Philosophy Compass 4 (1):292-295 (2009)
David Hume's relatively short essay 'Of the Standard of Taste' deals with some of the most difficult issues in aesthetic theory. Apart from giving a few pregnant remarks, near the end of his discussion, on the role of morality in aesthetic evaluation, Hume tries to reconcile the idea that tastes are subjective (in the sense of not being answerable to the facts) with the idea that some objects of taste are better than others. 'Tastes', in this context, are the pleasures or displeasures that a person can take in the beauties of poems, paintings, and other artistic compositions (though Hume also wants to stress the continuities between tastes, so understood, and the bodily sense of taste). The position at which Hume arrives in the essay (despite some dialectical unclarity) is that some people – the 'true judges'– determine by their 'joint verdict' which works are meritorious. This solution continues to exercise a fascination, as does Hume's complicated route to it. Author Recommends: Paul Guyer, 'The Standard of Taste and the "Most Ardent Desire of Society" ', Values of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 37–76. This paper places 'Of the Standard of Taste' in an especially rich context, and asks why Hume concentrates on true judges instead of the improvement of one's own taste. Mary Mothersill, 'Hume: "Of the Standard of Taste" ', Beauty Restored (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 177–208. This chapter, embedded in an exposition of Mothersill's 'First Thesis' (the denial that there are principles of taste) and 'Second Thesis' (the affirmation that some judgments of taste are genuine judgments), gives a detailed running commentary on Hume's essay. A shorter self-contained version of the chapter appeared as 'Hume and the Paradox of Taste' in Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology , 2nd ed., eds. George Dickie, Richard Sclafani, and Ronald Roblin (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1989, 269–86). Jerrold Levinson, 'Hume's Standard of Taste: The Real Problem', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2002): 227–38. An importance recent article, Levinson's piece argues that the 'real' difficulty with Hume's essay has gone unnoticed: why should I care about what Hume's true judges think? Christopher Williams, 'Some Questions in Hume's Aesthetics', Philosophy Compass 2/2 (2007). This article provides a brief overview of the topics discussed under weeks 3–5 in the sample syllabus below. It is intended to provide a roadmap for the particular set of readings listed there. David Wiggins, 'A Sensible Subjectivism?', Needs, Values, and Truth , 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 185–214. This is a stimulating paper in moral philosophy that treats Hume's essay on taste as a model for a serious subjectivism. Wiggins then presents his own brand of subjectivism as an alternative to Hume's. Online Materials: Hume's Aesthetics (Ted Gracyk): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-aesthetics/ Sample Syllabus: Recommended background reading on Hume's historical context: Peter Kivy, The Seventh Sense: Francis Hutcheson and Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), especially Part III. Recommended background reading on the general topic of taste: David A. Whewell, 'Taste', Blackwell Companion to Aesthetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 415–18. Dabney Townsend and Carolyn Korsmeyer, 'Taste', Encyclopedia of Aesthetics , ed. Michael Kelly (New York, NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4:355–62. Ted Cohen, 'The Philosophy of Taste: Thoughts on the Idea', Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics , ed. Peter Kivy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 167–73. Week 1: Hume on beauty, art, and aesthetic judgment in the Treatise of Human Nature and the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals The following references are usable for any complete edition of the Treatise or Enquiry Treatise , 2.1.8 ('Of Beauty and Deformity') Treatise , 2.2.5 ('Of Our Esteem for the Rich and Powerful') Treatise , 2.2.8 ('Of Malice and Envy'), final three paragraphs Treatise , 2.2.11 ('Of the Amorous Passion, or Love Betwixt the Sexes') Treatise , 3.1.2 ('Moral Distinctions Deriv'd from a Moral Sense') Treatise , 3.3.1 ('Of the Origin of the Natural Virtues') Treatise , 3.3.5 ('Some Farther Reflexions Concerning the Natural Virtues') Enquiry , Appendix 1 ('Of moral sentiment') Week 2: Hume's essays Essays Moral, Political, and Literary , ed. Eugene Miller (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyClassics, 1985) is the most commonly used edition today. 'Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion' 'Of Eloquence' 'Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences' 'Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing' 'Of Tragedy' 'Of the Standard of Taste' Week 3: Circularity–Virtuous or Vicious? Peter Kivy, 'Hume's Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle', British Journal of Aesthetics (1967): 57–66. David Wiggins, 'A Sensible Subjectivism?', Needs, Values, and Truth , 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 185–214. Week 4: Rules of Art Mary Mothersill, 'Hume: "Of the Standard of Taste" ', Beauty Restored (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), 177–208. James Shelley, 'Hume's Double Standard of Taste', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1994): 437–45. Nick Zangwill, 'Hume, Taste, and Teleology', The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 149–65. Week 5: The True Judge Malcolm Budd, 'Hume and Kant', 'Hume's Standard of Taste', 'Hume and Human Nature', Values of Art (London: Allen Lane, 1995), 16–24 . Paul Guyer, 'The Standard of Taste and the "Most Ardent Desire of Society" ', Values of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 37–76. Jerrold Levinson, 'Hume's Standard of Taste: The Real Problem', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (2002): 227–38. Week 6: Moralism in Aesthetic Judgment: Hume and Beyond Kendall Walton, 'Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1994): 27–50. Richard Moran, 'The Expression of Feeling in Imagination', Philosophical Review (1994): 75–106. Tamar Szabo-Gendler, 'The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance', Journal of Philosophy (2000): 55–81. Focus Questions 1. How does Hume distinguish between matters of 'fact' and 'sentiment'? 2. What is a 'rule of art', and are there any rules? 3. Can a bad critic be 'silenced'? 4. What are the characteristics of good critics? 5. Should we expect good critics to agree on the merits of a work, and should I care about becoming a good critic myself? 6. Is it possible to distinguish variations in taste for which we should expect a standard and variations for which it is 'vain' to have such an expectation? 7. How is the excellence of a work related to the exercise of taste? 8. If a work of literature has a moral outlook that differs from our own, should we consider the work defective on literary grounds?
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