Continuing from part one, we get into more detail on David Hume's "The Standard of Taste" (1760).
Hume starts out with a paradox: On the one hand, we believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it's not a property of objects but of the interaction between an object and an observer. On the other hand, some works are obviously, objectively more beautiful than others, and anyone with a different opinion about them must be in error: not paying attention, or not knowledgeable enough to judge, or just has bad taste. Hume's task is to do justice to both of these intuitions.
In the full episode, we explore the relation of aesthetics to ethics and the relation between sentiments about these things, which will be different for different people and are never technically "wrong" (i.e. you feel what you feel), and judgments, which are about the actual things in the world and can certainly be incorrect.
Ironically, though, even though I've just said that judgements about fact can be right or wrong (which means correct or incorrect), while sentiments can't, it's the sentiments that ultimately ground right and wrong in the moral sense, because they're sentiments about value. We're running here into Hume's famous fact-value distinction, which is not clearly spelled out in this particular paper, but the distinction works the same for Hume in the realm of aesthetics as it does for ethics. Just as no set of facts determines the ethical worth of an action a priori, no factual characteristics of an object can force us to deduce that it's beautiful or ugly.
This is a logical and epistemic point and shouldn't necessarily be taken to undermine the search for a single moral or aesthetic principle; Hutcheson, as we saw in part one of this discussion, found such a principle in both areas. You may recall, though, that G.E. Moore did conclude that no such ethical principle was available: that something's being good is just a sui generis property that we intuit (technically it's general principles like "gratitude is a fitting response to generosity"; we still have to use reason and judgment to figure out whether any particular situation exemplifies such a principle). And Hume (and Scruton), unlike Hutcheson, does not really try to give a principle of beauty, but instead focuses on the qualities that a competent judge must have. So the situation for Hume's aesthetics is like virtue ethics, where instead of looking for ethical principles, we look for a sage or hero to emulate. But still, the value of this model in both cases is that they are the ones who best understand works/actions and how to evaluate them accurately. Their sentiments are well aligned to the objects, which means that the sentiments are ones that they ought to have.
This seems potentially circular, in that sentiments are supposed to be the source of normativity, yet some sentiments can actually be inappropriate. We wouldn't necessarily want to call those sentiments morally wrong, but they're faulty indicators of what they beautiful (or ethically good) really is. So you can see why Moore might want to characterize the situation (with morality; I'm not sure if he even wrote about aesthetics) as a matter of moral goodness being an property in the world (as opposed to a sentiment in people) that we detect, albeit a "non-natural" one, to distinguish it from a mere state of affairs like the amount of pleasure or pain that it involves. Moral and aesthetic judgments are paradoxically about things in the world yet rely for their truth value indirectly on human sentiments. It's just that they don't rely just on the individual sentiments of the one person making a judgment at that moment, but on the sentiments of the community of competent judges, where "competence" gets cashed out in terms that are supposedly value neutral. For instance, the judge must be adequately educated about the type of art (or whatever) that's being judged, must be thinking clearly and free from prejudice, must have a discerning eye or ear.
Scruton observed that these examples I just gave sure don't look value neutral: "adequately," "clearly," "discerning," and I haven't listed the most important one, which is that the judge must have good taste, as that criteria is clearly circular: we're trying to determine what good taste amounts to by looking to judges, but can only judge the judges by asking if they have good taste. Scruton didn't think there was any way out of this circularity, but that may just be the situation we're in as individuals. Aesthetics (and morality) are ultimately human inventions, though they're aimed transcendently, positing some sort of ultimately beauty (and goodness) that is probably not really pre-existent.
I like the comparison to the pragmatist view of truth according to C.S. Peirce: For Peirce, truth is whatever investigators given enough time would eventually agree upon, and for Hume (and Scruton), true beauty is whatever it is that critics would eventually agree on given infinite time to learn and argue about it (and something comparable goes for ethics). The best we can do is approximate this kind of thing by actually having arguments about truth and goodness, always knowing that we may be blind to some important aspect of things, which should make us modest and not some kind of "beauty fascists" who decide we have it all figured out and so look down on those peons who don't. So should we, contra Scruton, thus be effective democrats when it comes to taste, allowing everyone to have their own opinions without judgment? No, this lack of critical engagement is absolutely not what the ongoing process of argument and improvement is about, but we also can't just dismiss without engagement, assuming that some whole class of people is merely ignorant. Aesthetics should not be, as Bourdieu diagnosed, just some class game by which the elite show themselves to be distinct from the masses, but a cooperative process of making each other more sensitive, more attuned to beauty (and ultimately goodness). Hume's essay gives us some demonstrations of how this actually works, and our discussion includes our reflections on our experience with this re. wine, music, Shakespeare, etc.
Hume picture by Solomon Grundy.