David Hume – Of the Standard of Taste (1757)

For the most part, Hume roles over his “subjectivism” into the world of taste, claiming that taste, existing in the realm os sentiment rather than in judgment, is relative and does not contain truth-value. However, he also makes some stronger claims: that taste can be improved with practice, that prejudice always hampers taste, that moral (mental) taste is inseparable from physical taste, that taste is involved in a process of discernment which can be rated according to its ability to recognize smaller and smaller objects.

One of the consequences is that “good sense” becomes a pre-requisite for good taste. He distinguishes between the vulgar and the refined. Strangely, the vulgar is the more capricious and varying, while the refined is that which is more common. This is the most counter-intuitive move in the essay, and it aligns processes of aesthetic judgment with sensus communis and all those forms of “reason” that were established in the treaty. Unfortunately, he does not extrapolate from the very curious observations on distance—Burke and Kant will do that.

Lastly, just to emphasize the difference with Kant, Hume is radically subjective in his description of how one comes to relate to something beautiful. For example, some people may like the sublime and others may not. In Kant, for the sublime to be recognized as sublime, the subject must undergo the mental process that condition the sublime’s emergence. Thus Hume seems less interested in the relation between subject and object than in the cultural disposition of the subject.


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