that one could prove a certain principle of art to a person by examples, that is, by pointing out the principle. But if that person did not apprehend the principle or find value in it themselves, then how would Hume prove it to the person? He believes that the person would actually doubt their own judgment, rather than doubt the principle, or admit that the fault lies with them and not with the proposed principle. How does this gracious humility occur? The scenario is not very clear to me, but I think that all he can really say is that I would doubt my critical judgment if I knew that more experienced critics perceived the principle in question. Then, maybe the fault lies with me that I do not perceive it rightly. Maybe Hume assumes that the experienced critic could successfully point out the principle to me and lead me from ignorance to knowledge.
An alternative is that at one time I did perceive that principle, so there must be something wrong with me if I presently do not. Yet, I don't think Hume is saying this. Maybe what he wants to say is that if the proposed principle conforms closely enough with other principles known to me, then I have to accept it or find fault in myself. Another alternative is that we just trust that common sense will prevail over time -- that good art will live on in our common sentiment while lesser art will not. This seems to be an unsound appeal to general common sense, the same sense that is often faulty or immature for Hume. So there is a contradiction in proving differences in judgment according to faulty senses, and then appealing to these same senses in judgments Any way, there is a problem here, because there is little reason why I should doubt myself, except in general of course, or that I should believe in the judgments of others when my own sentiment tells me otherwise. I think the best argument here is the submission to an authority with greater practice at perceiving and judging fine art. But if I'm willing to doubt my own feelings and replace them with those of an authority, I should better be convinced the the authority is a good one.
Hume does admit of the problem of finding true judgments or qualified critics. How are we to know a good critic? Again, this is the same problem as to how we could know a good judgment or, as reasoned above, why we would believe one judgment over another -especially over our own. Yet, this particular epistemological problem does not disprove the metaphysical theory that there are, in fact, real standards or universal principles. The problem that we cannot know for sure what they are, or who is qualified to know them, does not necessarily prove their non-existence.
Yet, we are not here speaking of just things in the world, but of perceptions and valuations, and so the epistemological problem may indeed throw dust upon the proposition of universals. Because if we cannot for certain agree upon the principles, due to differences of sentiment or apprehension, then what meaning does "universal" or "standard" have? Is this not to qualify what is common? And this is not a moral question either, for Hume is not suggesting that we ought to have or perceive certain standards of taste. He is suggesting that there ARE these standards of taste and rules of composition. He says that the principles are not so difficult to find. I think that is a bit too optimistic. He also optimistically thinks that we will find them in sound judgments This is an unfortunate tautology, since of course we will find true judgments of standards in sound judgments -- how else?
Yet for Hume, these standards are delicacies or subtleties, only recognized by an evolved and practiced healthy organ. The unhealthy or faulty or inexperienced organ will not be able to judge the true rules of art. Again, this `organ' is more like a function or talent, rather than a physical mechanism, though I suppose it could be viewed both ways. The organ or talent improves with experience, with practice in observation, contemplation, and comparison of different works and degrees of excellence. In fact, the organ must then be a talent in right judgment, and this right judgment would need to apprehend the more subtle delicacies of artistic virtue. It would also need to be free of cultural and even personal prejudices.
Hume says that these prejudices, which I would call sentimental preferences, pervert the "natural sentiment". In other words, they cloud and distort the natural organ of right judgment The best critic must go beyond his own preferences, his own disposition and cultural manners of taste. I must question to what degree this is possible. In a way, what this is saying is that the good critic must transcend his own sentiments, his own preferences. But Hume then contradicts himself again, because he says elsewhere that right judgment of universal principles is to be found in the sentiments of practiced critics. So it is a bit circular to claim that good judgment is found when I transcend my sentiments while my sentiments, when "natural", healthy and practiced, are the proof of good judgment
Really, my sentiments are all I have to judge by, because what else am I going to use? Not my intellect alone or a priori reason. And if not merely following the supposed authority, then what? And why should I follow an authority which contradicts my own sentiment, my own biased experience? So what am I to follow but my own experience, my own feelings, my own evaluation? Of course I will maintain some humility, recognizing that I probably am culturally biased, ill-practiced, and maybe [humorously] disposed to judge in all sorts of ways, none of which may be true to the finer, subtler reality of things.
And finally, I think that Hume ultimately trusts that the "natural sentiment" of man makes the right and final judgment, that there really is a means of apprehending true and good universal principles of art. This means is like an organ or talent, and all it needs is to be further developed in its delicacy of experience and comparison of the principles and degrees of excellence. I have to agree with Hume that there are certain universal principles of good art, which, as defined by Aristotle, primarily are order and unity in the correspondence of parts conforming to the purpose of that communication, and that the true judge of these principles is my natural sentiment, unclouded by prejudice of culture or distracting influences, and in need of development through experiential practice of observation, comparison and contemplation. Once I can dissolve all obstacles coloring my natural organ of appreciation and develop this organic talent, then I am able to rightly judge the principles of true taste and the standard rules of good art.