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Experimenting with taste and the rules of art

Juan Gomez writes…

In 1958 Ralph Cohen published a paper titled David Hume’s Experimental Method and the Theory of Taste, where he argues that the main contribution of Hume’s essay Of the Standard of Taste (OST) was his “insistence on method, on the introduction of fact and experience to the problem of taste.” I agree with Cohen, but I think his overall interpretation of the essay on taste still falls short of giving a proper account of Hume’s theory of taste. I’d like to build on Cohen’s statement and support it with the help of the framework we are proposing in this project, where Early Modern Experimental Philosophy plays a prominent role.

Hume’s essay on taste begins with a description of the paradox of taste: It is obvious that taste varies among individuals, but it is also obvious that some judgments of taste are universally agreed upon (Hume’s example is that everyone admits that John Milton is a better writer than John Ogilby). Hume relies on the experimental method to solve the paradox. From the initial paragraphs of the essay we can see that Hume is calling for an approach to the appreciation of art works that resembles the experimental method of natural philosophy. If we are to solve the problem of taste, we need to focus on particular instances, and from them we can deduce the ‘rules of composition’ or ‘rules of art.’ This is achieved the same way natural philosophy observes the phenomena to deduce the laws of nature. The main reason for this focus on particular over the general is that Hume thinks that in matters of taste, as well as in morality founded on sentiment, “The difference among men is really greater than at first sight appear.” Although everyone approves of justice and prudence in general, when it comes to particular instances we find that “this seeming unanimity vanishes.”

The objects we appreciate as works of art, according to Hume, possess qualities that “are calculated to please, and others to displease.” The essay on taste applies the experimental method to particular experiences with artworks, and after a number of these experiences we can identify those qualities which comprise the rules of art:

    “It is evident, that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience; nor are they anything but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages.” (OST, 210)

We need to approach matters of taste the same way we approach matters of natural philosophy: by focusing on the particular phenomena, which in this case are our interactions with works of art. Hume’s essay on taste works as a guide for the appreciation of art. It is not, as most of the scholars who comment on Hume’s essay believe, a method just for critics to apply, but rather a guide for any individual to engage in an aesthetic experience. Hume tells us that one of the aims of the essay is “to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment,” so the faulty of delicacy of taste takes a central role in Hume’s theory. Such faculty can and should be improved and developed, which leads us to think that the process Hume describes is not only for the critics but open to anyone.

    “But though there be naturally a very wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to encrease and improve this talent,than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.” (OST, 220)

If we want to derive the most pleasure out of our aesthetic experiences we need to experiment with works of art in order to develop our delicacy of taste.

If we accept this reading of Hume’s essay we can shed light on its purpose. It was not the attempt to establish a standard of taste, but rather a guide for engaging with works of art and to have discussions regarding matters of taste.

2 thoughts on “Experimenting with taste and the rules of art

  1. I think you are on the right track here. But it is a bit unclear to me how to read Hume as applying experimental methods in his essay on taste. It seems that his view is that you can best discern the laws of taste by observing what has appealed to critics over the ages. So does this suggest that he is simply relying on enumerative induction? In what sense is his approach genuinely experimental?

  2. Thanks for your very interesting comment, Mark. I am currently writing a paper where I explain in more detail how Hume’s essay on taste can be better interpreted if we take into account the context of Early Modern Experimental Philosophy. From what I can gather from your comment, it seems that you take the term ‘experimental’ in a loose sense where it means ‘to perform experiments.’ As we have mentioned in previous posts(here and here) in our blog, Early modern Experimental Philosophy was not just the carrying out of experiments, but rather a commitment to a methodological approach in all of our inquiries into knowledge. In this sense, Hume’s approach in the essay of taste is considered experimental because he is applying the experimental method of natural philosophy. This is clearly highlighted in the quote I included in the post, where Hume tells us that the rules of art are not found a priori, but rather found through experience and observation.
    This leads me to the other part of your comment regarding the judgment of critics. I agree here with Jeffrey Wieand’s interpretation of Hume’s essay on taste. The critics are “a good guide to what the rules are,” but not necesarilly the best way to actually discover them. This is also consistent with Hume’s commitment to early modern experimental philosophy. The rules of art can only be discovered by engaging with the artworks, but the critic can point you in the right direction(since, presumably, the critic has a more developed delicacy of taste).
    I hope this both answers your question in some way and motivates you to keep discussing this issue.