David Hume On Beauty–And How To Get Good At Detecting It

Is taste in art and literature akin to taste in ice cream? In 1757, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) published four essays under the title, Four Dissertations, one of which he called “Of the Standard of Taste.” In it, Hume attempts to tackle the question of why people vary in opinion with regard to the beautiful. In doing so, Hume also teaches us how to read closely and see.

He begins by noting the problem that, even among persons sharing the same “narrow circle,” “educated under the same government,” and sharing “the same prejudices,” one can still discover differences of taste with regard to beauty.

Why is that?

Hume doesn’t think it’s because people disagree in the abstract about where beauty tends to be found:

Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian [‘a high swelling kind of writing made up of heterogeneous parts’—Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1756], affectation, coldness, and a false brilliancy […]

Nor does Hume think it’s because beauty is just in the eye of the beholder (strictly subjective). He doesn’t agree, for example, with this line of argumentation:

[A] thousand different sentiments [sensibilities; feelings; opinions], 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 of the organs or faculties of the mind; . . . Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. . . . every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.

Again, Hume disagrees with this plausible and common sense argument, for it leads to absurd conclusions, such as applauding the opinion of a critic who might treat the poetry of John Ogilby, a minor Scottish poet and Homer translator of the 17th century, as equivalent to that of a major poet like John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (1667). Such a judgment would be as if one “had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe [a volcanic peak in the Canary Islands],” and would not deserve respect from educated people. Treating beauty as strictly subjective also fails to explain how a famous poet like Homer could please “Athens and Rome two thousand years ago” and still be “admired at Paris and London” today. Despite “the changes of climate, government, religion, and language,” educated people agree that Homer’s poetry has beauty and power: the interventions of space and time “have not been able to obscure his glory.” Beauty, for Hume, is objective.

If we agree on the criteria for beauty, why disagreements? But we’re still left with a problem: if broad principles of what tends to make for beautiful things (symmetries; coherences; novel contrasts; etc.) can be agreed upon and beauty is, in some sense, objectively “out there” in nature, art, and literary artifacts themselves, why are there aesthetic disagreements? Hume locates the problem in us, in our senses of discrimination, which he takes to be delicate and subject to poor calibrations, like the mechanism of a watch:

Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable 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.

The criteria we assign to the beautiful in the abstract, in other words, can be picked up by us in practice only if our discerning faculties are well-tuned, and neither damaged nor working improperly. Just as you wouldn’t, for example, expect “a man in a fever” to be “able to decide concerning flavours,” so you cannot expect an agitated or distracted person to be especially discerning of beauty. Some people, likewise, have little native aptitude for “delicacy of imagination,” something Hume insists “is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions.”

Prejudice and bias. Another reason that people may not perceive the same things as beautiful has to do with prejudice: people possess different habits of attention and temperamental biases that make it difficult to notice all the things in the world that are actually beautiful:

A young man, whose passions are warm, will be more sensibly touched with amorous and tender images, than a man more advanced in years, who takes pleasure in wise, philosophical reflections concerning the conduct of life and moderation of the passions.


One person is more pleased with the sublime; another with the tender; a third with raillery. One has a strong sensibility to blemishes, and is extremely studious of correctness: Another has a more lively feeling of beauties, and pardons twenty absurdities and defects for one elevated or pathetic stroke.

Culturally, people also carry biases:

[W]e are more pleased, in the course of our reading, with pictures and characters, that resemble objects which are found in our own age or country, than with those which describe a different set of customs.

Senses attuned to aspect seeing. Still another reason that people may not agree on the beautiful is that their sense organs (their powers of imagination and vision) are differently calibrated: one may be naturally sensitive to one subtle quality in an object; another to a different quality. That is, their senses may both be highly attuned to beauty, but to very different aspects of it. By way of analogy, Hume offers two people passing very different judgments as to the qualities adhering to a wine: one praises it as promising, but detects “a small taste of leather,” and the experience of it is thus ruined for him. The other too praises it as good, “but with the reserve of a taste of iron.” Before ridiculing their judgments as grounded in fantasy, Hume asks us to imagine that, on drinking the whole bottle, “there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.” From this, Hume draws the conclusion that, just as there are qualities in wine that make for judgments as to its sweetness or bitterness, so there are qualities in objects that make for judgments as to their beauty or deformity: “[T]here are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings,” and these qualities of beauty and deformity can be very fine and difficult to detect:

Now as these qualities may be found in a small degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it often happens, that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all the particular flavors, amidst the disorder, in which they are presented. Where 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: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.

Our taste in beauty, in other words, is very like our taste in wine: just as we must have a developed and sensitive palette to detect the subtle qualities in a wine, so we must have a developed and sensitive faculty of aesthetic taste—a “delicacy of imagination”—to detect and render good judgments concerning all the qualities of a beautiful thing in nature, art, or literature.

Delicacy, sensitivity, and precision of sense. So this is the reason that it’s not “easy to silence the bad critic, who might always insist upon his particular sentiment, and refuse to submit” to a critic of more refined judgments. People differ in their powers of sensitivity, and this means that some apprehend details far more perfectly than others. Note Hume’s use of the phrase nothing to escape and the words exactnesssmallelaborate, minutenessacuteunobserved in the following passage from his essay:

It is acknowledged to be the perfection of every sense or faculty, to perceive with exactness its most minute objects, and allow nothing to escape its notice and observation. The smaller the objects are, which become sensible to the eye, the finer is that organ, and the more elaborate its make and composition. A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved.

Hume is insisting here on very close reading and seeing. To reach this highest experience of beauty—“perfection of our mental taste”—nothing must get past the perceiver “unobserved.”

Practice makes perfect. But can you do anything about this? That is, can you obtain this well-calibrated aesthetic faculty—the faculty of taste, or is it just something a person is born with, as some are born with more sensitive ears and taste buds than others? Here’s Hume’s answer:

[T]hough there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.

In other words, there’s hope for the person interested in becoming a close discriminator of beauty: practice makes perfect. But the best that people tend to do without practice is to recognize beauty in only the most general fashion: “The [unpracticed] taste cannot perceive the several excellencies of the performance.” Also, the subsequent judgment lacks confidence:

If it pronounce the whole in general to be beautiful or deformed, it is the utmost that can be expected; and even this judgment, a person, so unpracticed, will be apt to deliver with great hesitation and reserve. But allow him to acquire experience in those objects, his feeling becomes more exact […]

Linger on, and rotate, the diamond. In addition to practice, Hume asserts that one must also learn to slow down and look at things from multiple angles:

[B]efore we can give judgment on any work of importance, it will be […] requisite […] that [it…] be more than once perused by us, and surveyed in different lights with attention and deliberation. There is a flutter or hurry of thought which attends the first perusal of any piece, and which confounds the genuine sentiment of beauty. The relation of the parts is not discerned: The true characters of style are little distinguished: The several perfections and defects seem wrapped up in a species of confusion, and present themselves indistinctly to the imagination. Not to mention, that there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first; but being found incompatible with a just expression either of reason or passion, soon palls upon the taste, and is then rejected with disdain, at least rated at a much lower value.

Comparison and contrast. Hume emphasizes comparison as another way of honing one’s aesthetic sense; that is, noticing differences in the degrees of beauty by asking the following question: this object of nature, art, or literature is beautiful or powerful as compared to what?

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.

And refined comparisons, obviously, require exposing yourself to a lot of aesthetic things so that you become conversant in the varieties of aesthetic experience. Only then can you render the highest judgments based on the highest models:

A great inferiority of beauty gives pain to a person conversant in the highest excellence of the kind, and is for that reason pronounced a deformity.

If you only have a limited experience with beauty, “the most finished object” you know of “is naturally supposed to have reached the pinnacle of perfection,” but once you become “accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations,” then you can competently “rate the merits of a work exhibited” and “assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.”

Hume in a nutshell. In short, for Hume beauty is objective and pervasive in the world, but subtle and subject to degrees, and our failure to perceive it accurately and in its fullness can be accounted for by numerous factors:

  • We may be distracted or otherwise ill-tuned or damaged in our faculties.
  • We may have prejudices born of habits of attention, temperament, and culture.
  • We may have naturally diverse and calibrated senses that notice some aspects of beauty, but not others.

Hume offers the following to those who wish to cultivate their receptivity to, and discernment of, beauty:

  • Practice close reading and seeing.
  • When practicing reading and seeing, slow down, look repeatedly, and take views from multiple angles.
  • When contemplating an object of beauty, compare and rate it in relation to other objects of beauty.

There’s so much beauty in the world. How much of it are we noticing?

A Wittgensteinian critique. A 21st century person, reflecting on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas surrounding language games, might wonder whether Hume has confused criteria for beauty with beauty itself. She might wonder whether what Hume calls a dullness or insensitivity to beauty is, to the contrary, just a dullness or insensitivity to a beauty criteria list, perhaps not even explicitly stated, but nevertheless present, applied to objects of contemplation. The Wittgensteinian critic might also doubt the wisdom of Hume’s overlay of an aesthetic metalanguage onto all the other aesthetic languages at work in the world, as when Hume writes that the widely read and well-traveled critic, by long practice, becomes “accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations.” Any such meta-evaluative weighing of diverse aesthetic traditions, on a Wittgensteinian critique, is not really closing in on the fullest apprehension of beauty that can be attained, but is, rather, yet another spell-casting enactment of a notational language game. (“Whatever you can do, Hume can do meta.”)

And Wittgenstein can do meta-meta.

One person’s interpretation or notation (“Here’s what’s really going on,…”) is another person’s experience of a hijacking.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, david hume, philosophy, poetry, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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