DAVID HUME

Dates: 1711-1776

Nationality: Scottish

Scottish philosopher and historian. Although he studied and became well known in France, he lived mostly in Edinburgh and is regarded as a leading figure in the Enlightenment in Scotland. His work was influential in the development of theories based on empirical knowledge, contributing in particular to 18th-century debates about beauty, taste and judgement. In his Treatise of Human Nature (1739, II.i.8), Hume held that beauty is a form, or structure of parts, that produces pleasure, and can be discerned only through the operation of a sense of beauty or a faculty of taste. His Essays Moral, Political and Literary address, among other topics, the cultural conditions of the production of art (‘Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Science’), the connection between art and morality (‘On Refinement in the Arts’), taste (‘Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion’) and also the technique and style of writing. The problem as to whether taste can be right or wrong, first raised in A Treatise of Human Nature (1740, II.ii.8), was explicitly tackled in his essay Of the Standard of Taste (1757). Although the discussion is confined to literature and oratory, Hume attempted to establish that not all sentiments of beauty or deformity are on an equal footing. After noting the great variety exhibited in taste, he provided a standard of taste in the form of a rule by means of which such sentiments may be either confirmed or rejected.

Code, Alan. “Hume, David.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 </www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T039421>

Hume proposes that feeling, not thought, informs us that an object is beautiful or ugly, or that an action exhibits virtue or vice: “The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration” (T, 471). The feeling or sentiment is itself an aesthetic or moral discrimination. It is prior to, and the basis of, any subsequent expression of praise or admiration. The sentiment is the beauty of the object and it is the virtue of desirable human action. Sentiment is the sole source of values governing human activity. Taste is a “productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.” That new creation is “beauty and deformity, virtue and vice” (EPM, 294). However, the sentiment is calm rather than violent, so an unphilosophical perspective treats it as a property “of the object” (S, 218).

Hume defends the centrality of sentiment with the following reasoning. Recognitions of virtue and beauty require particular sentiments in human observers. If the discriminations of taste took place without these sentiments, we would lack any motivation to do what we regard as moral. Moral and aesthetic judgments have practical consequences that mere reason lacks. So taste differs from the assent that characterizes understanding or reason (T, 458; EPM, 172; S, 219). Although taste responds to real qualities of objects, we cannot replace the exercise of taste with the assent of reason.

Gracyk, Ted. “Hume’s Aesthetics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). <plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2008/entries/hume-aesthetics/>

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