On David Hume's "The Standard of Taste" (1760) and its two main influences: The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody (1709) by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, aka the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Part III section 2 "Beauty," and An Inquiry Concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony, Design (1725) by Francis Hutcheson. Featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
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How do we know what opinions about beauty are correct? British empiricists starting with Shaftesbury posited that we have a distinct sense that detects beauty. They called it an inner sense to distinguish it from the five outer senses, so it's an operation of the mind (not the sense organs), but at the same time it's not the faculty of Reason: it's pre-rational. If aesthetics were a matter of reasoning, then you could prove that one work is better than another via logical argument, but it's essential that we actually experience works to have legitimate opinions about them.
Our purpose in reading these papers was to dig more into dig more into the crux of Roger Scruton's use of this theory in our last two episodes (which you needn't listen to in advance of this). It's important beyond the intrinsic interest that art and beauty have for us because these thinkers also have a comparable take on morality: That it too is something whose ultimate justification comes from individual experiences (tastes) and not reason, yet it's not for that reason merely relative, but instead there are objectively better or worse actions and artworks. Each of the three thinkers has a slightly different take on how this could be, with Scruton I think largely agreeing with Hume's aesthetic epistemology (or at least Kant's variation on Hume; Scruton has a problem with Hume's way of telling who competent critics are). Importantly, the point about "disinterest" typically attributed to Kant is present in this line of thinkers back to Shaftesbury, and that's what explains why some people's aesthetic (or ethical) views might be tainted, and so ignored, when we're considering what's really beautiful (or good).
We'd have to read more Shaftesbury to determine whether he was really an empiricist. John Locke was directly involved with his education, but a lot of the point of this is that contra Locke, we actually do have something like "innate ideas" which give us the ability to tell beautiful from ugly and right from wrong. Now, even Locke granted us many innate capacities to explain perception, so whether this view really contrasts to Locke is not entirely clear. Shaftesbury in particular had a Platonic conception of beauty and goodness, though. He claimed that when we admire the beauty of something, what we're really appreciating is its original, as opposed to a copy. So admiring a painting of a sunset is fine, but what's really beautiful is a) the sunset itself, and b) the mind that created the painting. When you admire the beauty of a sunset, what you're really admiring is the mind of God that created it. When you're admiring the mind of a painter (through the painting), what you're likewise really admiring is the beauty of the mind that created the painter, i.e. God's mind. So everything comes back to God, and the short section of Shaftesbury we read was actually just a highly influential digression about beauty in a treatise about morality, which like aesthetics is rooted in the innate human disposition to appreciate order and harmony.
Hutcheson's essay was published as the first part of two in An Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, with the second part being about morality and displaying a similar structure and epistemic theory to his treatment of aesthetics. It's important that for Hutcheson, the role of an aesthetic or moral sense doesn't mean that there aren't also aesthetic and moral principles available for us to characterize what is truly beautiful or good. It's just that these aren't principles of reason but are discovered after we reflect on our actual aesthetic and moral reactions to things. Like Shaftesbury, Hutcheson distinguished between finding beauty "originally," i.e. in natural things like landscapes, and he actually starts just with abstract shapes... and copies, i.e. artworks. However, Hutcheson didn't necessarily think that the first type of appreciation is somehow more noble and sensible than the latter. It's just more basic. We can appreciate a well rendered painting even if its subject matter is something intrinsically ugly, like a picture of poverty or war.
In ethics, Hutcheson is known for actually coming up with the principle of utility, prior to Jeremy Bentham's basing his whole ethics on this (70 years later!) and so inventing utilitarianism as a standard type of ethics. In aesthetics, the principle Hutcheson put forward was "uniformity amidst variety." For example, we find nature beautiful because of all the patterns we detect in it: how everything of the same species has things in common, yet there's such a variety among the species. Like Shaftesbury, this is treading into the area of the argument from design: What we really find beautiful is natural law, the complexity yet simplicity of the creator's plan, which we recently saw on display in the indisputably rationalist Malebranche. But Hutcheson wasn't a rationalist; we know about this principle because of what people actually value, at least when they put aside their personal interests and are able to have an authentically aesthetic experience. So Hutcheson was doing phenomenology: He asks us to reflect on what we (and babies) prefer regarding shapes. For shapes with equally-sized sides (like equilateral triangles), more sides = more beautiful, to a point, in that beyond 12 sides or so we stop being able to tell the difference. But an even number of sides when we're talking about shapes as complex or more than a hexagon will be more beautiful than an odd number, because the parallelism, i.e. uniformity, then contributes more beauty than the added complexity of the extra side. And a square or equilateral triangle will be more beautiful due to uniformity than a rectangle or isosceles triangle where the sides are not all the same length, and non-equal angles will also be a defect (e.g. in a parallelogram). These elementary examples are supposed to establish the theory, which can then explain why a well-rendered copy may be more beautiful than the original: because of the parallelism between the copy and the original. This is true not only for visual arts, but works conceptually. Just as we can admire the beauty of natural law just by thinking about it, so we can admire the beauty of mathematical theorems and also the verisimilitude of psychologically accurate story-telling or expressive music that copies human emotional life. This shows that aesthetics is not a direct result of the outer senses, i.e. it is not built into sight or hearing itself, but is a function of the mind.
Most of our treatment of Hume comes in part two of our discussion, but in outline, Hume was less concerned with coming up with a theory of beauty than establishing the epistemic criteria for settling disputes about beauty. It's possible that two critics might disagree simply because they're different sorts of people who are captivated by different sorts of things, like a young person and an older person will have different temperaments and so different tastes. But given similar dispositions, two critics' disagreement will most likely result from one of them not really knowing what they're talking about, i.e. not understanding the artistic conventions being used, or not picking up on the relevant details about the work. So there's a role in Hume for expert critics who have very keen senses and are able to discern minute details and complex patterns in a work. These abilities can be improved with practice (to a point).
Hutcheson stressed the limits to education. If we don't actually have the senses to detect beauty in the first place, then no amount of education will enable this any more than you can educate a blind person to see colors. In fact, adding more associations can warp our natural aesthetic reactions and make us irrational partisans of wrong views. For example, someone might think that the architecture of their country is the best on ideological grounds, i.e. because it's their country and they're patriotic about it. Hume was less concerned to establish this epistemic point, though he also followed Hutcheson and Shaftesbury in saying that taste can be tainted by personal interest. Shaftesbury gives the example of a coin. If you're admiring the coin for its intrinsic beauty, that's a real aesthetic experience, but if you're just thinking about what it can buy you, then that's not. Someone claiming that a $20 bill was more beautiful than a $5 bill is probably being deceived by the greater monetary value of the former, in that the two have pretty much the same artistic merit. However, someone claiming that the $5 is more beautiful due to their reaction to the greater moral character of Abraham Lincoln whose visage is on the $5 as compared to Andrew Jackson on the $20 is also deceived.
The interaction between morality and aesthetics in Hume is interesting. As with Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, the epistemology is largely the same in the two spheres, in that the raw material is human sentiments, and yet we use reflection on those sentiments to weed out the misleading ones and find what is truly good and beautiful. (We discuss Hume and Adam Smith's moral sense theory in ep. 45.) But in making aesthetic judgments, we can't and shouldn't just entirely set morality aside according to Hume. If an author is describing horrible behavior in laudatory terms, expecting us as readers to identify with the villain, this is a hurdle to enjoyment that we should not try to overcome, and it explains why archaic works (like Homer) will never affect us in the way they affected their originally intended audiences. So while knowledge about who this audience was can help us appreciate works and makes for a better judge of art, we who now have the more civilized (i.e. correct) ethical views rightly detect more beauty in a work that does not glorify callous violence.
This of course brings us back to Scruton, whose book was explicitly a moral argument that beauty is essential to the good life, and that the best kind of art morally orients us towards virtues like sacrifice and away from a relativistic, equalizing nihilism that says that (to quote John Lennon) "whatever gets you through the night, is all right." This British strain seems particularly prudish, in that there should be beauty a la uniformity in the rhythmic movements of dance and yes, sex, but this gets brushed away on the grounds that such direct involvement in art is too "interested," too tied up with gratification of drives to be a matter of artistic appreciation. But if, for instance, the bloodthirstiness in Homer adequately represents and channels something about human nature, then we should be able to appreciate it artistically even if we morally object to what it depicts happening in real life. As with the mimesis in tragedy, wherein vicariously experiencing something horrible provides catharsis, the "flight from beauty" that Scruton objected to may actually be a useful way of facing awful things about ourselves. We can see beauty in its accurate representation, we can admire it as an apparent simplicity in our human nature (i.e. the Will to Power as God's uniform Will), and can even be happy in acknowledging the absurdity of our being constructed in such self-destructive ways (I'm thinking of Camus here) while also happy to have art to help us redirect our destructive impulses in ways that affirm life and connect us to other people. So I'm arguing that while Hume and Scruton are right about the value of expertise in deciphering a work of art, and there's of course something noteworthy about the various motivations that go into our various enjoyments, this attempt to firmly distinguish interest in artworks from the supposedly extrinsic human interests that they may incidentally help us fulfill is deeply problematic.
Read online: The Stanford Encyclopedia article by James Shelley that guided our reading selections and summarizes each (plus Thomas Reid!). This selection from Shaftesbury's The Moralists includes our reading as pages 57-67. Here's the full Hutcheson book; our assignment was to read section 1 (p. 19-27), then skim sec. 2 and 4 and read 6-9 (p. 61-82). Hume's essay is in this collection. Wes used a volume editect by Babette Babich that combined Hume's taste essay with some useful secondary sources on that work.
Here's a good online lecture about Shaftesbury and Hutcheson that I believe is the source for my claim that Shaftesbury had the second-most-popular book of the 18th century. Note that the first Earl of Shaftesbury (our Shaftesbury's grandfather) was also named Anthony Ashley-Cooper; he was the one Locke worked for (gaining the bad reputation as a slavery supporter) and was just as famous as our guy. Here's a good Oxford lecture on the Hume essay. We discuss Ilya Repin's painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan.