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David Hume: Art, Taste and Beauty

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In his work "Of the Standard of Taste", David Hume quickly comes to the conclusion that we cannot get a standard of taste or beauty from an examination of abstract concepts like "beauty" or "ugliness" utilizing the tools of rational thought. Instead, he assumes that we must apprehend a standard of taste based on the practical observations of our experience and our perception. Even practical observation is not without flaws in Hume's estimation, however. He feels that "though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observations of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to the rules" (Hume 108). That is, although we can arrive at a sort of general consensus about what standards of beauty and taste should be upheld by a given society (and therefore, further, a given individual), there is always bound to be someone who disagrees with that proposed standard. Hume insists that a standard of art will never be "universal" in the sense that it will be agreeable to everyone; rather, he recognizes that such a standard will always be contingent and determined by "what works" for a given society at a given time, through the judgments of judgments of critics. In his work, Hume introduces a practical system, not of evaluating taste or beauty itself, but rather evaluating those who judge art and therefore drawing the distinctions of a standard of art indirectly.

Hume comes to this conclusion of a contingent, practical judgment of taste by examining the distinction between reason and sentiment; that is, the difference between understanding and feeling. For Hume, "all sentiment is right because the sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it" (Hume 106). Further, "determinations of the understanding are not all right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to seek the real beauty, or real deformity is a fruitless enquiry." Because we cannot apprehend beauty using our understanding, we must turn to our feelings and our practical observations of those feelings, in order to objectify beauty and taste and therefore get some sort of standard from it. Hume is looking for a standard of standards of taste and beauty.

Kant's theory of beauty is not identical with his whole philosophy of art. Much of his discussion of beauty focuses on an example of natural beauty ("this rose is beautiful"). The universality and necessity of pure judgments of taste holds for natural beauty as well as art. What is distinctive about art is that purposiveness is accompanied by some specific purpose. With fine art, that purpose is the communication of ideas. This purpose introduces a social dimension that is absent from simple entertainment. To concentrate exclusively on Kant's



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