David Hume Of The Standard Of Taste And Other Essays About Education

Hume Standard of Taste, pdf (864 downloads)


Hume, D. (1910). Of the Standard of Taste. In C. W. Eliott (Ed.), English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (pp. 215–236). P F Collier & Son. (Original work published 1757)

Introduction to “Of the Standard of Taste”

It is certain, Hume maintains, that “beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external” (1757/1910, p. 222). Beauty is a subjective feeling of pleasure that we may experiene as we engage with an object. In holding that beauty is not strictly speaking a quality of objects, Hume adopts a position that is similar to the one that Kant would later adopt in the Critique of Judgment. However, in taking such positions, both Hume and Kant feel that they must say something about what they take to be an obvious fact: we speak and act as if there are standards of taste, and as if it is possible to be in error in claiming that an object is beautiful.

Kant’s approach hinges on his “deduction” of judgments of taste. It is clear that Hume’s approach – which he articulates most fully in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” – is somewhat different. However, it is a matter of interpetive controversy what sort of account Hume ends up defending in the essay. The two main alternatives emerge when Hume writes: “[i]t is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” (1757/1910, p. 217). The two main alternatives, then, are that the standard of taste is (i) a “rule,” or (ii) a “decision.”

The material for the “rule” interpretation emerges from Hume’s suggestion that the rules or principles in question link particular “forms or qualities” of an object with experiences of pleasure in individuals whose pereceptual organs are functioning properly and who are paying proper attention to the object. Along these lines, he writes:

It appears then, that amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty; in like manner as the appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses. (1757/1910, p. 221)

On the rule interpretation, the standard of taste will be connected with such supposed rules linking forms of objects with subjective experiences of pleasure. A person’s judgment concerning an object’s beauty will meet the standard of taste if it suitably maps on to such a rule.

It is obvious to readers of Hume’s essay that the notion of a “true judge” – someone who possesses the five characteristics of delicacy, practice, comparison, freedom from prejudice, and good sense – is to play an important role in Hume’s account. The precise role that the notion is to play will depend on whether the standard of taste is taken to be a rule or a decision. On the “rule” interpretation, the significance of the true judge is that he or she may help us to identify whose responses of pleasure meet the standard of taste.

On the “decision” interpretation, by contrast, true judges play a far more substantial role: their pleasure is constitutive of the standard of state. In other words, the answer to the question “why is it correct to call this object beautiful?” will take something like the form, “it is beautiful because it is something that would please a true judge.”

If one issue that readers face is to determine what sort of account to assign to Hume, another issue is whether the account he adopts actually succeeds. Both the “rule” and “decision” accounts face potential difficulties. Much has been written, for instance, about the possibility that the decision account is circular in a problematic way. Specifically, it can seem as if, in order to be able to determine who possesses the five characteristics, we must first have a clear sense of which objects are beautiful (Kivy 1967). If this is the case, then the account would not be informative: we would already need to know the standard of taste prior to being in a position to use the notion of a true judge help us to articulate the standard of taste.

It becomes clear as the essay proceeds that Hume does not suppose that it is possible for there to be a high degree of precision in aesthetic judgment. For example, he suggests that there may not be an answer in every case as to whether pleasure is warranted in response to the object. This imprecision has to do with factors both “internal” and “external” to the individual. As Hume puts it, “where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we can reconcile the contrary sentiments” (1757/1910, p. 230). Internal factors include one’s age, and one’s particular “humor,” or personality. External factors tend to be cultural:

For a like reason, we 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. It is not without some effort, that we reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of ancient manners, and behold princesses carrying water from the spring, and kings and heroes dressing their own victuals. We may allow in general, that the representation of such manners is no fault in the author, nor deformity in the piece; but we are not so sensibly touched with them. For this reason, comedy is not easily transferred from one age or nation to another. A Frenchman or Englishman is not pleased with the Andria of Terence, or Clitia of Machiavel; where the fine lady, upon whom all the play turns, never once appears to the spectators, but is always kept behind the scenes, suitably to the reserved humour of the ancient Greeks and modern Italians. A man of learning and reflection can make allowance for these peculiarities of manners; but a common audience can never divest themselves so far of their usual ideas and sentiments, as to relish pictures which nowise resemble them. (1757/1910, p. 232)

Hume’s allusion to cultural variation in taste raises important questions about the status of the masterworks – such as Milton’s poetry – that Hume takes to be noncontroversial examples of works that properly elicit the pleasure of beauty. Is there a bias towards works of so-called “high” art, and the cultural subgroups which might find such works especially pleasing? And why should people who are not pleased by the masterworks care whether they please “true judges,” and seek as a consequence to bring their pleasure in line with the pleasure of the true judges (see Levinson 2002)?

Above is a link to the full-text of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste,” reprinted in the 1910 volume English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (edited by C.W. Eliott and published by P F Collier & Son).


References and Further Reading


Hume, D. (1910). Of the Standard of Taste. In C. W. Eliott (Ed.), English Essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (pp. 215–236). P F Collier & Son. (Original work published 1757) Retrieved from http://bradleymurray.ca


Kivy, P. (1967). Hume’s Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 7(1), 57–66.

Levinson, J. (2002). Hume’s Standard of Taste: The Real Problem. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 60(3), 227–238.

Shelley, J. (1994). Hume’s Double Standard of Taste. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52(4), 437–445.

Wieand, J. (1984). Hume’s Two Standards of Taste. The Philosophical Quarterly, 34(135), 129–142.

Cite This Introduction

Murray, B. (2014). Introduction to “Of the Standard of Taste.” Retrieved from http://bradleymurray.ca



Hume’s Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Of the Standard of Taste by David Hume is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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