Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Defense of Hume’s Sentimentalist Theory of Taste



What follows is a guest post by Thomas Leddy. Thomas PhD Boston University 1981, is Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University.  He specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, but also loves teaching Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Dewey.  He regularly teaches a lower-division, general education, course (meeting an Arts requirement) titled “Introduction to Aesthetics.” The course serves about 240 students a year.  Tom has been a member of the American Society for Aesthetics (of which he has also served on the Board) since 1974.  His book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, was published by Broadview Press in 2012 and is currently being translated into Chinese.  He has also published numerous articles in the JAAC, the British Journal of Aesthetics, the Journal of Aesthetic Education, and Contemporary Aesthetics, as well as several chapters in books including most recently, on Dewey, in The Aesthetics of Key Thinkers. He also writes and edits the entry on Dewey’s Aesthetics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Finally, he maintains an extensive and popular blog titled Aesthetics Today at that deals with issues surrounding the aesthetics of everyday life, art and nature.  He is always looking for ideas that establish the importance of aesthetics both in philosophy and, more generally, in human culture.

One of the best pieces out there on Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” is Nick Zangwill’s “Hume Taste and Teleology,” which appears in his 2001 book The Metaphysics of Beauty  (Cornell University Press), and originally appeared in the Philosophical Papers in 1994.  Zangwill represents Hume, I think accurately, as taking a sentimentalist, as opposed to a cognitivist, view of taste (Zangwill himself taking the cognitivist side.)  I continue to think that Hume’s piece is the most sensible thing ever written about taste, so, for now, call me a sentimentalist on the side of Hume. Hume’s great accomplishment was in being able to insist that “beauty is no quality in things themselves” and also that, in many cases, one person’s taste is better than another, so much so that the good critic has the right to condemn the taste of the other, or, better, to feel confident in trying to convince the other that he/she fails to understand that the very principles that makes him/her enjoy certain relatively simple works of art can also be applied to more complex and subtle pieces. Hume, of course, was famous for holding that there is a standard of taste, which is to say that in taste there is a kind of quasi-objectivity (as in the quasi objective truth that the apple I see is red, even though the color “red” is only the result of interaction between the light-waves coming off the apple and my ocular system). The standard of taste is, in his final analysis, the “good judge,” who has “delicacy of sentiment,” which, although it could be partly genetic, is mainly based on practice and comparison in a particular art form (e.g. dance in general, or perhaps even…and I think Hume would agree… something more specific like break-dancing). Delicacy of sentiment must also be supplemented by “good sense” which involves various applications of reason to the art works being analyzed (Hume, here is basically mirroring Aristotle’s Poetics), and this is never going to work unless there is a lack of prejudice. But the key idea (and the original one for Hume) is that of delicacy of sentiment, which involves being able to mark those elements of a complex or subtle work which are good, and those which are bad, thus leading to an overall judgment which could be called correct.  I am more of a relativist than Hume on these matters, but I won’t go into that here.  

Zangwill begins his essay by giving an excellent account of Hume’s overall argument, and then makes the brilliant claim that, when Hume writes, “There are certain qualities in objects which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings” [i.e. feelings of pleasure based on the perception that the object is beautiful]  he is saying that “some objects are apt by nature for pleasurable contemplation” (156), and is offering a “teleological account of aesthetics,” which would be naturally supported by evolutionary theory (even though such a theory did not exist at the time.)  At this point in his article Zangwill places somewhat more emphasis on what Hume calls the “test of time” than I would.  The test of time, viz. that the same Homer is appreciated today as in ancient Greek times, is merely, in my view, set up by Hume as a way to determine what he calls “the principles of art.”  Unfortunately, Hume only gives examples of such principles when he discusses Ariosto, who, he says, charms us not by his irregularities (on which point I think he is deeply wrong…. we like William Burroughs, for example, to a large extent, becauseof his irregularities) but because of “the force and clearness of his expression, by the readiness and variety of his inventions, and by his natural pictures of the passions” (Hume in Ross Art and its Significance, 2nd. ed., 81).  In short, he is good because he is clear, inventive and adept at realistic representation.  It is these principles that cause us to gain pleasure, Hume thinks, from Ariosto.  Moreover, Hume is willing to grant that, if the things he called faults in Ariosto, like his “monstrous and improbable fictions,” do generally give pleasure, we should just modify our “rules of criticism”:  “if they are found to please, they cannot be faults.”  It is not whether Ariosto has passed the test of time that is important; it is that the principles, or rather our list of principles, has stood the test of time, which is also the test of experience, hence allowing us to say that, yes, some of these so-called “irregularities” are in fact also principles.

Zangwill has some problem with the possibility of providing evolutionary underpinnings for the natural fit that Hume describes between our organs (eyes, brains) and aesthetic objects.  In doing this, Zangwill wants to make a big distinction between the beauty of a work of art and the pleasure we get from something like smoked salmon, only the latter really getting evolutionary sanction.  This is where, I think, Zangwill blunders, but not in an obvious way.  He says, “an explanation of the limited normativity that constrains judgments of the niceness and nastiness of food and drink seems easier to come by than an explanation of the more substantial normativity of judgments of beauty and ugliness,” (Z 159-60), and thinks it difficult to “even begin to give an evolutionary explanation of why Milton” is more naturally apt for pleasure than Ogilby.  The reason is mainly because what makes Milton better is not obviously “adaptive.” 

Part of our disagreement may have to do with the issue of the aesthetic status of such terms as “niceness” and “nastiness.”  (My contribution to this debate can be found in my book The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, Broadview, 2012a and in my 2012b article, “Defending Everyday Aesthetics and the Concept of ‘Pretty’  Contemporary Aesthetics here) Zangwill writes:

“Like judgments of beauty and ugliness, judgments of niceness and nastiness are based on sentiments of pleasure and displeasure.  But they lack the normative aspirations of judgments of beauty and ugliness.  If you do not like smoked salmon, you are not lacking in the way that you are if you do not appreciate the beauty of the Alhambra” (135).

It is true that we do not debate over niceness quite as much as over beauty, but debates there are. And yet there are as many debates in the realm of food as in the realm of architecture. Our feelings of beauty at the Alhambra may well be more profound than our delight in excellently prepared food items, but there are interesting exceptions, for example, that Parisian restaurant meal that, to crib from Dewey, was “an experience.” Of course, such an experience is not seen as just “nice.” But Zangwill wants to exclude this whole domain from beauty and relegate it to the realm of the nice and nasty.  On my view,  “nice” plays an important role in the aesthetic continuum that goes from the pretty and nice to the beautiful and the sublime.  (More criticisms of Zangwill on this and related points can be seen in my 2012a, 147-8, 168 and 191-2.)

Zangwill is basically arguing that the parallel Hume is drawing between taste in wine and taste in literature is irrelevant.  But it is not.  This line of thinking leads him to the following, in my view, outrageous statement:  “As far as food and drink go, we can be more or less finely discriminating, more or less well practiced [etc.]….So it seems dubious whether any of these virtues [listed by Hume as the virtues of a good judge] …can do the job of earning normativity in the case of the sensibility whose products are judgments of beauty and ugliness.”  That’s just wrong.  The point is not dubious at all.  The contrast between niceness and beauty is just not as deep at Zangwill wants it to be.

Back to evolution: I suppose whether Zangwill is right all depends on what one means by “evolutionary explanation” and “adaptive.”  Obviously, if you are a philosopher committed to naturalism (for example, a pragmatist like myself), some sort of natural explanation, perhaps enhanced by a cultural/historical explanation (which ultimately is based on biology anyway), is needed, since no other kind of explanation is rationally conceivable.  Now if Milton is to be preferred to Ogilby it is because his writing better fits the “principles” (and, one should add, more amenable to the special pleasures of perception available to those who have delicacy of taste….consider this “the principle of enhanced value through subtlety” or “the principle of subtlety” for short….something I will build on later) and that these principles, viz. invention, unity, realist portrayal (and the pleasure we take in response to these), and subtlety must have some sort of adaptive value.  Actually, contra Zangwill, it is pretty obviously adaptive, even though evolutionary theory hasn’t yet gone far enough to fill in the details.  (How long would a hominid species last if it got no pleasure from invention, reality or perception of unity?)   Zangwill says, “it is difficult to say where the evolutionary story would begin” although he admits that it is possible that such a story could be told.  But beginning is not difficult at all:  it is the actual evolutionary account that is difficult.

Zangwill also observes:  “It might be objected that, given a teleological account, it is quite contingent that certain things are apt for pleasurable contemplation.  Hume thinks that normativity is in the last resort merely statistical, since it is just a question of what most human beings find beautiful over the long term.” (161)  Zangwill solves the problem simply by saying that sentimentalism (which Hume and I advocate) implies a “statistical conception of normativity.”  This seems to put Zangwill in the catbird’s seat since he rejects sentimentalism and a statistical conception seems implausible.  What he neglects (and perhaps Hume does too) is that the “principle of subtlety” which I set forth above is the most important principle of all, since, after all, it is the central idea in Hume’s final definition of the standard of taste (corresponding as it does to delicacy of taste), and the principle of subtlety is going to trump any statistical or majoritarian view of why things have stood the test of time.  Great works pass the test of time because they are appreciated by the “good judges” all of whom have, most notably, delicacy of taste.  The majority of readers may have long ago rejected the value of Homer (as is probably the case today) but the value of the work remains and can easily be seen by a “good judge” with delicacy of taste in literature, or more specifically, ancient Western literature. 

By the way, I just realized that I am strongly influenced in my rejection of Zangwill by a wonderful article by James R. Shelley, “Hume and the Nature of Taste,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56:1 (1998) in which he finds a clear distinction in Hume’s essay between what he calls the “perceptual stage” of taste and the “affective stage.” Zangwill, basically, is not aware of the distinction and talks as though there were only a perceptual stage.  Shelley argues (and I will quote here at length, since this argument needs to be widely disseminated in order to avoid the kind of mistake Zangwill makes to the benefit of a cognitivism): that there are two principles of taste in the parable of the wine:  “one stating that the perception of iron in wine naturally causes displeasure in the human mind, and another stating the same thing with regard to the perception of leather.  The fact that the discovery of the key and thong silences the ridicule of the townspeople reveals the naturalness or universality of these principles, since were it not true that the tastes of iron and leather in wine naturally causes feelings of ‘deformity’ in the human mind (and not true that the townspeople realized this), the discovery of the key and thong would impute nothing about the merit of the wine.”  He goes on: “What separates the taste of the kinsmen from that of the townspeople, then, has nothing to do with its relative naturalness.  Each person’s taste is equally natural: each feels the appropriate pleasure or displeasure in accordance with the qualities in the wine perceived by each.  What separates the taste of the kinsmen is their perceptual acuity, their ability to detect qualities of the wine which are undetectable by the rest… According to Hume, there are, as it were, two separate stages involved in every judgment of taste:  a perceptual stage, in which we perceive qualities in objects, and an affective stage, in which we feel the sentiments of pleasure or displeasure that arise from our perceptions of qualities….he is claiming, in effect, that there are no failures at the affective stage…that although people do fail to perceive aesthetically relevant qualities in objects, once a quality is perceived an inappropriate sentiment never arises.  Thus, while everyone’s taste is not equal, given the dependence of taste on the perceptual faculty, everyone’s taste is equally natural, in the sense that no one ever feels an inappropriate sentiment base on the qualities perceived….it follows that none of the “defects”…of which Hume speaks…occur at [the affective] stage.”  (33)  and finally “if you perceive all the same qualities in an object that I do, but in addition perceive qualities I do not, you and I do not merely perceive the object differently:  you perceive better than I do.  And it is this, ultimately, which is the (chief) source of the normativity of Hume’s standard.”  (34)  Better perception is obviously an evolutionary advantage too.  (For example, sightedness is more adaptive than blindness.) 

Zangwill’s main problem with Hume, however, just comes down to the old debate between metaphysical realists and pragmatists.  He asks rhetorically, “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?” (163)  He thinks that the goodness of a good judge can only be confirmed by whether or not he/she makes the right choice as to whether the object is in fact beautiful (that’s the realist position) and so, an appeal to the ideal of the “good judge” as having certain qualities, and as providing quasi-objectivity, is without merit.  For him, principles like simplicity and comprehensiveness are only valuable if they “hit on the truth.”  My James/Dewey pragmatism makes me wonder why Zangwill has this religious-like faith in this human activity-independent notion of “truth,” especially in thisrealm of human activity, i.e. the realm of art.  I think he thinks that if it works well in science then it should work well in art.  But that is not enough of a reason.  His second rhetorical question, “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 or inappropriate pleasures?” therefore holds no water with pragmatists like myself.  The really good reason why Hume came up with a quasi-objective theory of taste is that there is no conceivable epistemological ground for the metaphysical realist claim.  My own rhetorical question in reply would be, “How can we guarantee that a work of art is good independent of the work of the good judge?”  I recognize, however, that this debate, which is really deep and, in Zangwill’s case, would involve a thorough analysis of his claims for realism as developed throughout The Metaphysics of Beauty and elsewhere, cannot be resolved here.  A short point to make in that direction, however, is that from the pragmatist perspective, realism is probably true, but only in the James/Dewey pragmatist sense of “true,” not in the realist sense, and only to the extent that (and in the places in which) it works.  Again, that debate cannot be resolved here.  I hope, however, that I have sufficiently shown that Hume, and sentimentalists in general, have more to stand on than Zangwill is willing to admit.  

Problems remain, of course, for supporters of Hume — in particular, one that Zangwill points out, that people who seem eminently qualified as good judges in a particular art-form often disagree in a way that Hume’s standard of taste has no way to resolve (beyond just assuming that one of the pair has some hidden prejudice).  Zangwill calls this “Hume’s optimism.” (162)  I agree that Hume is too optimistic on the ultimate agreement of good judges.  But I think the problem is with Hume’s residual objectivism, which he shares with Zangwill, i.e. in thinking that there is a final or absolutely correct judgment, and thus final agreement amongst good judges at the end of inquiry.  Hume should have been a more consistent quasi-objectivist on this point. That is, in conclusion:  Hume has it basically right as long as his optimism is corrected from a James/Deweyan pragmatist perspective (Peirce, who was perhaps equally an optimist, at least about the “end of inquiry” in science, is deliberately left out here.)   


  1. Do you take a stand on Hume's so-called elitism, if one were to read Hume through Adorno or Bourdieu or Eagleton, for instance?

  2. Tom,

    Thanks so much for your attention to my piece on Hume (from twenty years ago, but revamped somewhat in my 2001 book Metaphysics of Beauty). And thanks for your nice words, as well, of course, for your criticisms. Just a four comments by way of response.

    ( 1 ) On niceness, yes I follow Kant in distinguishing beauty from the merely agreeable (niceness), though I would certainly not link the agreeable with everyday aesthetics. There is plenty of everyday beauty. I do not say people do not dispute about the agreeable, but say that the norms of correctness operative in judgments of beauty are more robust. The philosophy comes in with the attempt to understand and explain and justify that robust normative demand. But if the virtuous sensibility, as Hume conceives of that, applies to gourmets appreciating the agreeable, then those virtues do not serve to yield the thicker, more robust, normativity operative in judgments of beauty.

    ( 2 ) ‘Subtlety’? I am not sure I understand what is intended by that. Is it a thick aesthetic term? Is it something like complexity or detail? If it is just the ‘delicacy of taste’, as Hume intends that, as something like fineness of perceptual discrimination, then the above argument shows that this does not suffice. Apparently there are huge number of different sub-genres of heavy metal, which I cannot begin to discriminate. Does it make a person a better judge of music or of heavy metal music, if one can discriminate the kinds? Perhaps. Does that suffice for being a virtuous judge? Not remotely. But perhaps something else was intended by ‘subtlety’.

    ( 3 ) The separation of two stages, the perceptual, and the felt response, is part of the sentimentalist account. Pleasure is not a perceptual experience. Perceiving a thing properly is necessary for being in a position to respond to that perception. But the question is what response there is to the perception. Hence the perceptual experience cannot be ‘the (chief) source of the normativity’, as Leddy says–or at least not without moving to a completely different kind of theory.

    ( 4 ) I am also not sure I understand the ‘pragmatist’ position, conceived as a view about truth (rather than a view about theory change). At any rate, I wonder: what is the source of correctness in aesthetic judgment on such a view? What is the alternative to a realist view of the source of aesthetic correctness? Hume attempts to provide a non-realist source: the verdict of virtuous judges. Hume tries to earn a non-realist explanation of correctness or truth in aesthetic matters. It cannot be had for free! If reality is not the source, as on the realist account, and we reject sentimentalism, there is a problem. What is the pragmatist explanation? The one thing we cannot do is say that the normative aspirations of aesthetic judgments do not need explaining. It is a fact of our practice that we make such claims, and so there are inescapable questions about their explanation and justification.


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