Thomas Leddy, 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 http://aestheticstoday.blogspot.com/ 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.