Tuesday, 29 August 2017

David Hume: Of the Standard of Taste (4)

In this post on Hume I will look at his theory of beauty, the relationship between aesthetic sentiment and objects, and briefly at the rules of composition.


Hume had various ideas about beauty, though he nowhere tries to define it. In his early Treatise of Human Nature (1739), he views beauty as a quality found in objects, not as a subjective feeling. He says it cannot be defined, because of the ‘innumerable instances’ in which it is manifested, concluding simply:

Beauty is nothing but a form, which produces pleasure, as deformity is a structure of parts, which conveys pain. (Bk II, part I, section VIII)

Several times he talks of beauty as a quality of the object that produces feelings. For example, later in section X he says:

All objects, in a word, that are useful, beautiful or surprising, or are related to such, may, by means of property, give rise to [pleasure].

Also in section X he talks of the ‘property of any thing, that gives pleasure [by its] beauty’, or in Bk II, part II, section I he describes beauty as a ‘bodily accomplishment’. Note the distinction here: beauty is not a subjective feeling, it is an objective quality that produces a feeling.

A few years later Hume had shifted his position. In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), beauty is no longer a form or quality of the object but a feeling produced by it (‘criticism’ here is what we would call ‘aesthetics’):

Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived. (Section XII, Part 3)

And in Of the Standard of Taste (1757), Hume accepted the common 18th century view that beauty is subjective:

Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. (§7)

It’s true that the above quote comes when he is outlining the relativist position, which is not his own, but he does endorse this aspect of it, as in §16:

[B]eauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external. 

Beauty does not exist independently of the human audience. Similarly, in ethics, actions are not in themselves good or bad. Let’s turn now to the essay The Sceptic, where Hume makes the same assertion:

Beauty and worth are merely of a relative nature, and consist in an agreeable sentiment, produced by an object in a particular mind, according to the peculiar structure and constitution of that mind.1

Normally we assume that beauty does lie in the object. Hume offers an explanation of why this is:

Who is not sensible, that power, and glory, and vengeance, are not desirable of themselves, but derive all their value from the structure of human passions, which begets a desire towards such particular pursuits? But with regard to beauty, either natural or moral, the case is commonly supposed to be different. The agreeable quality is thought to lie in the object, not in the sentiment; and that merely because the sentiment is not so turbulent and violent as to distinguish itself, in an evident manner, from the perception of the object.

Hume is claiming that the sentiment of beauty is too calm to make itself fully distinct from the perception of the object, and we therefore confuse the two. He goes on to provide some arguments for why he thinks beauty is not a property of the object:

EUCLID has fully explained every quality of the circle, but has not, in any proposition, said a word of its beauty. The reason is evident. Beauty is not a quality of the circle. It lies not in any part of the line whose parts are all equally distant from a common center. It is only the effect, which that figure produces upon a mind, whose particular fabric or structure renders it susceptible of such sentiments. In vain would you look for it in the circle, or seek it, either by your senses, or by mathematical reasonings, in all the properties of that figure.

We can comprehensively describe an object, such as a circle, without making any mention of its beauty. Hume concludes that beauty is not one of its properties.

Yet we do find some actions good or bad, and we do think some objects are beautiful; we have thoughts in which we predicate those properties on certain objects or events. Hume’s conclusion is that beauty must be in the sentiments (feelings) of the onlooker. If we find beauty in a circle,

It is only the effect, which that figure produces upon a mind, whose particular fabric or structure renders it susceptible of such sentiments.

Hume gives us little detail about these sentiments, and thus about beauty. They are mental rather than bodily, tend to be calm, and are feelings of approval, which give us a ‘peculiar delight’ (Treatise, Bk II, part I, section VIII).

We learn from Of the Standard of Taste that sentiments are not equally good: not because they have any absolute truth-value, but because the perceptions of some viewers are less obstructed than those of others. Artists take advantage of our natural, human dispositions by making their objects of such a kind as to awaken that aesthetic pleasure in us.


In the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Hume takes an additional step.

The distinct boundaries and offices of reason and of taste are easily ascertained. The former conveys the knowledge of truth and falsehood: The latter gives the sentiment of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. The one discovers objects as they really stand in nature, without addition or diminution: The other has a productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.2

The key phrase is ‘gilding or staining’. Hume seems to think that we project onto the object something borrowed from our minds that is not really part of that external world.3 By projecting our sentiment of beauty onto the object, we give ourselves the impression that beauty lies in the object, not ourselves.

This sort of account is known as projectivism. Let’s say a woman goes to a gallery and looks at a painting, which arouses in her a feeling of approval. She projects this feeling of approval onto the painting and therefore judges it beautiful. Hume mentions a ‘new creation’: here, on my reading, the new creation is beauty. The woman’s emotional experience makes her think that the world is a certain way, namely that beauty is a quality that exists in things.  

Since the sentiment has occurred, there is clearly some sort of relationship between the mind and the object. What is this relationship?


From some of his comments, Hume seems to be falling into line with the English philosopher John Locke, who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) made a famous and important distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of objects. Locke argued that the ideas we receive from our sensations can either resemble their causes or not. The ideas that resemble their causes are ‘primary’ qualities such as texture, number, size, shape and motion. The ideas that do not are ‘secondary’ qualities such as colour, sound, taste and smell. With reference to the atomist science of Robert Boyle, Locke argued that the stuff of the material world did not in themselves possess colour, taste etc – those arise in humans as sensations in response to particular arrangements of matter, or the ‘powers’ of objects to cause sensations. We do not need secondary qualities to explain objects – we can imagine a ball without colour, but not without its distinctive round shape – and they do not exist in the world in the way we perceive them. We can understand objects by their primary qualities, without reference to their secondary qualities including beauty – in fact, we disagree about their beauty, as we do not disagree about, say, the roundness of a ball.

In short: Primary qualities exist in objects. Secondary qualities don’t. They are our responses to ‘powers’ in objects that only exist when observed.

Locke’s theory offered the 18th century a framework for theorising beauty. In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume takes this up by comparing beauty to secondary qualities (flavours and colours). When he considers bodily defects that impede our feelings of beauty, he says:

A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of a taste and sentiment. (§12)

Hume’s views also show the influence of his less well-known forerunner and fellow Scot, Francis Hutcheson, who in his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) located the origin of beauty not in objects but in the perceptions and mind of the subject, experienced independently of reason. He writes:

The presence of some objects necessarily pleases us, and the presence of others as necessarily displeases us. Nor can we, by our will, any otherwise procure pleasure, or avoid pain, than by procuring the former kind of objects, and avoiding the latter. By the very frame of our nature, the one is made the occasion of delight, and the other of dissatisfaction.4

As Locke’s theory did not allow for the assessment of value, Hutcheson introduced the idea of an ‘internal sense’ that could perceive aesthetic value, just as the ‘external’ senses perceived colours, flavours and so on. For Hutcheson, external senses are our five traditional senses; internal senses are our feelings for beauty, harmony and morality. By theorising an ‘internal sense’ (which Hume calls ‘internal sentiments’), Hutcheson gave impetus to such a range of philosophical enquiries that he counts as one of the founders of modern aesthetics.

As we have seen, Hume is happy to make an analogy between our external sense for tasting flavours and our internal sense for judging beauty.

We detect both Locke and Hutcheson in Hume’s claim that beauty is not a quality in objects but in the mind that perceives them. (He also inherits from Hutcheson the view that this applies to ethics as well as aesthetics, and the language of ‘beauty and deformity’.) Although beauty is based in secondary qualities of objects, that does not mean it is not ‘true and real’. Locke did not claim that colours and flavours were not real, merely that the object has certain qualities or powers that create the impression of colour in us. This is different to saying the object has no colour.

Hume says beauty is a subjective human feeling induced by qualities in the object:

There are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. (§16)

Just as we see green when we direct our external sense of vision to a tree, we see beauty when we direct our internal sense of beauty to certain objects such as artworks. Aesthetic response is a causal effect: the object induces a pleasure which is also a judgement of approval.

In Of the Standard of Taste, Hume does not discuss this process. He does not want to say that beauty lies in the object, yet beauty does refer to the object somehow. How does this work? What causal trigger in the external world stimulates our aesthetic pleasure response?

The useful and immediately agreeable

Hume contends that the only thing beautiful things have in common is the ‘power of producing pleasure’ (Treatise, Bk II, part I, section VIII). This may explain his wariness of defining beauty. However, a model has been proposed by the US philosopher William H. Halberstadt.5 Hume’s ‘internal sentiment’ or perception can be broken down into kinds:

  • Impressions: ‘when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will’.
    • Impressions of the senses: bodily pains and pleasures.
    • Impressions of reflection: the passions and similar emotions.
  • Ideas (or ‘thoughts‘): Copies of impressions, and thus less vivid and forceful.

All emotions are impressions. Impressions of reflection can be either calm (moral and aesthetic sentiment) or violent (e.g. love, hatred, grief etc). Thus Hume claims that our feelings of beauty and deformity are reflective impressions which perceive calmly, and pairs them with morals.

Since Hume, like Hutcheson, thinks of moral and aesthetic sentiment as similar, we can gain some insight into his aesthetics by making a reasonable analogy from his moral theory. For Hume, both moral and aesthetic objects can provoke approval or disapproval. Both involve value judgements, which are judgements of taste rather than reason. Moral sentiment, he tells us, is excited by mental qualities useful or immediately agreeable to ourselves or others. Halberstadt thus constructs the proposition:

Hume holds that the sentiment of taste is excited in us by the presence in objects of qualities which are useful or immediately agreeable to the objects themselves or to others.

This is true when, of course, the ‘objects themselves’ are animate, i.e. animals or humans. We are pleased by functionality, and because of intersubjectivity we can feel a shared pleasure (or pain) on behalf of others. Halberstadt collates various Humean remarks as evidence: we admire the proportions of the body, health and vigour, our own regular features, objects with ‘regularity and elegance of parts’, ‘every kind of passion when in poetry’, and so on. I might add Hume’s comment from the Treatise that ‘the order and convenience of a palace are no less essential to its beauty than its mere figure and appearance,’ and the mention of ‘the beauties of design’ in Of the Standard of Taste §23.

This catalogue of qualities is a bit threadbare, as is their theoretical development, but then, it is a patched-up theory, because Hume does not seem interested in detailing aesthetic properties and did not write a treatise on aesthetics. In finding the objective component that stimulates our beauty response, it is merely a beginning. If we want to explore further we must look beyond the work of Hume.

What are the rules?

Another possible component was raised by our discussion of dispositions. In works of art, our aesthetics sentiments are aroused via the application by the artist of the rules of composition. So, what are the rules of composition?

Hume does not formally identify the rules in Of the Standard of Taste, but he mentions in §22 some of the ‘nobler productions of genius’ that qualify as a fair start:

  1. A mutual relation and correspondence of parts.
  2. A certain end or purpose, for which it is calculated.
  3. A chain of propositions and reasonings.
  4. The characters must be represented as reasoning, and thinking, and concluding, and acting, suitably to their character and circumstances.
  5. The purpose of poetry is to please by means of the passions and the imagination.

In fact, over the years criticism has identified a great many ‘rules of composition’. A very few examples must suffice. In writing, the seven basic plots, the linguistic devices of the Formalists, and Hollywood’s three-act structure. In painting, perspective, complementary colour and various methods for leading the eye through the picture area. In music, the circle of fifths, chord progressions and twelve-bar song structure.

Techniques like these were mostly discovered by artists – who figured out through practice what works – and were then formulated by theorists. Every art form has its own nature and particular laws that work for it. One may protest that none of these sorts of techniques are necessary ones, and that art can be created through many diverse means, but all have been used to create excellent art. The question is, of course, whether such techniques are merely culturally contingent ways of making art or what Hume was looking for, namely universal rules that will please all people of all ages. It seemed obvious to many established critics in the mid-19th century that impressionist paintings were slapdash, whereas now we treasure them; art history is full of similar examples. Every era rethinks and partially reinvents the ‘laws of art’ to suit its own needs. In what sense then are any rules constant? Hume assumes that timeless rules exist.

Some commentators have questioned whether the Standard of Taste is about identifying rules of composition or about analysing their use. I see no point in nitpicking over that, as we may broadly conflate the two. Artists apply the rules of composition; critics judge how well they have been applied. Both artists and critics refer to the same rules to fulfil their roles.


1. Hume, ‘The Sceptic’, Essays Moral and Political (1742).
2. Hume, Appendix, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751/1777).
3. For this idea of ‘projection’ see Barry Stroud, ‘“Gilding and Staining” the World with “Sentiments” and “Phantasms”’, Hume Studies Volume XIX, Issue 2, November 1993.
4. Francis Hutcheson, Preface, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). I have spared the reader Hutcheson’s archaic capitalisations.
5. William H. Halberstadt, ‘A Problem in Hume’s Aesthetics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1971).