Beauty is not just subjective | Nick Zangwill (2024)

One person likes Britney, another likes Beethoven. One person can discern the notes and texture of a Merlot, another just enjoys a glass of red. But is taste purely subjective? For Hume, good taste was discerned by a good critic, who met certain criteria – a kind of virtue aesthetics (in place of virtue ethics). However, things are not quite that simple, writes Nick Zangwill.

In his essay "Of the Standard of Taste," Hume set himself a problem. He takes off from a "sentimentalist" view of taste, according to which “beauty and deformity . . . are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiments.”

Such a sentimentalist view stands in opposition to a view according to which judgments of taste or beauty are "determinations of the understanding" which represent qualities of beauty and deformity. What is this distinction between 'understanding' and 'sentiment', which is so fundamental for Hume? He writes: “All determinations of the understanding . . . have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matters of fact.”

Hume is here talking about what philosophers nowadays call a "belief" or a "cognitive state": a belief represents a state of affairs, and when it is true, it is true in virtue of the fact or state of affairs which it represents. What is a sentiment? It is a felt reaction to a belief or perception—paradigmatically a pleasure or displeasure. It is what philosophers nowadays call a "noncognitive" state.

It is often objected that noncognitive states also represent real matters of fact, just like cognitive states. We are pleased about things; we are proud of things. If so, wherein lies the difference between understanding and sentiment, or between cognitive and noncognitive states? Hume seems not to have given us a satisfactory account of the distinction. Many have taken Hume to be making a simple blunder when he writes: "sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself" and "no sentiment represents what is in the object" (p. 230).

Since there is no genuine property of beauty, there are no facts or states of affairs which consist in things possessing this property. Sentimentalism means that there is no aesthetic reality.

But the blunder lies in the uncharitable interpretation of Hume, not in Hume himself. For Hume does not mean to deny that sentiments have content; he is not denying the obvious truths that we are pleased at or by various things. The point is just that the sentiment does not represent any distinctive quality of objects over and above what is represented in the belief or perceptual experience to which it is a reaction. This is why the sentimentalist view is bound up with the metaphysical claim that "Beauty is no quality in things themselves" (p. 230). Since there is no genuine property of beauty, there are no facts or states of affairs which consist in things possessing this property. Sentimentalism means that there is no aesthetic reality.

Unlike many who wish to avoid a cognitivist and realist position in aesthetics, Hume is sensible enough to recognize that it is essential that he avoid the view that "All sentiment is right" or that "every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others". The trouble with this is that,

“Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Tenerife, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays any attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd or ridiculous. The principle of the natural quality of tastes is then totally forgot.”

What Hume describes here is one major aspect of the normativity which is involved in our practice of making aesthetic judgments. (Other aspects are 'mind-independence' and consistency, but I shall not discuss these here.) Our thought and talk in aesthetics has much in common with our thought and talk about things in the physical world, such as molehills, Tenerife, and ponds and oceans. What gives this impression is that we think that our sentiments can be more or less appropriate; and we think that in at least some cases, an aesthetic judgment and its opposite cannot both be correct. Hume's point here is qualified later in the essay, when he admits that there are some cases where it is all right to think that neither side in a dispute is correct. Preferences which stem from "the different humours of particular men" or from "the particular manners of our age or country" result in differences which are quite "blameless on both sides". But for the most part, Hume is interested in cases where this is not so.

The Problem

The overriding problem for the sentimentalist (or non-cognitivist) in aesthetics is this: if aesthetic judgment and experience does not represent aesthetic reality, then why isn't any sentiment as good as any other? On Hume's theory, why should we not have any sentiments we please? The dialectical state of play is that if Hume wants to be able to respect the normative claims of our aesthetic thought, he is going to have to do some hard work. He needs to earn such claims.

The overriding problem for the sentimentalist (or non-cognitivist) in aesthetics is this: if aesthetic judgment and experience does not represent aesthetic reality, then why isn't any sentiment as good as any other?

To his credit, Hume attempts to do this. He writes:

“It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not on an equal footing.”

This is the problem he sets himself. Hume seeks a "standard of taste," which is, he says:

“a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

This may look at first sight as if it reveals a tendency on Hume's part to seek some law or principle of taste by reference to which we can make reliable aesthetic judgments. It is not clear that he should be interested in anything so strong. All Hume needs is the more primitive idea that some sentiments can be better than others, that not all sentiments are right, and that some may be defective. This is presupposed by the stronger law idea. But if he could achieve the stronger idea, he would have achieved his purpose.

Hume’s Solution

What I shall call Hume's underlying idea is the idea that the normativity of aesthetic judgment is constructed from the virtues and vices of aesthetic sensibilities. As he says:

“In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment.”

A good critic is someone whose sensibility is in a sound state. Hume gives an account of what it is to be a good critic, and from there he derives the idea of correctness in judgment, not vice versa. A good critic is not someone who makes correct judgments; rather, correct judgments are those made by the good critic.

Hume's second idea, which builds on the underlying idea, is the idea that our sensibility is a delicate mechanism which is prone to being upset and distorted by internal and external influences. For Hume, an aesthetic sensibility is a psychological function from an input of ordinary belief or perception (of physical, sensory, or semantic properties) to aesthetic reaction. But this function can be more or less healthy in itself and it can be more or less independent of extraneous influences. Call this the mechanism idea. Hume writes:

“Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circ*mstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal dis- order, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine.”

As we shall see, Hume has various suggestions about what these internal disorders and external and hindrances are. It is these suggestions that are supposed to amount to "principles of taste", in the sense that they are principles in accordance with which we ought to judge.

These are the two pillars of Hume's answer. Hume several times draws an analogy between "mental taste" (that of moral and aesthetic judgment), and "bodily taste" (that of secondary qualities such as colors, sounds, tastes, and smells). Of color he writes,

“The appearance of objects in day-light, to the eye of a man in health, is denominated their true and real colour, even while colour is allowed to be merely a phantasm of the senses.”

Judgments of color do not represent real qualities of objects, but even so, those with a fever or with jaundice make defective color judgments. This is no more than an analogy, and Hume could have omitted it. But its dialectical role is to get us to see the error in a principled objection that where there are no matters of fact, all judgment is right. The secondary quality analogy functions to dissuade those who think they know that Hume's project must fail, so they need not bother to look at the details.

My plan will be first to glance at Hume's various suggestions concerning what makes for a good critic; then I will consider what I think underpins the idea. Here is the passage where he sums up his various suggestions after having described each one in more detail:

“When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the objects of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent. Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the fine arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character: 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.”

Let us separate the five suggestions in this passage:

1. There is what he calls the "delicacy" of taste, which he has earlier illustrated with the much discussed wine-tasting example from Don Quixote. Our experience, and the judgment we base upon it, can have more or less fine-grained discriminative power.

2. We need practice in judgment. It is good to have a well-exercised sensibility.

3. A broad experience is important, for it gives us scope to make comparisons. A narrow range of comparisons leads to crude and naive judgment.

4.There is sheer prejudice. We must remove obstructions to true appreciation, such as any jealousy or affection we might feel toward the author; and we must not blindly follow fashion.

5. We need what Hume calls "good sense," which is the operation of our normal cognitive faculties. We need good sense for many purposes: to keep our prejudices in check; to understand and compare the parts of a work; to assess a work with respect to its purposes; to understand and assess the plot and characters in a work of literature; and to understand the representational features of visual works of art.

Before he embarks on all this, Hume merely mentions in passing another possible failing in a sensibility which does seem to fit into any of the previous five categories.

“A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circ*mstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we will be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.”

That is, we need to be in the right mood and paying attention to the object. These are the resources with which Hume hopes to construct aesthetic normativity. They constitute his answer to the problem of taste that he originally set himself.

Beauty was once banished from art, but was that an error?

The Underlying Problem with Hume’s account

Hume’s account rests on the underlying idea that correct judgments are those made by an excellent sensibility. If an object is naturally apt to produce pleasure, that means that it will do so in a sensibility which possesses the Humean virtues and lacks the Humean vices. There is a relation of fit between the object, on the one hand, and the excellent sensibility, on the other. A particular object is suited for a response of pleasure for a particular sensibility at a particular time if that is how the excellent sensibility would respond.

Hume’s account rests on the underlying idea that correct judgments are those made by an excellent sensibility. If an object is naturally apt to produce pleasure, that means that it will do so in a sensibility which possesses the Humean virtues and lacks the Humean vices.

So let us turn our sights on the underlying idea, where we find the real difficulty with Hume's account. One way to put the problem with the underlying idea would be this: how can we say which aspects of a sensibility are virtues and which are vices, unless we already have some prior grasp of the normativity of aesthetic judgment? But it is important to see that the underlying problem with the underlying idea is not merely epistemological. It is over what it would before a sensibility to be better or worse. If being better or worse does not consist in producing or being disposed to produce better or worse judgments or sentiments as the output of the sensibility, then what does it consist in? Hume's predicament is very like that of a non-realist about science: mere internal coherence allows for radically divergent but nevertheless internally coherent theories. Virtues like simplicity or comprehensiveness are then brought in to explain why certain internally coherent but far-fetched theories should be ruled out. The non-realist then needs an account of why simplicity and comprehensiveness are virtues which does not appeal to the fact that theories with these properties tend to hit on the truth. And this proves difficult. It is the same with our aesthetic sensibility. What can the virtues or vices of a sensibility consist in if it is not a disposition to produce correct or incorrect judgments or appropriate and inappropriate pleasures? And why should we strive to acquire the virtues and avoid the vices if it is not as a means to acquire correct judgment and appropriate sensibilities and avoid incorrect judgments and inappropriate sensibilities?

I want to distinguish my criticism from the criticism that Hume's account is circular. Many have charged Hume with arguing as follows: (1) Good works of art are works of art approved by good critics; (2) good critics are critics possessing five requisite qualities; and (3) critics possessing the five requisite qualities are critics who approve of good works of art. Peter Kivy argues, in defence of Hume, that this circle can be broken in the case of certain of the qualities of critics, which "are identifiable by marks other than the critic's approval of good art." But although this defeats the circularity objection, it does not remove the difficulty I have in mind. The problem is not merely one of how we are to pick out the qualities of good critics independently of their relation to aesthetic qualities of things; the problem is to see why such a disposition, even if it is one that can be comfortably identified independently of aesthetic qualities, should be admirable apart from its manifestation in admirable judgments or attitudes. The problem is not that Hume is defining the qualities of good critics in terms of correct judgments or admirable sentiments, the problem is of seeing how the qualities would be virtues apart from their leading to correct judgments or admirable sentiments.

All Hume's techniques face the same problem, which derives from the underlying idea. Hume needs an account of why the virtues he cites are virtues, which is independent of the fact that they lead to admirable judgments. This is the fundamental objection to the way Hume goes about things.

Beauty is not just subjective | Nick Zangwill (2024)
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