Of The Standard of Taste by David Hume - A Review

WanderingMind on the Standard of Taste

A Review of Hume’s “Standard”

“Of the standard of Taste” is an attempt by philosopher David Hume to explain the need for, and possible existence of, “a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled;…a decision…confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” This “Standard of Taste," as Hume calls it arises as a problem because of the all too apparent variety in taste or sentiment among men. Hume explains that this is a problem because there are times when it becomes necessary to make decisions based on sentiment. The call for decisions to be made about art, literature, religion, morality, and so forth, necessitates the standard Hume says. Hume goes on to show such a standard may exist, for while some works of art have met the standard of taste and withstood generations of critique, still to be held as beautiful or genius, others have faded into history. However, he further explains that the standard is a thing we seek to uphold in the creation of a piece but rarely, if ever, succeed in doing. Rather, it may be possible to decide a things beauty by reasons a posteriori based upon the consensus of those judged fit to have the correct taste. With this solution Hume demonstrates a clearly empirical approach to the problem, opposed to the rationalized arguments of Kant. His arguments are valid, as will be shown, but they provide only a way to judge a thing as having achieved a standard of taste or sentiment not of beauty. Hopefully the distinction will be made clear.

            Hume first establishes the need for a standard of taste by citing various examples in literature, religion, and by way of religion morality.  He opens by saying, “The great variety of Taste…is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation.”  He says, however, that in every language there are terms of blame and of praise that, “Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy.” And that so far as everyone is agreed upon the meaning of these words then this would be satisfactory in describing a work. Unfortunately, as Hume points out, the difference in opinion is greater than at first it may appear; because of the nature of language itself, different persons ascribe different meaning to these words.  He goes on to cite a comparison of a legendary myth told by epic story tellers, Homer and Fenelon. The difference in moral character displayed by the antagonists of the story in the separate versions is made clear and Hume uses this to prove that the ideas or characteristics associated with words changes over time. He further proves the desire for a rule by which we can judge right and wrong, good and bad, ugly and beautiful, by referring the audience to a theological example based on the teachings of the “Alcoran.”  Hume says that while the literary work is full a descriptions of virtue, charity, justice, and the like, the narration itself reveals the actions praised by the prophet to be exactly opposite in nature.  While this account may reveal Hume’s dated view of Islam, it does serve to further his point, ‘by what standard are we to judge of the right or wrong, beautiful or deformed?’ 

            The problem in establishing this rule is that the old axiom, all sentiment is right, seems to be true, for example one could cite the turn of phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  It would seem that Hume proves the need for something that cannot exist, and then he continues.  Commenting once again on the idea of all sentiment being right, he says, “there is certainly a species of common sense which…at least serves to modify and restrain it.”  Making his point he puts forth the idea of someone preferring an unheard of author to someone as great as Milton or Addison, or comparing a mountain to a molehill or pond to ocean.  These examples seem to prove there must be some standard by which we measure works of art to be great.  Hume develops this idea by once again referring to the great Greek poet, Homer.  By Hume’s reasoning the works of the poet must be considered great works of art because they have been appreciated cross-culturally for millennia, they must have some universal appeal. He says that while some things may at first glance appear good and beautiful upon further inspection an observer may find the flaws, and then it is up to the merits of the piece to compensate for the flaws.  A good work in Hume’s conception of the idea would be one that had more good than bad. Yet to judge a piece beautiful one would need more.

Don Quixote the Knight and Sancho Panza his trusty Squire
Don Quixote the Knight and Sancho Panza his trusty Squire

          Here Hume supplies the anecdote of Don Quixote, who’s relatives had once been asked to ‘give their opinion of a hogshead’ He uses this story to illustrate the fulfillment of the requirements to judge a work to be in good taste. By using the Don Quixote anecdote he first shows that one must have strongly developed senses of mind and body.  It says in the story, “it is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: this is a quality hereditary in our family,” this is followed by the story of his kinsmen which will qualify later requirements of a critic. The opening line displays Hume’s idea of needing a highly developed sense.   It is at this point that Hume also shows the while we may strive to create something beautiful, as the villagers had, and judge it so ourselves, the truth can only be discerned afterward with contemplation.  It also becomes clear at this point that while a universal standard of taste may exist, it is Hume’s belief that one can only judge things against one’s own experience and therefore the establishment of this standard of taste lies with the experience of men, who we call critics. Hume continues to develop the criteria for a critic, saying that a critic must be able to distinguish the different properties of a composition and how they work together; this is illustrated by the Quixote story’s iron key on a leather thong. He further defines this delicacy of taste saying that it occurs when: the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition. Armed with refined senses, Hume’s critic would exercise his skill at analyzing works over and over perfecting the acuteness of his faculties and gaining a wide range of experience to which he can later refer.

            Hume says, “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.” It is from the critic’s experience that he will draw information for this comparison, and by comparing the virtues and faults of two pieces by assigning blame and praise accordingly the critic gains more experience and therefore greater authority.  However, Hume follows this requirement with a call for the critic to, “preserve his mind free from all prejudice.”  Meaning that Hume would have them first judge the work thinking only of its qualities and form and then to let enter the comparisons by which it may be judged.  Hume has finally established the criteria for a critic, one who can contribute to the understanding of the standard of taste.  Recall that a piece, according to Hume, is said to have met the standard of taste if it withstands the test of time and is still considered of beautiful work of art.  For this reason, he says that to judge something against the standard of taste, there must be a consensus among critics from all over the world at many different times. 

                        Hume’s arguments are all valid, but what they accomplish may still not be entirely clear.  He establishes that we need and seek a standard of taste because we wish to decide things based on sentiment such as right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly with some degree of consistency.  A standard must exist he shows because certain things have been found good and beautiful by many people of many experiences throughout time, these things must have lived up to that standard.  Further, common sense dictates that some things cannot be compared in regards to their sentimental value such as Ogilby’s atlas, great in its own right, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Therefore a scale must exist by which we are judging these writings, a standard if you will.  In the Don Quixote story, Hume shows us a well developed critic, one who is fit to make an educated assessment of a piece’s worth or taste. He has developed the idea that the standard is not created by “reasonings a priori” but in fact that it is an idea critics agree upon by which they can judge other pieces.  This argument holds to the empirical view of beauty and the standard of taste.  It is based on observation and experience.  Hume establishes criteria for judging a critic to be good or bad.  The judgment of said critic along with others is said to form the standard of taste.  In essence Hume establishes a guide for how to become a better judge of taste without ever defining what men find to be in good taste; this as he points out in the beginning of his essay is the problem, the variety in taste.  In other philosophers we see a different approach, such as in Kant, where we see him try to rationalize beauty.  To make those cognitive functions associated with beauty integral parts of its definition; this is perhaps the truer standard of taste. So while David Hume convincingly explains the need for, and existence of a standard of taste, his definition: “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,” leaves the idea up for to much debate, and depends too much on the judgments of a select few. 

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Comments 4 comments

Abdi Ishak 5 years ago

very well though piece...


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Very nice article...voted up


FluzzyBunny 4 years ago

Waaay more helpful than reading the whole thing. Silly arts and human values class I have: who needs books when you've the important parts online!


James Joyce12 profile image

James Joyce12 3 years ago

Very Nice but I am not sure whether you are aware that Hume is MISQUOTING Don Quixote.

It raises the question whether Hume's mistake is deliberate, ironic or accidental.

And the details of where the two diverge also raises some points.

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