Literary Criticism of David Hume

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) was one of the major figures of the Enlightenment. Like John Locke and George Berkeley, he was an empiricist, believing that our knowledge derives from experience, and he pushed the empiricism of his predecessors toward a controversial skepticism as regards our knowledge of the external world, our subjective identities, and our religious beliefs. His major philosophical works were History of England (1739–1740), reproduced in a more accessible version in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). He also produced Political Discourses (1752), and a number of treatises on religion, including The Natural History of Religion (1755) and Three Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was not published until 1779, after his death. In addition to these striking accomplishments, he managed to write a six-volume History of England (1754–1762).

maxresdefaultHume’s essay Of the Standard of Taste was published in his volume entitled Four Dissertations in 1757. The other three essays were on history of religion, the passions, and tragedy. The essay on taste raises questions about the standards of aesthetic judgment that are still pertinent today: how do we reconcile people’s conflicting judgments about taste? Can we arrive at an objective standard? When we make judgments about beauty, are we expressing something about the object or ourselves? What role does the reader or audience have in determining the elements of taste?

Hume begins his essay by noting the inevitable fact that taste differs widely, even among people nurtured under the same circumstances, people who have imbibed the same general dispositions and prejudices. When we shift our consideration to a broader, intercultural context, this divergence is even more striking: we may call “barbarous” the tastes and conventions of other nations and cultures; but they are liable to throw such condemnation back at us.1

Hume sees such a divergence of opinion as marking the realm of taste far more than that of science where, often, an explanation of the disputed terms will resolve disagreements. In matters of taste, on the other hand, we might agree on the qualities we applaud, such as elegance, propriety, and simplicity; however, different people will affix different meanings to these terms (“OST,” 2). Likewise, in the sphere of morality, the very nature of language generates a harmony between people’s opinions. The terms of the language of morality are already inscribed with praise or blame: no one will contest that virtue is praiseworthy or that vice is to be frowned upon. Such terms are “the least liable to be perverted or mistaken” (“OST,” 5). However, when we move from this general level to more particular instances, disagreements arise since the qualities people attribute to “virtue” will vary according to particular dispositions, historical and cultural circumstances.

Hume draws attention to a skeptical view of aesthetic standards advanced by certain previous thinkers who make a distinction between judgment and sentiment or feeling. According to this skeptical position, judgments of the understanding refer to something beyond themselves, namely to “real matter of fact,” and hence there is only one correct judgment, which we have the capacity to determine. Sentiment, however, does not express anything about the real object, only about a relation between the object and our mental faculties. Hence all sentiments are correct: the same object could give rise to a thousand different sentiments and none of these can rightfully claim more validity than the others. In this view, beauty “is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty” (“OST,” 7).

Hume suggests that this skeptical position is undermined by appeal to our actual experience: in practice we do make certain judgments which are sanctioned by consensus: for example, Milton is regarded as a superior writer to Ogilby, and Addison to Bunyan. If some person were to deny this, we would not value that person’s taste, and here the “principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot.” Hume stresses that the rules of art are not fixed by a priori reasonings but by experience, by “general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and all ages.” This appeal to experience, to the experience of the reader or audience, accords the reader an integral role in determining the elements of art. Hume states that whatever elements of art are found to please people cannot be faults (“OST,” 8–9).

However, Hume concedes that, though the general rules of art are founded on experience and the “common sentiments of human nature,” the actual feelings and experience of people will not always conform to these rules. Aesthetic judgment involves the “finer emotions of the mind,” which are of “a very tender and delicate nature.” And the least hindrance will confound or cloud our judgment, distracting us from the “perfect serenity of mind” and the “due attention to the object.” Such hindrances could be of an external or internal nature: an external hindrance might be our cultural remoteness from the aesthetic object; an internal obstacle might be our own prejudices or our undeveloped sense of taste. We can be affected by particular incidents which “throw a false light on the objects.” Our “internal organs” of perception need to be in a healthy state. Hume here anticipates what Kant calls a “disinterested” or impartial assessment of the object. Even when we can distance ourselves from our personal circumstances and prejudices, says Hume, our appreciation of the artistic qualities of a given work must be part of a more “durable admiration,” given by others of various times and cultures to this same work. For example, the “same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.” The “general rules of beauty,” then, are drawn from our appeal to “those models and principles, which have been established by the uniform consent and experience of nations and ages” (“OST,” 11–12).

On the basis of this appeal to broad and consensual experience, Hume infers that there are “certain general principles” whereby we can approve or criticize a work of art. He even goes so far as to hint that there are particular forms and qualities of art which, correlating with “the original structure” of our mental apparatus, are liable to please us. Hume does not deny that beauty and other aesthetic qualities are subjective; but though they are “not qualities in objects . . . there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings” of pleasure or displeasure (“OST,” 16).

The only way in which we can convince a “bad critic” who disagrees with our judgment is to show him a principle of art and to offer examples, which he can submit to his own experience; if his experience does not conform, we at least persuade him that his taste is lacking. Indeed, a sense of aesthetic taste is developed not by following abstract rules but by “practice in a particular art.” It is repeated experience of, repeated exposure to, artistic objects which refines our feeling or sentiment (“OST,” 18). A further requirement for refining taste is to make comparisons of various art objects and various kinds of beauty, and various cultural perspectives. In order to examine carefully the object itself, we must not only remove personal prejudices but must, via an imaginative leap, place ourselves in the position of its original audience; we must make our own situation “conformable to that which is required by the performance.” As a reader or spectator or listener, I must “forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances.” The hearer, in Hume’s language, must impose “a proper violence on his imagination” (“OST,” 20–21).

True taste, according to Hume, is a rational process; we rely on good sense to check our prejudices, and reason is requisite to the formation of good taste in a number of ways. We must also be aware of the structure of the work, of the way the various parts relate to the whole, of the “consistence and uniformity of the whole,” as well as the end or purpose of the work of art. Even poetry, says Hume, “is nothing but a chain of propositions and reasonings . . . however disguised by the colouring of the imagination.” Hence the poet himself needs not only taste and invention but judgment; likewise, the “same excellence of faculties” is required by the critic who would achieve good taste (“OST,” 22).

Needless to say, then, this combination of qualities required for sound critical judgment is rare. Hume says that though the principles of taste are universal, only a few are qualified to give judgment on a work of art, since most people cannot overcome the various obstacles in the way of achieving true taste. Here is Hume’s summary of the qualities and function of the true critic: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (“OST,” 23). The standard of taste, then, is not objective; rather, it is based on subjective consensus – but only the consensus of “qualified” people. Hume here anticipates both the “communities of interpretation” as formulated by modern reader-response theories and, more immediately, Kant’s grounding of taste on a “subjective universality.”

Hume now confronts the potentially embarrassing question, where are such critics to be found? His answer, as always, is based on an appeal to our actual experience. Unlike science and philosophy, where one theory is often exploded in favor of a newer explanation, the realm of art is stabilized by critical judgments that hold their validity more or less permanently. Great artists and literary figures “maintain an universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men.” Prejudices may cloud people’s judgment for a time, Hume acknowledges, but true genius will survive. Where disagreements do occur, “men can do no more than in other disputable questions, which are submitted to the understanding: They must produce the best arguments” and they must grant indulgence to those whose judgments differ. Hume cites two further possible sources of disagreement. One is the differing dispositions of particular men, and the other is the peculiar manners and beliefs of differing countries and times. While he admits that sometimes disagreements will be unresolvable, he insists that the “general principles of taste are uniform in human nature” and that a man of learning can make allowance for the differences of custom, nation, and age (“OST,” 26–28).

Hume ends his essay by contrasting the aesthetic sphere with the realm of morality. Moral principles, he says, are “in continual flux and revolution.” It requires a particularly violent effort of imagination for us to accept, even in art, the portrayal of moral ideals which contrast sharply from those with which we have been nurtured. Nonetheless, such an effort is to be made in our attempt to arrive at an aesthetic judgment; Hume once again anticipates Kant, who will insist more emphatically on the separation of artistic and moral domains. Hume especially warns that critics must overlook differences of religion, since religious “errors” are “the most excusable in compositions of genius” (“OST,” 33–34). For example, when we read Homer or Vergil, we must overlook “all the absurdities of the pagan system of theology.” On the other hand,

Hume suggests that religious bigotry can disfigure works of art, citing the influence of Roman Catholicism on the plays of Racine and Corneille. Hume seems to be implying that
the poet himself must observe a certain decorum and propriety in avoiding an undue expression of religious principles, which exceeds the requirements of his artistic purpose (“OST,” 35–36).

In attempting to rescue artistic taste from mere subjectivism, Hume appeals to a number of factors, all of which are based on experience. First, there is a canon of literature and art that has survived the judgment of various times and cultures, a canon established by consensus. Next, this consensus points to a common human nature which responds universally to certain features of art, such as elegance and organic unity. Finally, the consensus which matters is not democratically established; rather, it is the consensus of a qualified elite of critics who, through their ability to reach a disinterested aesthetic perspective, are authorized to act as the arbiters of true taste, as the voice of that common human nature in its intact, cultivated, and unbiased state. Essentially, Hume’s answer to the question of how subjective aesthetic judgments may be based on a standard is to say that in practice, we already apply standards, as shown by our existing consensus regarding great artists. The question then becomes one of articulating the standards we already employ. Much of this strategy will underlie Kant’s aesthetics; and, like Kant’s, Hume’s invites certain reproaches. For one thing, despite Hume’s claim that the judgments of various ages should be taken into account, his approach is ahistorical in its appeal to a universal human nature, and in its failure to explain how a community of interpretation is actually formed in terms of its relation to the existing power structure; in other words, he talks of a community of qualified critics as an abstract entity rather than as situated and generated within a given historical location.


David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” para 1. This essay was originally published in David Hume, Four Dissertations (New York: Garland, 1970).

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