Of the Standard of Taste is an essay by the Philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) who attempts to elaborate the need and the possible existence of a rule that will reconcile the taste of individuals to one basic standard which can be used to approve or condemn various works. Hume provides an adequate and convincing description of this standard; his essay is a masterpiece of style and elegance. Hume drives in theories through an argumentation flow and by providing explanations for questions he raises in the essay.
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This standard is difficult to come by because of the variety of tastes that people have. This is because of judgment made upon sentiment. He proves that such a standard may exist and may have been applied to works of art and other creations that have stood the test of time1. Others have simply died. This standard is one that we should look upon while making one’s creations but one that will be difficult fully to satisfy. Hume uses the term ‘reconcile’ to mean decide who is wrong and right (Wieand 131).
Hume states that the difference in sentiments is influenced by various factors2. These factors include language and time. Indeed, as time progresses sentiments will change aspects of it altered, some added and others removed altogether. He gives the example of the followers of the Koran saying that the words there in that describe honesty; justice, modesty and charity only translate to treachery, inhumanity, bigotry, cruelty, and revenge in the civilised world. Hume insists that the standard of taste becomes a problem when men explore their different tastes based on their preferences.
Looking critically at his statement, however, we realise that he attempts to give a fixed way to judge between what is right and wrong, beautiful and otherwise. This begs the question can sentiment be right or wrong. Is an individual’s view correct or incorrect? Sentiment only marks conformity between the object and the faculties of the mind. Hume has a reasonably compelling response to this. He says that common sense should guide sentiment and reason and rationalism can be used indeed to declare opinion right or wrong (Kivy 58). In his account, Hume seems to believe that the sense of art and civilisation is the determinant of taste.
Hume attempts to solve this to making a judgment a question of facts. He points out several characteristics of that are needed for one to make sober judgment. This will solve the problem; what is proper art? Good art is art that fit critics approve. Good critics are in turn those are deemed fit to decide by possessing the various characteristics. This now becomes a problem of facts (possession of qualities) rather than sentiment. These characteristics are delicacy, practice, comparison, non prejudice and moral sense. By this, he introduces his argument on the standard of taste by criticising other tastes rating them on his taste (Kivy 60).
Hume further points out various challenges that may face the judging of various subjects. He classifies them into external and internal factors. The external factors are those surrounding the situations such as challenges of time and space (Weiand 131). According to Hume, they hinder the perception and sentiment by throwing a false light on the subject. Other factors may pose a serious challenge and thus hinder the proper working of the whole process (Hume 11). These internal factors do not refer to the physical locale of the agents such as problems of internal organs but rather problems of soundness of the mind. Here, we get the idea that he is alluding to some finesse, skill, art or intelligence that not everyone is endowed with (Weiand 135). This conviction is further boosted by the illustration he gives of Sancho, who says that he has a taste of wine or at least the right to pretend to have one since the trait is common in his family. Hume rightfully states that the judge can do nothing about the external and internal factors but can overcome them by possessing the five qualities3.
He goes on to elaborate on the traits and how they assist the individual to judge accordingly. Delicacy refers to people who have the ability to tap to their emotions and passion. Thus, people with delicate emotions will have excellent taste in art (Kivy 61). This can especially be observed in women. Comparison is more of a practice than it is a character trait. It is closely connected to practice. The latter refers to experience and hence the judge will draw from his/her experience and compare the characteristics of the subject to make his decision. Hume puts in caution that the process must be done with precisely no prejudice.
Lastly, he recognises that where a disagreement of fact arises the problem cannot simply be solved. A compelling example is one where there is a disagreement between two qualified and recognised judges. It has become an argument of reason and sentiment and no solution cannot be found.
Kivy, Peter. Hume’s Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 7(1), 57 – 66. 1967. Web.
Wieand, Jeffrey. Philosophical Quarterly. Hume’s two standards of taste. 34(135), 129–142. 1984. Print.
1 Kivy, Peter. Hume’s Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 7(1), 57 – 66. 1967. Web.
2 Wieand, Jeffrey. Philosophical Quarterly. Hume’s two standards of taste. 34(135), 129–142.1984.
3 Kivy, Peter. Hume’s Standard of Taste: Breaking the Circle. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 7(1), 57 – 66. 1967. Web.