PHL 230
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic

David Hume

Of the Standard of Taste

An Outline

David Hume (1711-76) is one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment. Writing as an independent intellectual he made significant contributions to epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion and ethics. He is widely reputed as a brilliant although skeptical critic of every kind of dogmatism and of any pretension to establish objectively valid foundations of human knowledge. Except for the abstract ideas of mathematics and immediate experiential impressions he did not believe that there is anything in our mind that deserved full trust and the honorific title of truth. Consequently, metaphysics and philosophy were, for him, at best a good pastime (see his A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739, and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748).
In view of these assertions it is surprising to find out that Hume, on the other hand, had not dismissed judging of artworks as just a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. Despite his low opinion of metaphysical pursuits he had a very strong appreciation for the arts and possessed himself a pretty subtle aesthetic sense. In his essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (1757) he advances the claim that evaluating art should not be regarded as arbitrary and entirely relativist.
Hume composed this essay (the last before his death) in order to meet the demand of his publisher who needed about 20 pages to fill in the gap that emerged after two other (possibly too "atheistic") essays were removed from the planned collection. The essay is "derivative" as it heavily depends on some French and British authors of the time but it still represents an original piece, probably the most important work in Aesthetics before Kant. A full text with bibliography is available at:


Although an "opportunistic" product of Hume's literary activity, the essay is a masterpiece of elegance and style. Its polished and subtle manner of exposition proves, however, to be very deceptive. It creates the impression that the argumentation flows smoothly and clearly from the beginning to the end whereas in reality it abounds with reversals and almost all provided explanations raise more questions than they manage to answer. A careful student should be mindful of many snares intentionally or unintentionally laid down throughout the course of Hume's analysis.
Variety of Taste:

In keeping with his empiricist epistemology Hume starts with a factual statement about the existing variety of taste and opinion. He focuses on the former as the latter proves to be less egregious.
The variety of human taste stretches over different individuals (even siblings may have different taste), across different cultures and throughout different historical periods.


Scope of Differences
Character of Differences
Narrow Circle Individual
Same Society Generational
Distant Nations Cultural
Remote Ages Historical

Note: Hume was more interested in art criticism (judging art) than in the philosophy of art as an effort to explain the essence of art. He was particularly intrigued by the question whether our judgments on art are subjective and relativist or objective and universalizable. This explains why he talks about taste (the receptive side) rather than about the artwork itself (the creative side). For Hume, taste denotes the capacity to respond with approbation or disapprobation to external stimuli. If the stimulus is an artistic one the ensuing taste should be understood as the "refined ability to perceive quality in any artwork". This ability corresponds, roughly speaking, to what we would call "aesthetic experience" in general (Hume didn't use the word Aesthetics yet). If likes and dislikes are expressed in value judgments we regard them as judgments of taste. Whether there is a standard of taste is an open issue that allows arguing for both sides (the debate parallels somewhat the debate about the relativity of moral norms).


People react to different taste with surprise and mistrust. The label (epithet) "barbarous" (supposedly denoting the low taste or the lack of taste) is culturally conditioned. It does not tell us anything universally valid (except that it is used with the same arrogance by different people for contrary things). It cannot serve as the criterion of taste since it simply reflects our preference for our taste. It is an expression of conceit.

Our Taste Their taste
Civilized Barbarous


The differences in aesthetic taste are too obvious and great to be denied. Hume contends that they are in fact greater than they appear. The true extent of the differences is covered by linguistic generalities that indicate universal approval or disapproval. But these generalities conceal the differences in particulars.

Verbal Agreement In almost all cultures there is a consensus in evaluating positively certain epithets. For instance:
Positive Elegance propriety simplicity spirit in writing
Negative Fustian affectation coldness fake brilliancy

Note: Almost all Hume's examples in this essay are taken from one single art - literature. We wish he could have provided some non-literary examples as well but this preference for literary arts was the signature of the time.
Discrepancy: The apparent consensus in words expressing aesthetic attitudes stands in stark contrast with a seeming disagreement in words expressing our ordinary or theoretical views about reality. Upon examination, however, we realize that they are in fact reversed. In this regard, the apparent differences in taste and opinion prove to be deeper where they appear lesser and the other way round. Here is how they differ:
Reality Greater Lesser
Appearance Lesser Greater
Resolution Differences in opinion (belief) could be in many cases resolved by clarifying the language (purely verbal disagreements) and resorting to the facts. In science we can advance different theories (paradigms) to account for the phenomena (for instance the corpuscular or the wave theory of light) but we can disagree only temporarily about the facts. For example, what is the tallest building in the world?
In contrast, disagreements in taste typically become greater once the illusion of verbal agreement from general discourse is replaced by a closer scrutiny of facts. After we check the reference of generally accepted aesthetic terms we realize that our appreciation of these facts is different. All people value beauty and regard ugliness as repulsive but they disagree what objects are beautiful and what are ugly.
  General Discourse Particulars
Art Verbal Agreement Real Disagreement
Science Verbal Disagreement Real Agreement
Beauty is not something rational (size and order) or objective (beauty in itself) but only an effect on the mind.
Similarity: The arts as the object of taste have many more things in common with morals than with the sciences. The arts and morals are both more grounded in sentiments than in reason. The verbal unanimity is not a result of universal reasoning but a sheer effect of the inner logic of language. This is why both art and morality accept universal precepts while hopelessly differing in practical application. The following table details the similarities between art and morality as well as their common opposition to science.
Organ Senses Reason Heart
Outcome Feeling Opinion Feeling
Disagreement Particulars Generals Particulars
Agreement Generals Particulars Generals

In science language creates apparent disagreements while in art it creates apparent agreements.
Note: Hume does not see a big difference between artistic and moral values. What as a pleasurable sentiment translates in approbation in taste closely corresponds to the sentiment of approbation within our heart: "virtue is whatever mental action or quality gives a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation".
Moral Unanimity:

The unanimity in morals is also more apparent than real. The apparent universality of moral principles is commonly ascribed to the workings of human reason. In reality, its source is the inculcated positive validation of certain terms (virtues: justice, humanity, magnanimity, prudence, veracity).
However, the content and the application of these terms may be very different; so much so that sometimes they represent a kind of relations that are called contrarieties (for instance, black and white). Thus it is conceivable that the content of the above virtues, if transferred to another culture, could be regarded as injustice, inhumanity, stinginess, imprudence and mendacity.

Example 1:

Homer's general moral precepts are similar to Fenelon's, but the morality of their heroes is different as it could be. For instance, Homer praises the heroism of Achilles and the prudence of Odysseus (Ulysses) as general virtues. But this type of heroism contains a lot of cruelty while the prudence of Odysseus borders with fraud and slyness.

  Achilles Odysseus
Ancient Standards Courageous Prudent
Modern Standards Ferocious Fraudulent

The content of Homeric virtues separates his heroes from Odysseus' son Telemachus as portrayed by Fenelon. While his father is rather mendacious for modern standards he is truthful to the bone and never departs from his noble values.
Note: Fenelon (1651-1715) was a bishop and poet (he composed the poem Telemaque in French).

Example 2:

Hume's second example introduces a comparison between two moralities: Islamic and English. The Quran (Alcoran) praises equity, justice, temperance, meekness, charity, as our Western culture does, but from the point of view of English morality the content of Mohammedan virtues equals treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry.

Islamic morality Equity Justice Temperance Meekness Charity
English morality Treachery Inhumanity Cruelty Revenge Bigotry

Note: This remark does not sound very politically correct (especially in conjunction with the contention that the Koran presents a "wild and absurd performance") but Hume's intention is rather to show (partly in a biased Eurocentric way) the discrepancy between the universality of the accepted precepts and the real sentiments on both sides rather than to assert the superiority of English morality over Arabic mores. At the end of the essay he finds that many events in the Bible present a similar picture of cruelty and inhumanity which he repudiates equally because the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition not only does not condemn the vicious manners of some biblical heroes but even condones them (cf. God commands the destruction of Jericho and Ai).

Conclusion: There is no standard of morality that universally distinguishes right and wrong. There are no eternal moral norms, only historically and culturally conditioned habits disguised into seeming general precepts. But this generality is more linguistic than real.
Merit: The value of general precepts, commandments and duties is very spurious. The effectiveness of such precepts is questionable. Formulating universal ethical principles is a big stretch. Their strength does not surpass the meaning of the words used. Their import is purely verbal - at best they explicate the implicit positive connotation of certain expressions. For instance by commending charity, virtue, etc., we say that that these notions ar conceived as commendable. It is safer to follow the 'inculcated' (intended) meaning of these words than to derive universal maxims of conduct based on some supposed objective obligations. The writers, preachers and legislators who go for the latter are doomed to be less convincing than what the sheer word semantics suggest. Only what is already contained in the connotation resonates - everything else is a chimera.
Note: Hume's reasoning could be summarized in the following way: Moral precepts either state what is already meant by language or they go beyond it. If the former they are redundant, if the latter they overreach their boundaries.
Application: The same reasoning should apply to aesthetic terms. They, being just condensed expressions of sentiments (of pleasure or displeasure), include some approbation or disapprobation - but they do not warrant any universal and objective rules about objects.



Claims: One would expect, based on Hume's general stance and the above observations, that he is going to assert the inescapability of utter subjectivism and relativism in matters of taste. Surprisingly, however, he makes a series of non-skeptical and non-relativist claims:
(1) It is natural to seek a standard of taste.
(2) Such a standard of taste exists.
(3) The standard of taste can reconcile different sentiments.
(4) The standard of taste allows to evaluate different tastes as to their quality and thus decides which one is to be preferred.
Comprehensiveness vs. Discrimination Notice that (3) and (4) are not identical claims. The former suggests the existence of a general and more comprehensive rule, the latter only something that could be used in discriminatory way so that different artworks and aesthetic judgments could be ranked. Hume hopes to be able to find at least (4) if it turns out that the sentiments of men are so different that they cannot be possibly harmonized (3). But throughout the essay he vacillates between these two kinds of standards (the more ambitious one and the more discriminative one).
(I) Objection One kind of philosophy (skeptical) opposes the idea that there is any standard of taste. It asserts the equal right of every personal evaluation. In that respect, it agrees with one strain of common sense which preaches the equal value of all taste. These are the main characteristics of this position:
Philosophy Skeptical
Common Sense 1st Type
Standard No
Justification Equal Taste
Formula Each to his Own
Outcome No Dispute
Distinction The refusal of any standard of taste is based on one fundamental distinction that sharply separates the nature of sentiments from that of judgments. This distinction corresponds to the distinction between taste and opinion. The former is a matter of feelings, the latter of facts. Other differences could be represented as follows:
Reference Self-referring Objective/Facts
Relation Connection Representation
Outcome Conformity Adequacy
Correctness Multiplicity Singularity
Veracity Undeniable Verification
Contrast As Hume states at the beginning of the essay, there is a huge variety of taste (sentiments) and opinion (judgments). While all sentiments regarding one and the same object are right, only one opinion out of many possible could be right. We can conclusively resolve factual disputes by matching opinions with relevant facts, we cannot but "acquiesce" to our subjective feelings in matters of what we like or dislike. Taste is a kind of sentiment and therefore subjective. There is a parallel between bodily and mental taste to the effect that both are subjective.
Beauty - Deformity Beauty and deformity are not objective qualities. They exist only in the mind as the sentiments of blame and approbation exist in our heart. Some people will regard object beautiful that others perceive as ugly. Therefore it is fruitless to seek the real beauty and deformity as is fruitless to seek the real sweet or real bitter.
Note: The prominence of taste and beauty in the discussion of art is defining for the 18th century aesthetics. Hume is here under influence of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) who held that beauty is not a quality of objects but a subjective idea. Another point of agreement with his contemporaries: mental (aesthetic) taste is very similar in its functioning and status with physiological (bodily) taste. Hume pursues this analogy throughout the essay.
Imagination Mental
Positive Quality Beauty
Negative Quality Sweet
Senses Bodily
If beauty were an objective quality it would beauty is not objective quality then je possible to make objective judgments on it. If beauty is not objective then judgments of taste must be subjective.
Subjective Quality => Individual Subjective Judgment
Objective Quality => Universal Objective Judgment

What makes something sweet or bitter is the disposition of the organs that are aroused by the perception of certain object. The same holds true of beauty and deformity. The disposition of our organs (that is, its previous or current condition) decides what we'll like or dislike. If we put our left hand in a bucket with cold water while holding the right hand in the bucket with hot water and then both immerse in a vessel.
Aesthetic sentiments like beauty and perfection are in fact more subjective than bodily taste because aesthetic feelings depend ml with lukewarm water we'll have two different sensations.

Aesthetic sentiments like beauty and perfection are in fact more subjective than bodily taste because aesthetic feelings depend more on the consciousness of the perceiving individual and are therefore more idiosyncratic. Therefore it is in vain to seek objective, "real", "true" beauty.

Real Beauty Beholder's Eye
Real Deformity Personal Repugnance
Objective Taste Subjective Liking
Conclusion If taste is subjective we must accept the equality of taste which in turn prevents any rational dispute in matters of taste. Taste is irredeemably subjective, individual in scope, culturally and historically conditioned, and therefore relativistic.
Relativistic Sayings:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Shakespeare (after Greek original)
Each to his own.
Chacun a son gout. (French)
No disputing in matters of taste.
De gustibus non disputandum est. (Latin)

(2) Confirmation However, there is another strain of common sense (and another kind of philosophy, although not named by Hume). It recognizes the obvious differences in quality between various artists and artworks and asserts the objectivity and inequality of taste. Some judgments of taste are just plainly wrong whereas some other are obviously right. This position (represented by Thomas Reid) is characterized by the following features:
Philosophy Objectivist Criticism
Common Sense 2nd Type
Standard Yes
Justification Inequality of Taste
Formula According to Rules
Outcome Disagreements Irrelevant
Grading The crucial evidence in favor of the non-subjectivity of taste is the possibility of grading artists and the products of art. It would be foolish to claim that there is no difference in rank and quality between a sheer translator, like John Ogilby, and a great poet of a John Milton's stature, or between a mediocre essayist like John Bunyan and a great one like Joseph Addison.
Absurdity Even if somebody would advance the view that these differences do not matter and that the judgments of taste regarding these artists are all equal nobody would pay attention to such a claim because it is in itself implausible and irrelevant. Hume pronounces the sentiment of such a critic absurd and ridiculous despite the previous contention that all sentiments are right.
Similes Any attempt to equalize and level all artists is not less implausible than to negate obvious differences in physical size. It is an "extravagant paradox" or "palpable absurdity". To deny evident qualitative differences would be tantamount to an easily falsifiable factual assertion that a pond is equal to the ocean or a molehill to the great rock of the Tenerife island.

Mole-hill Tenerife   Bunyan Addison
Pond Ocean   Ogilby Milton
Disproportion The principle of equality among different tastes cannot be applied to the objects of ostensibly different value and quality. Both experts and regular people realize that great artworks are much more valuable than the "kitsch" products of popular culture even if they like the latter. Everyone agrees that accomplished artists can do more and better than amateurs, etc. Hume notes that this discrepancy is obvious to common sense as well. It is acknowledged by it despite the wide acceptance of the proverb De gustibus non disputandum est.
All artworks are not equally good.
All artists are not equally accomplished.
All judgments of taste are not right.
Dilemma The question Hume is facing now is which of the two positions is right. It seems that Hume has to choose between an utterly subjective relativism and the abstract objectivity of aesthetic principles. Apparently this is a difficult choice for a radical empiricist who still believes that his judgment on aesthetic matters is not equal to the taste of a boor.


  Whether aesthetic judgments are objective and universal or subjective and relativistic is one of the most hotly debated issues in Aesthetics.
Relativism It is clear that Hume does not espouse aesthetic relativism even though it would be consistent with his general theory of sentiments and his contention that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.
Objectivism However, he does not accept objectivism either. Especially not in the form of a priori rules of composition or "abstract conclusions" derived from eternal and steady relations of ideas.
He remains convinced that the rules of art are not rational, universal and necessary.
"It is evident that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasoning a priori..."
Solution So what is Hume's solution to the above problem of two contradictory views on taste? He does not have a straight one; he rather struggles to get around the unpleasant dilemma of choosing between relativism and objectivism. What he suggests sounds like a middle way (an intermediate ground) between these two extremes: he accepts that differences in rank and quality are too evident to be ignored but still clings to his starting belief that aesthetic judgments are just expressions of our sentiments which do not represent anything in objects.
Rules In a nutshell, his solution is: There are general rules but they are all empirical and contingent. They are more a summary of what pleases than an explanation of what constitutes good art. Therefore they are not universally binding.
Note: Unfortunately, Hume does not give a single example of these rules and principles that would allow us to get a grasp of their nature. As some authors have noticed, he proceeds as if they do not really exist or in fact are not really rules.
Compromise Anyway, he defines his position on these rules by means of the following four statements:
(1) Rules exist.
(2) They are empirical (experiential not logical).
(3) They are general (comprising all cultures and all ages).
(4) But they are based on sentiments (that what pleases overall).

As irregularities can please (falsehood, metaphor, perversion), exact rules do not work in art.

As far as the source and nature of these rules are concerned, Hume rejects the rationalist theory of their origin and adopts a thoroughly empirical view. The contrast between what he regards as the real rules and those that are commonly envisioned but not existent could be represented in the following way:
Rules of Composition
Origin Experience Reasoning a priori
Status General Observation Abstract Conclusions / Exactness
Validation Factual Pleasure Eternal Norms

If the standard of taste is based on experience and derived from the observations of common sentiments then the supposed "rules of compositions" cannot be but sheer empirical generalizations of what is accepted. All the more so as they are not necessary. What matters is whether something pleases or not, for pleasant sentiments decide ultimately what should count as a rule.
Exactness Owing to their empirical nature the rules do not apply geometrically and in a formulaic manner. The role of art criticism is not to enforce these rules mechanically by suppressing any departure from them. A work composed exactly according to a steady canon of hard rules would be dull and unconvincing.
The Middle These admonitions resemble Aristotle's statements on the right method of ethics. It seems that Hume has transferred some of these ideas into the realm of aesthetics (right measure, lack of scientific exactness, need to create the right disposition and identify the right situation for judging, etc.)
Poetry Geometric Exactness General Rules
Possession Not Yes
Nature Scientific Observation Genius
Genius If there are some rules they should be binding, that is to say, we need to see them defining taste. Still Hume insists that the rules discovered by acute observation are binding for poetry. But he does not state a single one that could be tested as binding. On the contrary, he says that we cannot engineer any great art by simply following the rules. On the other hand he allows that they could be discovered by inspiration (genius) as well. Hume was too much of a connoisseur not to realize that art emerges in a creative and innovative way.
Note: Genius and taste were the privileged topics of the 18th century aesthetics. It is noteworthy that Hume allows the possibility of a shortcut in the painstaking empirical process of ascertaining the rule - it is a possibility open to exceptional creators or individuals with a true taste.
Expressions Throughout the essay Hume uses several expressions when speaking about these rules. They indicate both the various aspects of these rules as well as his uncertainty about their true status. These are his main four phrases with their prevalent significations:
General Rules of Art What pleases in all times and countries
General Rules of Composition Avowed Patterns
General Rules of Beauty Established Models
General Principles of Approbation Uniform Sentiments

The common trait in all these formulas is that they all presume the recipient's position rather than any objective features of the artwork.
Exceptions Another reason why universal, abstract and mechanical rules are not possible in art is that art allows deformities and distortions of every kind. We simply cannot regulate art if we do not want to kill its spontaneity. The flexible rules of art do not rule out every single aberration. Distortion is permissible in art as well as falsehood and fiction. A departure from the rules could still yield a great artwork despite some deformities.
- These deformities are overpowered by qualities.
- Some deformities can please. In that case they are not faults.
- Some rules are a matter of inspiration.
Note: Hume's example of a successful artwork that includes distortions and exaggerations is Ariosto's Furious Orlando. From visual arts he could have cited El Greco or Alessandro Magnasco with their overextended figures and exaggerated movements.
Deformities How these artworks please notwithstanding their fantastic sallies? Hume's answer is that they please in spite of their transgressions owing to some other qualities that in fact represent these rules. The pleasure arising from these qualities must overpower the displeasure stemming from deformities, that is to say, the negative impact of transgressions must not surpass the total tally of positive qualities.

Note: The most Hume is ready to allow for deformities and exaggerations is that they could occur without compromising all artistic value; inventiveness and "clarity of expression" render the violations of rules non-important. But Hume vehemently denies that aesthetic quality could reside in these violations themselves. According to Hume, Ariosto's poem pleases owing to its charms and accomplishments, not because of its imperfections and deformities.
  An artwork can combine and in reality combines perfections with the components that are less than perfect. The chart below brings a pretty exhaustive inventory of these aspects in Ariosto:
Deformity Improbable monstrous fiction Bizarre mixture of serious and comic Want of coherence Continual interruptions
Charm Force of expression Clarity of expression Variety of inventions Natural pictures of passion

Deformities do not please. Nobody can enjoy them. If the rules of composition are derived from what generally pleases, then we cannot say that deformities are being enjoyed because that would contradict the very nature of the rules extracted from pleasurable emotions (approval of object). We can say in general: Nothing that does not please is art. In general, rules contribute to the increase of pleasure.

Rules of Art = Increase of Satisfaction

On the other hand, what pleases cannot be a fault.

  If Turn to
Rules Decrease satisfaction Faults
Faults Increase Satisfaction Aesthetic Qualities

If departures from the rules please they are not deformities. Hence art criticism must adjust its normative judgments to what actually pleases. Therefore the fact that a supposed fault pleases does not undermine the standing of art criticism if it acknowledges the fact. The above principles tying taste with pleasure delineate the realm of art.

Note: This equation between pleasure and art threatens to compromise the distinction between good and bad art since "bad art" could be very popular (take Thomas Kinkade or Jack Vittriano). Notice, however, that Hume does not proclaim the principle "Everything that pleases is art"; he does not say "Nothing that pleases is not art." either.

Foundation (1) The general rules of art are founded on experience.
(2) Therefore they could be discovered by observation: "General observations concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and all ages."
(3) If there is something that pleases universally this in turn implies that human nature has some common traits that produce common sentiments despite cultural and historical differences.
  Another consequence of the relation between the form and the organ is that there must be something in the artwork that is calculated to please.
If taste is a matter of feelings provoked by the object then aesthetic experience consists in the following relation:



Imagination, which stands on the side of the subject, mediates between the two poles. This means that our sentiments are not just a passive reflection of the object.
  Artistic experience is neither an objective reflection nor a subjective perception of the object but a relation mediated by imagination.


Expectation In view of common human nature this relation gives rise to the expectation that our sentiments will be uniform when exposed to the same object under the same circumstances. Furthermore this suggests that we can derive a universal aesthetic model ("catholic beauty") from that uniformity.
  Common Human Nature}
.................................=> Uniformity of Sentiments=> Catholic Beauty
Same Objects Perceived}
Discrepancy However, this does not happen always, perhaps not even often. If human organs (the senses) function similarly why we do not feel the same sentiments of pleasure when exposed to the same objects of tested appreciation? If there are general rules based on these uniformities one would expect that our sentiments would conform to them all the time. Why is this not the case?
Hume's answer is twofold:
Internal Organ
Human sentiments make (1) a very complex and sensitive whole. Many factors are involved in their workings and they all need to fit into the process. This is true particularly of the "finer emotions of the mind" that are very delicate and require a simultaneous "concurrence" of many factors, both external and internal, in order to allow the proper functioning of the entire sensitive complex.
External Internal
Suitable Situation Proper Disposition
No external hindrance. No internal disorder.
Sound State According to the analogy with the physiological taste, Hume asserts that there are two states of our mind: sound and defective. Only the former should serve as the basis for relevant aesthetic judgments (affording a standard of taste). If a proven quality fails to please somebody the reason lies in the organ - it must be defective or imperfect.
For instance, a person with fever cannot discern different flavors, a person who is color blind cannot properly distinguish colors.
External Circumstances Second, the sentiments could be manifested in a uniform manner only under a very favorable combination of external circumstances. They include both (a) internal and (b) external conditions.

These are some of the conditions mentioned by Hume:
Internal Conditions
External Conditions
Good State Proper Time
Serene Mind Proper Place
Collected Thought No Disturbance
Due Attention No Impediment
Equality of Circumstances Hume claims that there are certain rules which arise from the common human nature assuming that human mind operates under the same conditions and with the same quality of organs. If this is not the case the sentiments will, of course, vary. Therefore the test ("experiment") whether there is general agreement in sentiments is valid only if all the above conditions are equally in place.
Catholic Beauty If these conditions are met a Catholic (= Greek for universal) beauty could be derived from the common human nature operating under normal conditions. Practically, this means it could be perceived only when all internal impediments and external hindrances are eliminated.
Remove the obstructions - the beauty (a generalization to be sure) will excite agreeable sentiments.
Non-Objective Clue This may suggest that there is an objective substratum of aesthetic beauty. If under equal conditions all (or the majority) of subjects will feel the same sentiments there must be something out there that triggers this uniformity. But this is not what Hume maintains. Even when all positive conditions of perception are met we cannot perceive beauty as an objective quality. Nor can we figure out the relation between the form and the sentiment by simply focusing on particular aesthetic qualities.
Aesthetic qualities could be better and easier ascertained from the wide acceptance and lasting appreciation that may attend the artwork than through detection of some inherent features.
Thus generality and durability define what is aesthetically valuable rather than some particular forms or some pre-defined rules for artists.
Social criterion Width General admiration.
Historical criterion Longevity Durable admiration.
Physiological criterion Identity Uniform admiration
They also serve as the test of validity across different cultures and throughout historical periods thus eliminating the impact of distortions and barriers (herd instinct and authority). Time and again they show that something just fashionable is temporary, something just local transitory (ephemeral).
Transition We see that Hume moves from (1) the rules for artists to (2) that what by nature pleases the audience but finally lands at (3) the point of wide acceptance. These social and historical dimensions account both for individual differences and for pseudo-objective character of good taste.
Evidence Classical authors like Homer and Cicero are still admired.
Therefore they have withstood all cultural, religious and linguistic changes in the wy how people perceive them. Does it mean that they embody the general rules of art? No.
Hume mentions Homer's epics as an example of wide approbation, not as exemplary works. He does not say "any work like Homer's epic will be a successful poem and hence widely admired". He only states a fact that illustrates his point about admiration as the decisive parameter. But he adds some objectivity to the requirement of admiration and acceptance by dissolving the cultural and social pressure on the current taste in the flow of time. No single individual, no single group, no single society or culture possess the final word on taste.
Durable Admiration

Durability and the extent of admiration are not only sociological parameters but the statements of quality as well. Posterity and foreign cultures are therefore a good test of aesthetic value. If something is approved by others and future generations it is a good candidate for lasting appreciation.
A real genius only gains approval when tested by posterity and across different cultures.
Note: If an artist like Francesco Francia is not any longer admired as he was in the 19th century this means that his work has not passed the judgment of time and has not gained a lasting and universal acceptance. If we drop Whistlers portrait of his mother from the most authoritative survey of art history, this suggests that we do not look at it as one of the best paintings of the time, as was the case half a century ago.

Physical Psychological Physiological
External Mental Internal
Situation Disposition Organs
Standard The standard of taste consists in certain general principles of approbation and blame. These could be discovered in all operations of the mind.
They are based on (a) some common traits of human nature, and (b) some particular forms (qualities) designed to please. a and b correlate as organs sentiments, not as objects and sentiments.
Sentiments are still decisive in forming our taste but only those received under optimal conditions, in the right manner and by a wide audience, really conform to the rules. Or better to say, the above rules of art and composition exist only as manifested in equal and favorable conditions and attested by a wide and durable admiration.
Perfect Beauty

Now all this can explain the uniformity of bodily taste and the 'catholic' beauty insofar as it coincides with the normal, average beauty. But Hume goes beyond the proper functioning of our organs, the common traits of human nature and wide acceptance of the work; he introduces an aesthetic quality perceived by the mental taste of the connoisseurs.
If in the sound state of the organ emerges a "considerable uniformity of sentiments" among men it would be possible to derive from it "an idea of perfect beauty". Hume compares this idea of perfect beauty to the regular perceptions of colors under normal conditions (= "true and real color") regardless whether they really exist or not, but views it still as something more than normal beauty. It is obviously the catholic beauty + the highest quality at one as the proper perception of a color reveals the 'true' nature of the object.

Note: Hume makes an analogy between seeing physical objects under normal conditions and perceiving them aesthetically when the internal senses work properly. As Theodore Gracyk has pointed out, this analogy is problematic for two reasons: (1) mental taste is never direct but mediated through reflection, (2) a standard of taste requires more than a normal function - it requires a refined detection of a higher quality. See for this:

Gap Thus there is a leap from the bodily taste which reaches the uniformity if both internal and external conditions are met and the aesthetic quality that is apprehended by some only and requires a bit more than normal functioning of organs. Hume proceeds as if the initial problem of an aesthetic standard could be resolved in the same manner as the standardization of bodily taste: Only those generally observed sentiments that are received under favorable conditions while internal organs function properly could serve as the basis for a standard of taste. But these are only necessary, not sufficient conditions for apprehension of the standard. As we will see shortly, only the sentiments of some subjects count as authoritative, not the sentiments of all normal human people. Moreover, normal, reasonable and educated people may differ in their aesthetic judgments even when they perceive the same objects and act under similar circumstances. Therefore the analogy ("resemblance") with bodily taste cannot account fully for the differences in aesthetic judgments.
  General Rules <-------Forms
-------------------> Uniformity of Sensations
Common Nature <----Observation
Objective Quality Hume indirectly concedes that some objective qualities must be responsible for producing the sentiment of beauty under normal conditions. We may think about some proportions like the "Golden section" that please almost universally which will be in keeping with the phrases "catholic beauty", "the force of beauty". Hume indeed admits that some particular forms "from the original structure of the internal fabric" are calculated to please and other to displease, which logically implies that they cause respective feelings, but eventually contends that the beauty results from the arousal of certain feelings and not from these objective qualities themselves. Some objects are "naturally calculated to give pleasure" but that ultimately happens "by the structure of the mind", not due to their inherent features .
Nonetheless, there must be something in the object that causes the pleasant feeling that translates into the experience of beauty. Otherwise everything could produce the same feelings if we are in a particular state of mind. Hume does not explain what is that quality. He only acknowledges that a relation between the form and sentiment exists. Thus his rules seem to be not about the object but about the relation between the object and the organ that gives rise to the sentiment. Imagination is the mediating force that is mysteriously responsible for the quality of our reactions.


Subjectivity Although Hume indicates that some objective qualities may be responsible for the respective feeling of beauty ("it must be allowed that there are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce these particular feeling"), he does not analyze these qualities beyond the above mentioned general assertion focusing instead on the qualities a good art critic must possess. This shift toward subjectivity is in itself more consistent with the first (the skeptical) strain of common sense that asserts the equality of tastes, but Hume still wants to curb the excessive subjectivism and relativism by narrowing down the range of approvable divergent feelings and the number of competent subjects.
Qualification Different situations will certainly prompt or hinder the same sentiments about the same objects - imagination will receive different sentiments to work with and its judgments will be different. This is unavoidable and normal. But the impact of the projected general principles of art is weakened not only by ever changing external circumstances and some internal physiological defects - it could be severely limited due to the absence of some abilities and capacities in the mental constitution of the judging subject. It is possible that two subjects both judge in the sound state of their organs, that they experience the same object under the same conditions and yet pass different judgments. Thus the equality of those necessary conditions does not guarantee the uniformity of judgment and the same quality of taste.
Features The reason for this is that good taste requires more than normal internal and favorable external conditions. Positive qualities may be present in barely discernible quantities, mixed or covered by other more visible features. Hume realizes this and in addition to the proper external and internal conditions of our organs defines 6 extra requisites that, if present, substantially contribute to the good quality of taste or serve as its recognizable characteristics. And the other way round, if absent they impede the manifestation of good taste. Whereas the circumstances of proper functioning are necessary neutral preconditions that do not qualitatively determine their outcomes these 6 requisites together define the normative aspect of a good taste that drives a critical wedge among the variety of possible subjective tastes ("amidst the caprice of taste"). Only taste that emerges from these features and joins the taste of other similarly minded subjects is in conformity with the standard of quality because its inter-subjectivity represents the true measure of aesthetic value and judgment. Of course, this is a more specific criterion than the wide and durable acceptance which comes down to an average notwithstanding the fact that Hume correlates the verdict of connoisseurs with the historically and socially established models.
Summary Argument: There is a variety of taste. It does not warrant the equality of taste. For there is a standard of taste that determines what is good and what is bad taste. This standard is derived from a general observation of what pleases. It is formulated in the rules of art.
Objections: (a) Artist: If there are rules give me them to create great art.
(b) Audience: Given our common nature we should all feel the same when exposed to the same object.
Hume's response: (a) One cannot create art by following instructions. Art is about invention, creativity, inspiration, genius. (b) There is no uniformity of sentiments because rarely all conditions are the same: (1) external (physical), (2) mental (psychological), and internal (physiological).
Question: What if all the conditions are met (pretty much the same)? Will we have the supposed unanimity?
Answer: No, because even then there will be differences in the ability that Hume calls delicacy.
(1) Delicacy The first and the most important feature of good taste is delicacy of imagination (in keeping with the habits of his time Hume attributes delicacy to the workings of "imagination" - imagination was in general regarded as the organ of mental taste).
Delicacy is a common word, as important now as it was in the time of Hume. However, there is a big difference in the usage. While we understand the word predominantly in the sense of mindfulness for other people's feelings, sensitivity and gingerly conduct, Hume defines delicacy as the ability of discerning the smallest ingredients in the composition of the whole.
Sancho's Story To illustrate his point Hume adapts an anecdote from Cervantes' Don Quixote: Two kinsmen of Sancho Panza, both reputed for being wine connoisseurs, passed two conflicting judgment of taste concerning one hogshead of old wine. The first said it was good but noted a slight taste of leather, the other also approved the wine but detected a slight taste of iron in it. Both were ridiculed because of these conflicting findings until at the bottom of the hogshead an old key was found with a leathern thong which vindicated both men.
  Note: Hume amends the version of Cervantes to make it applicable to the discernment of "minute qualities" and the qualitative assessment of the whole. While Cervantes does not mention any normative evaluation of the wine as wine (only the presence of iron and leather), Hume adds the judgment of quality ("wine is good") in order to establish an agreement in the critical discernment of the aesthetic value which provides the analogy with the bodily taste of the two.
Analogy Hume interprets the anecdote in accordance with the analogy between bodily and mental taste. "The great resemblance between mental and bodily taste easily teach us how to apply this story." The application should illustrate delicacy both in its "literal" and its "metaphorical" sense. I take this to refer to physiological and aesthetical taste respectively.
Bodily Taste Mental Taste
Experts Connoisseurs
Detecting Small Quantities
Evaluating Small Qualities
Differences Hume says again that beauty and deformity refer to the sentiments and not to the qualities in object. As far as aesthetic qualities are concerned they "belong more than sweet and bitter" to our subjectivity and therefore lend themselves less to the process of normalization. On the other hand, he reverses himself partially in allowing that "there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings".
Physiological Acuity By identifying two aspects of the key on a leathern thong the two kinsmen detected precisely these "qualities" (in fact ingredients) in the object although they were imperceptible for others. Both of them demonstrated thus an impressive acuity in detecting extremely small ingredients in the whole. Although each detected a different residue they were both right.
Note: Hume speaks about small qualities of the subject, but these correspond in fact to the residue ingredients and should be better labeled as small quantities of components. Qualities should be reserved for aesthetic ingredients.
Simile Now Hume claims that producing the general rules or awoved patterns of composition is like finding the key with a leathern thong.
This rehashes the previous hint that the knowledge about the objective qualities that generate pleasant sentiments would help us figure out whether a particular sentiment is right or not. In both cases we obtain a powerful means to identify the right judgment and refute those that are faulty.
  Subjective Objective
Bodily taste Perceiving different qualities Relating to different qualities
Mental taste Having different sentiments Formulating general rules
Test The test should work in the opposite way from the above table:
First, start from the general rules of beauty that are drawn from the established models and general observation of what pleases or displeases when present singly and in a high degree. If in possession of good taste the subject should be in conformity with the avowed patterns.
Then, present that what pleases in a smaller degree and in a continued composition (mixed).
If the subject does not react (the organs remain unaffected either by delight or uneasiness) s/he does not possess the delicacy of taste even though s/he may acknowledge the general rules and discern these qualities when they are isolated or very intensive.
Elitism Conversely, a good judge or critic will discover aesthetic qualities in an artwork that are not visible for the majority of common observers. But the standard should not be grasped by only a few - that would be too elitist and would jeopardize the criterion of wide and durable acceptance.
Circularity If there is a rule that establishes the rightness of certain sentiments as responses to certain stimuli, then, in order to avoid a circle in reasoning, this rule should not be embodied in people who respond in accordance with the rule.
Note: Aristotle encountered a similar difficulty in trying to explain how we become virtuous by acting as virtuous individuals would act. As is known, he showed that this is not a circle since we can gradually acquire the excellence we do not possess at the moment we take action.
Hypothesis What would happen if such a test is not conducted? That is if the hogshead has never been emptied? In both cases the difference between fine and languid taste would exist, although as unproved and undemonstrated. The different degrees of taste will continue to subsist in art (writing is specifically mention) even if the beauties are not explicated by means of rules and no excellent models have been recognized. Therefore, the judgments of different people will not be equally acceptable although it would be more difficult to show the superiority of good state, rebut the bad judge and to silence the bad critic who relies stubbornly on his imperfect particular sentiment.
Bodily Taste Finding Key Not Finding Key Majority Strengthen Differences in Delicacy exist
Mental Taste General Rules Rules Not Methodized Bad Critic not refuted Difference of Good and Bad Taste subsists
Aesthetic Propriety This is Hume's addition to the story that stretches it so to include the judgment of quality. The original tale lends support only to the physiological kind of taste - the one that detects even the small ingredients.

Strictly speaking the two aspects are independent, although it is certainly no accident that those who are capable of detecting almost negligible material components can pass a better value judgment than those who do not possess the same physiological sensitivity.
Analogy Type Judgment Outcome Organ
Sancho's Story Bodily Taste Wine: good/bad Finding Leather/Iron Senses
Aesthetic Application Mental Taste Beauty/Deformity Producing General Rules Imagination

The ability to discern some qualities that are less "subjective", like the above features, lends additional credence to the overall judgment.
Resolution Hume optimistically states that it is possible to resolve aesthetic disagreements by producing avowed principles of art along with appropriate examples that manifest those principles.
Once this is done we need simply to show that the accepted principles apply in a particular case and that the absence of corresponding sentiments is to be atributed to the lack of delicacy in the subject who had acknowledged the previous illustration of the principle.
Bodily Taste: Mental Taste: = Unity:
Perfection of Senses Perfection of Taste Personal Perfection
Exact Perception of objects Quick and acute Perception of Beauty Delicate taste
Minute objects observed All excellencies observed Finest enjoyment of human nature
Perfection Hume defines the perfection of a sense as the ability to perceive the smallest object in its domain without overlooking anything.
Proportion: The smaller are the perceived objects the more perfect is the sense (organ).
Test: The quality of the sense should be tried by a mixture of small ingredients, not by isolated and strong flavors.
Analogy: A quick and acute perception of beauty attests the perfection of our mental taste. If some excellencies or blemishes go unnoticed the perfection is not complete.
  Normal Functioning Delicate Functioning
Discernment Single Qualities, High Degree Minute Qualities,
Mixed Qualities
Unity The perfection of the sense and the perfection of the subject coincide - they are united in the person of a good judge - somebody with a fine taste. Although the possession of "delicate palate" maybe occasionally embarrassing both for the subject and his environment, in general delicate taste is a blessing and "the source of all finest and most innocent enjoyments" in life that otherwise does not offer much.
Note: This pleasure seems to be greater than the one derived from doing philosophy regarded by Hume just as a pastime.
Recognition How to ascertain the presence of that unity (perfection of the sense + delicacy of taste)?
By invoking those models and principles that have been established by the uniform consent and experience of nations and ages. If they match the judgment of the person s/he is a good judge (perfect judge); if s/he is the good judge their judgments will be in accord with that consensus.
(2) Practice It is an unfortunate fact of life that people do not possess the same delicacy of taste. But the lack of delicacy is not a destiny - it could be treated and even ameliorated. The best method to improve the delicacy is (a) "practice in particular art", and (b) "frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty". The two are one assuming that practice denotes exposure more than execution.
Experience Hume does not elaborate on the first part of his advice - seek more experience in an art through practice - but it is abundantly confirmed by experience. Practicing both in the sense of execution and exposure widely opens the gate to the art in question both in terms of dexterity and knowledge: we may not be the most talented individuals but even our amateurish execution will be improved and our judgment will become more reliable. There is an obvious connection between these two aspects. Experience and exposure may lead to the familiarity with the art that only practical dexterity can provide.
Dexterity in Execution
Familiarity in Observation
Good Judgment
  Only those who are familiar with the nature of particular art and know firsthand the difficulty of putting together all the components can really appreciate the final performance. But they need first to develop the ability of identifying, discerning and evaluating particular excellencies or defects by repeatedly exposing themselves to the artworks.
  Insufficient Practice   Good Practice
Observation To Perceive Several Excellences or Defficiences Parts To Perceive Beauties / Defects
Discernment To Discern Particular Character Nature To Distinguish Species of Quality
Evaluation To Ascertain Quality and Degree Whole To Suitable Assign Praise / Blame
(3) Frequent Perusal
Hume is also right in his second point - that frequent and repeated exposure to the objects of art proves immensely beneficial to their better assessment. And the other way round, unfamiliarity with the objects of perception hinders a reliable judgment. The most one can expect when first seeing something is to pass a very general judgment about the whole. Mostly in the manner of "I like it" or "I do not like it." The only way to detect particular excellences and overcome the starting unfamiliarity with their nature is to get acquainted with the object through repeated attentive and deliberate surveys from different angles and in different situations (in other words, go to the museum several times, listen to the musical piece repeatedly, read a poem again, etc.). Below is the comparative table of outcomes after first and after repeated observations:
First Observation
Multiple Observations
General at Best - the Whole Discerned Particular Characters
Compressed Relations and Merits Exact Quality and Degree
Confused and Obscure Sentiments Clear and Distinct Sentiments
Advantages Repeated surveys of an artwork are much more productive than its first or a single perusal. Hume mentions several aspects of improvement that really make a difference:
First Glance
Frequent Perusal
Thought Fluterred and hurried Focused and attentive
Relation Parts not discerned Parts distingiuished
Style Not recognized Identified Character
Quality Florid and Superficial Compatible with Expression
Presentation Defects and Perfections mixed together Defects and Perfections discerned
Sentiment Confounded Clear

In brief, repeated surveys enrich our artistic experience by helping overcome the initial confusion, precise first impression and articulate the whole work.
(4) Comparison Observation and evaluation of artworks is tremendously enhanced by comparison. It is twofold:
Comparison of different species
Comparison of particular excellences
Estimation of mutual proportion

Comparing helps determine mutual relations between different pieces, their rankorder ("order of beauty") and the relative value of particular qualities. In other words, it is the foundation for making any statement involving good, less good, better, or the best in the realm of art.
Epithets Such a statement presupposes different degrees of blameable or praiseworthy qualities. Blame and praise target the following characteritics:
Inferiority Superiority
Deformity Excellence
Vulgarity Perfection
Sketchiness Completeness
Frame of Reference Every quality is present to a certain degree or a quality is always present to a certain degree. To estimate it we need a measure, or at least a point of reference. It is provided by another similar piece. Therefore, a person who has not experienced two objects of the same kind is totally incompetent to pass any judgment of qualtity, not only of relative quality.
Rating particular excellencies
Ranking the whole work
Minimalism Every piece of art contains some quality, even the coarsest and the most vulgar. The question is only to what degree. It could be determined only if we compare it with similar products, first within its kind, then outside - by measuring the excellence of cognate or even different species. If you have never seen something better you cannot be dissatisfied with the worse.
Relativity A person with a low taste will find pleasure in things that a person with refined standards can hardly regard as beautiful. And the other way round, a person with refined taste may be irritated with such a "beauty".
  Uncultivated Person Conversant Person
Inferior Beauty Pleasure Pain
Superior Beauty Pain Pleasure
Reliable Judge A person who has never compared different instances, qualities and kinds cannot be a reliable judge.
Only a person familiar with similar specimen and knowledgeable of better examples and of what is admired in different ages and nations can properly rate the merits and assign the proper rank to a particular work.
(5) Freedom of Prejudices The ability to compare properly similar performances within one period and culture requires a good deal of familiarity with that age and area of creativity. Even more so if we want to compare similar or different performances from different regions or cultures. The task is to be knowledgeable of both cultures and free from self-interested thinking and self-serving biases. Hence a proper comparison requires that a critic be released from all prejudices of his own culture and especially of those against other cultures.
Objectivity If we have to free ourselves from all prejudices in order to be able to focus on the object and evaluate it properly, then the object of appreciation determines the outcome and this to a significan extent. This is an important qualification of the previous insistence solely on the workings of the mind as opposed to the effects of the object.
Reconstruction A critic must reconstruct in his mind the reasoning of the author in the original situation. A work of art cannot be fully enjoyed by someone who does not conform to the context of the evaluated work and obstinately clings to his natural position. A good critic must instead abandon his personal preferences and his human particularity. He must consider himself, so to speak, a man in general and must supress (so much as this is possible) his individual being and particular circumstances. This necessitates a series of transformations from the part of the critic as they are represented below.
Particular Man -> Man in General
Natural Position -> Perspective
Personal Manners -> Detachment
Subjective Preferences -> Focus on Object
Condemnation -> Comprehension
Misperception -> Good Sense
Hermeneutics Hume recognizes the inevitability of a point of view - an important hermeneutic principle. We always observe and judge from a certain point of view (ours). When evaluating art, he demands, however, that we substitute our natural position with all its prejudices with the perspective of the author and the original recipient.
Prejudiced Critique Good Critique
Entrenched in Different Situation Point of Performance
Imbedded in Peculiar Circumstances Situation of Audience
Empathy A critic of a different age or nation who judges an artwork (for instance, an oratory) must put himself in the situation of the designated audience. Only so he can understand the content, the tone and the emphasis of the work in question. And the other way round, he may "rashly condemn" what was absolutely in order at the time of the original composition. In other words, an unprejudiced critic must recreate in his mind the original circumstances and the atmosphere at the time when the work was performed lest his imagination be paralyzed by his particular position and his sentiments imperceptibly "perverted". This interpretive and evaluating self-transposition will tremendously facilitate comprehension and even allow for empathy with the author, his work and his characters. A "proper violence" over imagination is in order.
  Prejudice Good Sense
Sound Judgment Destruction Preservation
Good Taste Corruption Restitution
(6) Good Sense Prejudices affect negatively both our sentiments of beauty and our judgments.
Prejudices Effects
Sound Judgment Perverts intellectual fakulties
Taste Corrupts sentiments of beauty

The best protection from the corruptive influence of prejudices is to use good sense. Good sense is in fact the foundation for a good judgment of taste.
Reason The 'good sense' is reason. Reason is in charge with the proper operation of taste, especially in fine arts. Thus it appears that in higher beauties sentiments do not have the final say. Reason and reflection can influence sentiments - to be sure after illuminating the relation with the object. In that sense reason is an important factor in developing good sentiments and good taste
Functions It is instrumental in identifying and comprehending three important components of every artwork:

(1) the mutual relation and correspondence of parts in the whole.
(2) the purpose that motivates and animates the parts of the artwork.
(3) the design and the reasoning contained in the work.
Relation The relation and congruence of the parts is not something that we can perceive directly with our physical eyes; it must be discovered by an intellectual effort.
Purpose Hume is convinced that every art genre has specific end that define its character and must be the frame of reference in judging the outcome. The objective determines whether the employed means are appropriate and successful. According to Hume, the end-product and execution in the art species should be judged as to how they serve these purposes Aristotle reasoned similarly).
Eloquence Persuasion
History Instruction
Poetry Entertainment

Note: We do not have to agree with these specific objectives (in fact we probably disagree with Hume on this point) in order to be able to acknowledge the validity of his principle - certain objectives always motivate artworks and they are historically contingent. Also, their presence requires a more immanent approach in the estimation of the results.
Reasoning Although art mostly targets our emotions it conveys certain thoughts as well. Every kind of composition, even poetry, includes reasoning and thoughts that explain or accompany actions and portray characters. Hume even claims that poetry is "nothing but a chain of propositions" - obviously a very intellectualist view of literature. But we can agree that dramatic personae should think, talk and act in accordance with their character (Aristotle taught the same). As to our evaluation of the content, the point is that when an artwork includes thoughts and ideas they must be detected and the only organ available for that task is reason.
Artistic Means to Purposes
Reasoning to Character
Faculties There is a strong correlation between good sense and good taste. The same qualities that mark a good reasoning are very conducive to the workings of a good taste. It is no coincidence that good taste goes hand in hand with several intellectual faculties:
- Clarity of conception
- Exactness of distinction
- Vivacity of apprehension

These faculties are all concomitants of good taste. And the other way round, a 'just taste' correlates with a 'sound understanding'.
Correlation It is a remarkable coincidence (and a very telling one) that a person versed in the arts typically judges accurately the value of artworks, and the other way round, a good judge in the arts is typically a person who possesses many other intellectual abilities (knowledge, good reasoning, acuteness, ingenuity, etc). Very rarely, as Hume notes, a person who knows and appreciates art cannot judge it; it is no less uncommon that the one who judges well does not have understanding of it and experience in it.


Elitism Why not all people agree in their pronouncements on art even when our internal and external conditions are favorable. Why despite common human constitution and the generality of the principles regulating taste a very limited number of people are qualified to give a reliable judgment of quality? And why Hume narrows the basis for the standard of taste to the judgments of only a few qualified judges? The answer is now more than obvious: Because the above requisites are not easy to acquire and because only a few people possess them to a significant degree.
Note: This fact creates the impression that Hume is an elitist. Whatever the label we may wish to use here, Hume's finding that a good judge is a precious and rare phenomenon, does not endorse any social elite, let alone the one of origin (heredity), even though good education and affluence facilitate the acquisition of good taste. They do not guarantee it though.
List The cumulative list of the required features for a good judge has meanwhile swollen to a very demanding set of requisites. Here it is:
(1) Organs of internal sensation must be perfect enough to produce a feeling corresponding to the general principles.
(2) The critic must possess the delicacy of taste in order to be able to judge with distinction.
(3) The critic must have practice and experience with art in order to be able to make reliable judgments.
(4) The critic must employ comparisons in order to avoid confusion between qualities and defects.
(5) The critic must be free from prejudices in order to avoid perversion of his sentiments.
(6) The critic must possess good sense in order to be able to discern the qualities of design and reasoning.
Paucity Since all these requisites are rarely met in a single person, a true judge in "the finer arts" is a "rare character" even in the most "polished ages".
Conversely, the majority of people judge like dilettantes - they are not qualified judges.
What distinguishes these two human types is summarized in the table below.
Number Minority Majority
Internal Organ Perfect -
Correct Sentiment
Defective -
Erroneous Sentiment
Delicacy Present -
Distinguishes finer touches
Absent -
Distinguishes only grosser qualities
Practice Backed by -
Confident Verdict
Not aided by -
Confusion, Hesitation
Comparison Accurate Validation Misplaced Admiration
Freedom from Prejudices No Influence - Preserves natural sentiments Under Influence - Perverts all natural sentiments
Good Sense Discerns design and reasoning Overlooks ideas
  One may ask how sentiments could be correct or erroneous if they are all true as such? They are true by themselves but with regard to general principles they could be wrong or right. Hume obviously does not accept radical subjectivism and relativism. Taste of all is not equal.
Winning Combination Hume summarizes the above list of positive conditions for good sentiments and taste (left column) in the following description of a good judge:
"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; "
Joint Verdict From the presence of the above features Hume derives the standard of taste by socially multiplying this personal mix with the respective combinations of other similarly minded and talented individuals: "and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty." The standard of taste is thus finally determined. Not as a factual statement of agreement, nor as a definition or material rule. It is formally circumscribed as the consensus of connoisseurs.
Note: This is an advancement over the initial claim that the standard is to be found in what generally pleases. The previous, mostly psychological and sociological determination, could have given rise to the belief that the standard was a kind of median of what all people like. Now we realize that Hume, being concerned for the highest aesthetic quality, does not want to find an average taste of all normal subjects. He takes into account only qualified perceivers and judges. But he does not identify the standard with the sentiments of any single individual no matter how well that person may be versed in art. The standard emerges from the consensus of many knowledgeable and seasoned judges. Thus it is not anymore purely subjective, although it does not possess the objectivity of a priori principles nor the factual foundation of empirically verifiable rules. The only remaining subjectivity is socially constructed and balanced. The only possible objectivity comes down to inter-subjectivity.
Internal Organs Non-defective
External Circumstances Favorable
Mental Set-up Optimal
Intellectual Faculties Concommitant
Identity How to recognize and distinguish true judges from pretenders? Many claim to possess good taste and many are regarded as connoisseurs. But who are the right ones?
This is a legitimate although difficult question. There is no simple answer. It is a matter of factual painstaking identification. Not a matter of intuition or feeling. If there is a dispute its resolution would require the recognition of a standard and of relevant facts that need to be matched. It is a kind of rational discussion in which parties argue pro and con while remaining open-minded for the differences. A good test is to start with avowed patterns and check whether they are recognized by the candidate. Then proceed with less renown examples and finally test the candidate's judgment on novelties.
Producing Best Arguments
Recognizing a Standard
Allowing Differences
Sound Reasoning
Superiority The distinguishing marks of good judges are "the soundness of their understanding", and "the superiority of their faculties". They easily approve the creations of a genius and are not confused by novelties. Justifiably they have an enormous influence on others - they show the way and are a very precious beacons in any environment. They dictate taste: "The ascendant, which they acquire, gives prevalence to that lively approbation, with which they relish any productions of genius, and renders it generally predominant." So, their role is educational and elevating.
Although there is no critic who has been never mistaken in praising something unworthy or overlooking something exceptional, these mistakes are, according to Hume, much rarer in art criticism than those that occur in evaluating philosophers.
Probably less true today than in Hume's time.
True Judge To recognize ("pitched upon") a true judge in Hume's sense is as difficult as to identify a prudent role-model according to Aristotle. The same "circularity" plagues the ethical and aesthetical education: true judges are recognized by their superior judgments (prudent thinking) and these judgments are superior because they are made by true judges (prudent agents).

Unlike differences in taste that are in reality greater than they appear, the variances of the standard are in reality lesser than they appear. Indeed it is easier to establish a standard in taste than a universal criterion in speculative opinions. as attested by history.
This maybe true, as well as Hume' contention that philosophy correlates with its own time. However, Hume contends that philosophical and theological systems come and go like fashions and thus get totally obsolete once their time passes. This may be the case with scientific theories that are superseded by new (better) theories, but certainly does not depict properly the status of great philosophies: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant are still very much alive, whereas the same does not hold for the Ptolemaic theory of solar system or Lavoisier's theory of flogiston. Hume is certainly right in claiming that great pieces of art are admired perennially regardless of the fact that their original historical context belongs to the past. His examples are again classical: Terence, Virgil, Cicero.

Discipline Particular
Way of Succession Criterion Mistakes in Evaluation
Lesser in Reality Progress Making Previous Stages Obsolete Harder to find Common
Greater in Reality Previous Stages Retain Permanent Value Easier to find Rare
  With his remarks on particular differences Hume draws back on his initial comparison between science and taste. A new angle is added by the claim that it is easier to find a decisive criterion in taste than in science. It is certainly a questionable contention as is the claim that science and philosophy are subject to the changes of fashion much more than art and taste. But we cab agree with the main thesis that the taste of all individuals is not "upon an equal footing".


  If there is a "fixed" standard of taste then every aberration from it will be blamable. Not so for Hume who again demonstrates a very fine sense for the complexity of human condition and taste. He recognizes at least two sources (or kinds) of variation in taste that, unlike previously discussed differences (stemming from a certain defect or imperfection) remain neutral with regard to the quality of taste.
Equality of Approbation
Blameless Variation in Internal Frame or External Situation No Preference for any of the sides Diversity in Judgment Unavoidable
  These variations affect both the sentiments and judgments of taste without qualifying or disqualifying the judging subjects and their aesthetic estimations. Therefore they are permissible although they may increase the confusion in assessing the aesthetic qualities of artworks.
Sources Hume names the following two kinds of legitimate differences:
(1) Internal: The different 'humors" of particular men, and
(2) External: The different manners and opinions of our age and country.
These kinds of diversity are natural, unavoidable and therefore resist the standardization of taste (any attempt to reconcile the differences in predilections stemming from the above diversities in the internal frame or external situation would be an act of violence).
Temperaments With (1) Hume refers to the ancient theory (still accepted in his time) that obvious temperamental differences among individuals are due to the prevalence of one of the four main bodily liquids (humours) A person with a good sense of humor is thus the one who possesses a respective liquid (blood = mirth). The character of that dis-balance allegedly determines the overall temperament of the person in question.
Note: While we do not any longer believe that precisely these four liquids cause differences in our temperament the underlying idea of this theory may be still sound - that something from our physiology and neurology accounts for the differences in the way how we typically react and feel. If these differences are all natural, if none of them is an aberration from normalcy, then they must be equally tolerated in the field of aesthetic preferences.
Table It is questionable whether the humor of the ancient Greeks and modern Italians was reserved, as Hume contends.
Traditional Name Sanguine Choleric Phlegmatic Melancholy
Predominant Liquid (Humor) Blood Yellow Bile Phlegm Black Bile
Short Description Joyous Irritable Sluggish Gloomy
Hume's Phrase Mirth Passion Sentiment Reflection
  We choose our authors in the same manner as our friends: according to the compatibility of our humors and dispositions. This accounts for generational preferences.
Age Predilections
Young Man Old Man
Amorous and tender Images Wise and Philosophic Reflections
Warm Passions Moderate Passions
Ovid / Horace Tacitus
Genre Preferences It is "almost" impossible not to have preferences toward those forms and styles that suit our "particular turn and disposition".
  One Person Another Person Third Person
Pleased by The Sublime The Tender Raillery
Possesses Sensibility to Blemishes Lively Feeling of Beauties Both or None
Receptive to Conciseness and Energy Rich and Harmonious Expressions Combination
  All these preferences and predilections are unavoidable but innocent. They are unavoidable because we are different individuals and they are innocent because they do not affect the quality of our taste. Therefore we should make allowances both for "the continual revolution of manners and customs" as depicted in art and different artistic genres. Comedy, tragedy, satire, odes, have their different but legitimate merits. We need to adjust our judgment to their respective characteristics. If there is a dispute about their mutual qualities it can never be conclusively resolved (there is no standard). Therefore it is inappropriate to rank different genres or to create top-lists of best artworks in general.
Relativity of Manners A good critic must divest himself from his "usual ideas and sentiments" in judging the works of the past and distant cultures, a request that broad audience cannot meet easily. It tends simply to project their current preferences and expectations. This is understandable although regrettable. However, there is one boundary in cultural and aesthetic relativism: we can never relish "the want of humanity and decency", especially when it is condoned or tolerated. Therefore there are two classes of variances: one admissible requiring an adequate adjustment in evaluation, the other one blameworthy regardless of cultural differences.
Temperament Sanguine
Age Generational Differences Turning age related preferences into quality judgments
Manners Dress Code
Work Habits
Vicious Manners
Assymetry The changes in intellectual patterns, systems and ideas do not affect the aesthetic value of artworks. we can easily put ourselves in the mindset of a distant thinker, but not so easily in the practical mores of a different culture. We should refrain from judging a culture based on its theological principles so long as they do not take hold of the hearts.
Quarrel In the celebrated controversy between the ancients and the moderns Hume avoids both extremes: he rejects the arrogance of the moderns who do not have any understanding for the old manners depicted in classical literature, but, on the other hand, he refuses to give a blank excuse to them either.
  Liking and evaluating something are not the same thing. The difference corresponds to the one demonstrated by Socrates as existing between being loved and being pious (see the Euthyphro).


"A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends."


Top of the Page