A Mini-Course in Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.16: Thinking Critically About Beauty, Art, And Literature

I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter one. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.

Concept 1.16. Thinking critically about beauty, art, and literature. In 1757, a full century prior to the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), 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 has a question surrounding variation, a matter we now recognize as a characteristically Darwinian concern. We’ll call Hume’s puzzling over it proto-Darwinian, for just as Darwin sought, not a supernatural or moral, but a natural and rational, explanation for why species vary, Hume sought, not a supernatural or moral, but a natural and rational explanation for why opinions vary, most particularly on matters of taste with regard to beauty, art, and writing.

So why do tastes vary on beauty, art, and writing?

In tackling this question, Hume not only walks us through what a plausible natural and rational explanation to this question might look like, but he also teaches us how to read closely, think critically, and see.

Is taste in art and writing akin to taste in ice cream? Hume 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, art, and literature.

Why is that?

Hume doesn’t think it’s because people disagree in the abstract about where, say, good writing tends to be found. We all seem to agree, in general, on positive criteria for good writing: “Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing.” We also agree on negative criteria. We tend to agree, for instance, that coldness in writing is bad, as is “fustian” writing, which Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary (1756), defines as “a high swelling kind of writing made up of heterogeneous parts”—that is, a writing that sounds sophisticated at first, but is actually just a pompous shambles, inharmonious, lacking coherence or an ultimate point.

So, no, taste in beauty, art, and writing is not like taste in ice cream, according to Hume. We all generally agree on the criteria for what’s beautiful and makes art and writing good. Something not just subjective, but objective, seems to be going on when we judge beauty, art, and good writing. Beauty and excellence are in some sense in the art and writing, and there are people who see them immediately. They recognize them. But others don’t. So why don’t we agree?

Is the poetry of Homer and John Milton really as good as your literature professor says it is? Hume doesn’t think beauty is just in the eye of the beholder (strictly subjective). He doesn’t agree, for example, with this line of argumentation: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. . . . [E]very 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, says Hume, 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 and aesthetically discriminating 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.”

So beauty, for Hume, is objective.

Then why don’t we agree? 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 writing, then why are there aesthetic disagreements? Hume locates the problem in us; in our sense 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.

In other words, for accurate detection of time, you need a fine watch, and for accurate detection of beauty, you need delicate discrimination. Put another way, the criteria we assign to the beautiful in the abstract 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 functioning as habit and temperamental 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.

In contemporary psychology, the Big Five trait model (extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness) would seem to support Hume here. Temperamental inclinations will tend to tug one’s attention and interest away from some things, and toward others.

Senses attuned to aspect seeing (and smelling, hearing, etc.). Still another reason that people may not agree on the beautiful is that their sense organs and 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, one’s senses may 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 bottle of wine: one praises it as promising, but detects “a small taste of leather,” and the experience of it is thus compromised 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 projective 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 writing. (And Darwin might say here that rendering such a judgment in the right company is socially adaptive.)

Nothing escapes notice: delicacy, sensitivity, and precision of sense. So “delicacy of imagination” 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:

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”—exactness is required. 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. (Practice entails focus, habit, and the close study of wide-ranging models.) But the best that people tend to do without practice is to recognize beauty and fine art and writing 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 […]

In other words, the danger of being shamed before others in disagreement is in play as to whether you will confidently detect beauty, good art, and good writing. If you lack practice and experience, the contrary opinion of a more experienced observer may rattle you. You might not be sure within yourself as to what you’ve seen. So to obtain a confident proficiency in detecting beauty, you have to practice looking and engage in wide-ranging viewing and reading. Through practice, you also achieve a degree of self-esteem (inner confidence that your faculties are up to the task, and that, when you detect beauty, good art, or good writing, you see it right). You have to fight through a lot of static—including social static—to detect the signal in the noise.

Linger on, and rotate, the diamond. In addition to practice, Hume asserts that one must also learn to look at things more than once, and 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.”

Hume’s advice thus entails slowing down; way, way down:

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, contrast, degree, and hierarchy. 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 writing is beautiful, excellent, or powerful as compared to what? Here’s Hume:

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.

Notice Hume’s emphasis here on “being frequently obliged to form comparisons.” Frequency in this context implies the leisure of repeated, wide-ranging exposures to nature, art, and literature.

Experience many things, and across times and cultures. Refined comparisons thus require exposing yourself to a lot of things so that you become conversant in the varieties of aesthetic experience. Only then can you render the best judgments based on the most refined criteria and 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 also subtle and subject to degrees of perfection. And so it is that evaluations concerning beauty, art, and good writing are not either-or judgments, but judgments along a continuum (more or less beautiful, more or less excellent, etc.). Our failure to perceive things accurately and in their fullness can thus 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.
  • We may lack prolonged and wide-ranging experience in looking, reading, and judging.

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

  • Practice close reading and seeing.
  • When practicing reading and seeing, slow down, look repeatedly, and take views from multiple angles.
  • When contemplating a piece of art or writing, compare and rate it in relation to other pieces of art or writing that you know, including those across times and cultures.

There’s so much beauty in the world. How much of it are we really noticing? Obviously, very little, so it’s okay to start noticing a bit more just from where you are now. Little steps in a definite direction, persisted in, and with a goal in mind, make for a destination and purpose. You reach the summit of Everest one step at a time.

An objection to Hume: is he confusing beauty with a beauty criteria list? A 21st century person sensitive to the preservation of variety and experiment might wonder whether Hume has confused criteria for beauty with beauty itself. She might ask whether what Hume calls a dullness or insensitivity to beauty is, to the contrary, just a dullness or insensitivity to a particular, culturally determined, beauty criteria list, perhaps not even explicitly stated, but nevertheless present, applied to objects of contemplation.

A second objection: anything you can do, Hume can do “meta”? A 21st century person might also doubt the wisdom of Hume overlaying an aesthetic metalanguage (a language overlaying another language, dominating and interpreting it) 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 may not really be closing in on the fullest apprehension of beauty that can be attained, but may, rather, be just another spell-casting enactment of marginalia and notation tacked onto somebody else’s art or cultural language game. To wholly see the beauty of something from a culture different from your own, you may be in need of full immersion in the language and aesthetic game(s) of that culture.

So the fact that anything you can do, Hume can do meta—and anything that Hume can do, you can do meta, meta—doesn’t mean that it’s getting one to a greater truth or perception of beauty. It may just mean that each of you is using a different language game or list of criteria to evaluate what the other is doing. There is thinking, and there is thinking about thinking (metacognition), and there is the artwork itself, and how Hume judges it—and how you judge Hume in the judging of it. By categorizing one language or criteria list for beauty as superior and others inferior, a follower of Hume may miss the beauty and inner logic of the ones deemed inferior. One person’s interpretation or notation–“Here’s what’s really going on; here’s what’s really beautiful and superior about this piece of writing over all others…”–may be another person’s experience of a hijacking.

Thinking about Hume after Darwin. Darwin would probably concur with the contemporary brake-tapping on Hume immediately above. What Hume might deem beautiful or good in art or writing depends on the criteria for what’s beautiful and good—and the historical, cultural, and aesthetic language games in which they are discussed. If the criteria for beauty, art, and good writing are agreed upon, and an author’s claims are repeated by others and stay in circulation (survive) within a cultural language game, then the evolutionist might say: whatever works.

But Darwin might also have an additional critique. If Hume is correct that differently calibrated sense organs and imaginations impact the degree to which we can make delicate discriminations of art and writing, then where did these variant calibrations come from? Darwin would say that they came from adaptations that serve survival. These adaptations can manifest physical capacities (keen eyesight, for instance), but also social capacities (a keen ability to read a room or emotionally salivate to the same social cues as those in your tribe). And some will have these abilities to a greater degree than others.

Beauty and social approval may not always line up. So a Darwinian advantage can accrue to you for gathering resources and mates if you have above average powers to impress a like-minded group of people—and this is regardless of what’s objectively beautiful (if objective beauty indeed exists). Put another way, a group can share a criteria list for beauty whether that list really and truly characterizes beauty well or not.

And outsiders don’t necessarily matter either. What matters in terms of your adaptive fitness to your tribe or group may be whether the group agrees with you or not, not whether outsiders agree. (The exception is if your group values disagreement. If it does, then playing the role of contrarian from within your group might be adaptive. You may disagree, for instance, with your group’s beauty criteria list, or question it, and not strain your relation to the group.)

But now imagine yourself with a lucky, variant social adaptation. As an individual in your group, you may be especially good at detecting or producing exactly the sorts of art that your group salivates to and agrees is beautiful. You may thus be well-adapted for making the sorts of discriminations that bind you to that particular group, but not to others, thereby marrying your fate to that group. (Evolution, recall, is about organisms varying in their evolutionary strategies, and laying down bets on future survival). Your bet is with your group—and you may find yourself quite fortunate in your contingent, delicate discriminations because they agree with your group. You may, for instance, have a delicate sensitivity to depictions of the sea, and life at sea, and your friends are all fishermen. They love looking at the sea with you. You see things from a vantage that they like. The actual truth of matters, or the accurate perception of objective beauty (whatever that might be), may have nothing to do with the actual success of your judgments with your friends.

Writing 1.16.1. Select a readily manageable item for delicate discrimination (a bottle of water, a pair of keys, a tree, a photograph, a building, a piece of art, a poem, a paragraph of writing). It can be anything that you can comfortably get out in front of you, and on which you can concentrate without significant distractions. Evaluate it for its excellencies and defects, and the relation of its parts to the whole. Linger, take notes, make repeated sensorial passes over the object (visual, of course, but perhaps also engage your other senses as well), and do this from multiple angles. Engage it with your thoughts as well. Notice distinctions—and make them. Do your best to get away from any external distractions, and if you have internal distractions (obsessive thoughts that are taking you out of the moment and elsewhere; a stuffy nose or ear-ache, for instance), do your best to set them aside. As you spend time with your item, write reflections on it. What do you notice? Write with precision and exactness. Be sure to address the item’s excellencies and defects, and the relation of its parts to the whole—and see to it that, as you write, you too are attendant to your own relation of parts to whole in your composition—and try to write and think with an eye on excellence. In other words, try not to write a jumble of disconnected thoughts, but a page that holds together as a piece of writing that is seeking to locate a main point (so that its parts are in service to that main point).

Writing 1.16.2. Get a photograph out in front of you, preferably from a good art of photography book. Think “slo-mo”: pause to ask questions, linger, look, and feel. Think, for instance, what a photograph achieves, arresting time, generating a crawl space around it. Think of how you might, in imagination, enter the scene of the photograph, savoring the sights, sounds, aromas, textures, and tastes that might be there–or how you might enter the scene from the vantage of each character in it, human, animal, plant, cloud, and stone. Or perhaps note how your photo depicts or functions as a process (ask what stage the scene is in; its parts in that stage; what it’s embedded in). Also count patterns. Note in what way the photo you have chosen to contemplate depicts somethig odd or is itself odd, and what’s sui generis (one of a kind) about it. Note in what sense things depicted are perhaps ugly, abhorrent, beautiful, good, or true. Also note what process or processes the scene might be embedded in (name & un-name things in the photograph; integrate & disintegrate them). Think of your photograph as a happening as opposed to a noun: notice that all things (nouns) are really events and relations in combination—and that nouns bear adjectives that frequently carry emotional, essentialist judgments (emotions are judgments). What emotions; what dominant impressions, come forward around this image?

Writing 1.16.3. Have another look at the writing you generated in response to either 1.16.1 or 1.16.2, and write a page of reflection on the prejudices (cultural and personal biases, passions, and temperamental inclinations) that found their way into your piece of writing. What got into the writing because of the contingent circumstances surrounding your inner and outer life? Think about your age, both your own (in terms of your life cycle) and the one you live in (the cultural Zeitgeist—the spirit of the age). Think about your race, gender, and class. Did these make their way explicitly or implicitly into the writing–either as to the selection of your item of contemplation, or as to the content of your reflection? How about matters surrounding your temperament and passions. Perhaps you’re an extrovert rather than an introvert; an optimist rather than a pessimist; a conservative rather than a liberal; are into sports, not art. Perhaps you’re someone who doesn’t like to argue–or maybe you’re a perfectionist. How did such things about you, temperamentally, enter your writing (in ways subtle and not so subtle)? How about your geographic location on the planet? Your marital status? Whether you’ve travelled in your life, or live in the city or countryside? Try to notice and be honest with yourself about what sorts of things crept into your writing that were not, strictly speaking, about the item of contemplation–and an objective judgment concerning it–but about you.

Writing 1.16.4. Imaginatively cross a boundary of time or space (or both). Look at a cultural artifact that is not your own–either in art, photography, or writing. It may be something ancient, such as paragraph of writing in translation from the Gilgamesh Epic or Bhagavad Gita, or a piece of art, but evaluate it on its own terms, writing about it. Reflect on what appears to be its inner logic (how its parts relate to the whole; the myths or worldview that might surround it). What do you surmise its use might have been to the first audience that received it (if you do not know), and what do you guess may have constituted its excellencies and defects from the vantage of that first audience, or as evaluated by its creator or first critics?

Writing 1.16.5. Select a piece of art, photography, or writing from your own time or culture and do a cross-cultural comparison and contrast with the art you wrote about in 1.16.4. Which one do you prefer personally? Is it fair to evaluate the inner logic of one piece against the inner logic of the other—given that they emerged out of different cultural language games–and perhaps had different priorities? What about if they had come out of the same culture?

Writing 1.16.6. Compare, contrast, and rank for excellence these three paragraphs of writing in relation to one another. What are their excellencies and defects? Which is most effective—and which least effective—in relating its parts to its whole? Which paragraph arouses in you the greatest amount of interest and energy in response? How does it achieve this effect? Is that effect in the writing—or in you?

[Insert three paragraphs here.]

Writing 1.16.7. In the following passage, x evaluates y as a bad writer…. [Complete.]

Writing 1.16.8. Write your first impression of the below paragraph as to its tone, content, quality, interest, etc. Don’t read the below paragraph twice. Read it only once. After you’ve generated a paragraph outlining your first impression, read it again—but this time, far more slowly and carefully. Then read it several times. Think about it from different angles. Notice its ironies, excellencies, and defects. Observe how its parts relate to the whole. Then write a second paragraph discussing your more considered opinions of the writing, and any delicate discriminations you might have caught on a closer pass with the work. Did your opinion, feeling, or perspective shift at all between your first paragraph of writing and the second? The more you thought about it, did you like the piece of writing more or less?

[Insert paragraph here.]

Writing 1.16.9. Engage in a meta-gesture for a paragraph in which you declare what the below paragraph is “really about.” Be creative. Put your reader in-the-know. “The overt subject of this paragraph is x, but what it’s really about is y.” Be ironic or serious, as you please. Just don’t take the texts overt meaning to be its final meaning. Expose something of its subtext.

[Locate a paragraph.]

Writing 1.16.10. Write a paragraph in which you offer your main criteria (no more than five) for what constitute excellence in writing or art. After generating this paragraph, contemplate it a bit further, and in a second paragraph, answer these question: are the criteria you generated in paragraph one valuable absent context? Are they perhaps too specific—or too general? Would making them more specific or more general make them more meaningful and useful? Do they really translate reliably into all contexts—or just some contexts? What might those contexts be?


 Image result for art


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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, beauty, critical thinking, david hume, education, edward feser, meditation, philosophy, poetry, reason, rhetoric, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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