Hume’s Sceptical Standard of Taste

Jonathan Friday. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 36, Issue 4. October 1998.


It is generally agreed that Hume’s essay “Of the Standard of Taste”, is the most valuable of the large number of works on what we now call aesthetics to emerge from the intellectual and cultural flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment. Here, however, agreement about the essay comes to an end, to be replaced by disagreement about what Hume identifies as the standard of taste. Hume’s text encourages differing interpretations by appearing to identify a number of different standards of taste while continually suggesting there is only one. At the very least, one can find Hume hinting at a rule standard, a decision standard, an ideal spectator standard, a test of time standard as well as the position that there is no standard of taste at all. None of these views is explicitly rejected and more than one receives qualified approval. A review of the literature on Hume’s essay reflects its puzzling nature. Most commentators focus upon one or another of the standards Hume discusses; others examine more than one, but devote little attention to the relation between various standards appearing in the essay.

I will suggest in what follows that a better understanding of “Of the Standard of Taste” can be achieved by beginning with the question: What is Hume trying to do in this essay? As we shall see, Hume gives relatively explicit answers to this question in the essay and elsewhere, and attention to these takes us some way towards dissolving the puzzle of why so many positions on the standard of taste are discussed without any being explicitly rejected. Moreover, an understanding of Hume’s aims will make it much easier to clearly discern his own position on the possibility of a standard of taste. Therefore, in what follows, I will offer a reading of Hume’s essay which addresses the puzzle of the multiple standards and puts us in a much better position to answer the question of what Hume’s view is and whether it survives critical scrutiny.


The opening paragraphs of “Of the Standard of Taste” set the stage for the discussion that follows. Hume begins by observing that “the great variety of taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under everyone’s observation.” People of similar background and culture notice the wide differences of taste within their own like-minded community, and when they turn their attention to “distant nations and remote ages” the phenomenon is found to be even more pronounced. Further reflection suggests this variety of taste to be even greater in reality than appearance since although we may agree in our evaluative language-e.g., that beauty is to be praised and ugliness scorned-“when critics come to particulars this seeming unanimity vanishes” and argument arises about what objects are properly referred to by such evaluative terms. Hume goes on to conclude the opening remarks of his essay by connecting this state of affairs with his familiar views about morality and moral language. These latter reflections are suddenly broken off and Hume turns to the main subject of his essay.

He begins with a “natural” response to the phenomena he has just considered. He writes:

It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment and condemning another.

It is worth emphasizing that Hume characterizes the much sought standard in two very different ways-as a rule reconciling sentiments and, more modestly, as a decision confirming (or otherwise) a sentiment. Although this passage provides the initial characterizations of the standard of taste Hume is investigating, and ought therefore to have been accorded some attention by commentators, it has been largely ignored. This is unfortunate since it proves crucial to understanding what Hume is attempting to do in the essay. I will return to this point, but before doing so we need to further set out the problem as Hume conceives it.

Our natural desire to find a standard of taste is thwarted, he notes, by a species of sceptical reflection spelled out in the earlier essay “The Sceptic.” That is, there is a fundamental difference between judgments and sentiments. The former can be right or wrong because they refer beyond themselves to facts about the world. Sentiments are subjective responses to the objective world and can therefore be neither right nor wrong. To seek the correct sentimental response to something is as misguided as the attempt to ascertain the real sweetness or bitterness of something; both are a function of the “disposition of the organs.” Hume comments that “common-sense, which is so often at variance with philosophy, especially of the sceptical kind, is found in one instance, at least, to agree in pronouncing the same decision.”to This agreement between philosophy and common sense concerns, of course, the correctness of the proverb concerning the fruitlessness of disputes over matters of taste.

Immediately, however, he considers another “species of common-sense which opposes it [or] at least serves to modify and restrain it.”” Anyone who attempted to assert the evaluative equivalence of, to use Hume’s examples, Ogilby and Milton or Bunyon and Addison would have their judgment dismissed out of hand:

Though there may be found persons, who give preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such taste; and we pronounce without scruple, the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.

Hence the problem. Common sense, drawing upon experience, tells us both that there can be no resolution to disputes about taste and that the taste of some is to be preferred to that of others. These intuitions are at variance with one another, but philosophy in the guise of the sceptic has already come to the aid of the former intuition. Hume never explicitly rejects the sceptical position, but rather proceeds to investigate what support philosophy can likewise give to the other equally common-sense intuition that there is a standard of taste. He emphasises that there are at least two common-sense positions that philosophy may be able to support: that which opposes evaluative scepticism and that which seeks to modify and restrain it. To see the significance of this, consider again the two characterizations of the standard of taste which it is supposedly natural for one to seek: a “rule” and a more modest “decision.” There is a direct parallel between, first, the rule standard and the desire to oppose evaluative scepticism and, secondly, the more modest decision standard and the more modest desire to modify and restrain such scepticism. If philosophy can support common sense in opposing evaluative scepticism, it will do so by demonstrating the possibility of a rule which reconciles differing sentiments. Alternatively, if philosophy can support common sense in the more modest task of modifying and restraining the sceptic’s position, it will do so by demonstrating that a decision can be given in a particular instance which confirms the justness or otherwise of a particular sentimental response. As we shall see, Hume both considers arguments that would oppose the sceptic and others that would more modestly restrain or limit the scope of the sceptic’s argument. Investigating what support philosophy can give to an unsupported common-sense intuition provides part of the answer to the question of Hume’s aim in “Of the Standard of Taste,” but we need to look elsewhere to complete the answer.

A brief glance at the historical and intellectual context in which Hume wrote the Essays sheds further light on the significance of the contrast between the rule and decision standards in his discussion of the two standards of taste. The rapid dissemination of Aristotle’s Poetics in the sixteenth century gave rise to the kind of rule-based neo-classical critical theory that reached its peak in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and is associated with figures such as John Dryden, Thomas Rymer, John Dennis and Alexander Pope. For such critics the rules of poetry and drama provide both critical and normative standards for the literary arts. An understanding of the rules together with a careful analysis of the work in terms of these rules and their classical exemplars were thought to yield a correct judgement of a work’s value. Charles Gildon, another neo-classical critic, provides a fine example of this critical outlook when he writes:

Poetry is an Art…. No Body can doubt so evident a Truth, that in all Things, where there may be a Right and a Wrong, there is an Art, and sure Rules to lead you to the former, and direct you to avoid the latter.

There were, however, just as many critics who dismissed the neo-classical rules as distorting of aesthetic value. Sir Robert Howard debated the point with Dryden, Samuel Butler took Rymer to task over the issue, Samuel Johnson criticized Dennis on this score, as Pope was rebuked by Leonard Walsted.

The debates over these matters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led, as one historian of literary criticism has noted, to the development of the distinct “genre” of literary criticism:

The literary critic as a figure in his own right begins to disentangle himself from the surrounding company of poets and dramatists jostling to defend themselves and attack their rivals.

Joel Spingarn made much the same point at the turn of the century when he noted that in the sixteenth century the question “What is poetry?” began to be gradually replaced by the question “What is criticism?” This change was encouraged by nearly equally admired but conflicting classical sources for their critical theory. For literary criticism in this period not only drew upon Aristotle; just as influential (if not more so) was Longinus. Printed for the first time in the sixteenth century, On the Sublime provided a forceful reminder to early modern and enlightenment critics that many of the greatest works of the ancients break many of the rules-i.e., they lacked “correctness”-and in doing so achieve a far more valuable magnificence. It is this influence that leads many neo-classical critics (such as Dryden and Pope) to qualify their adherence to a fully rule-based critical theory. The fact remains, however, that the rules of art and the sublime provide two very different critical standards which, notwithstanding various efforts to reconcile them, stand in opposition to each other. Critics of Hume’s day tended to lay varying degrees of emphasis upon one or other these standards, and the precise relation between them was hotly debated. “Of the Standard of Taste” is a contribution to that debate and, as we shall see, a position that acknowledges the existence of rules of art, but denies they will always be capable of resolving aesthetic disputes. Furthermore, we will find Hume denying that rules provide a standard for measuring aesthetic value, since adherence to rules alone does not make for satisfying works of art. As a consequence, he implicitly aligns himself with those who favor freeing the artist and critic from the neo-classical ideal.

Longinus’s influence extends in another direction as well. In writing of the sublime, Longinus gives few indications of what this quality is, focusing his discussion instead upon the effects of the sublime upon the audience. The sublime elevates, entrances, and deeply moves, and it is the value of such experiences that give it precedence over “impeccable correctness.” Longinus’s method of describing the experiential effects of the sublime suggested to enlightenment thinkers a different way in which criticism could be carried out. Edward Gibbon in his Autobiography wrote of the impact of Longinus in a manner not untypical of the time:

I was acquainted with only two ways of criticising a beautiful passage; the one, to shew, by an exact anatomy of it, the distinct beauties of it and whence they sprung; the other, an idle exclamation and encomium…. Longinus has shewn me a third. He tells me his own feelings after reading it; and tells them with such energy that he communicates them.

The shift in emphasis that Longinus, together with other factors such as the rise of empiricism, brought about from the systematic analysis of the text in terms of rules to the inspired account of the experience of reading the text was important in giving rise to the study of taste. Addison’s reflections on the “pleasures of the imagination” and his adoption of the language of Lockean ideas and their association gave this new direction in critical theory a forceful boost.

Just as important was the development of the thought that human beings possess some special faculty in virtue of which beauty is perceived. Although it first appeared in the seventeenth century, there was no well-worked notion of an inner moral or aesthetic sense until Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. The problem of what the faculty is and how it operates dominates eighteenth century aesthetics, as does the immediate problem it raises of aesthetic relativism. If it is senseless to dispute the judgements of the “external sense” of taste, why should we suppose there to be a standard of correctness for the “internal sense” of aesthetic taste? In Longinian fashion, critical disputes might be creative events and therefore valuable, but if the aim of aesthetic experience is pleasure and delight, in what sense could one be wrong in expressing those feelings by calling an object beautiful? While Shaftesbury resorted to a priori principles to provide a standard of correct aesthetic judgment, Hutcheson took the more decisive step forward by reflecting upon the notion of perceptual correctness. Like any other sense, the aesthetic sense is susceptible to distortion and the notion of distortion presumes a corresponding correctness. In other words, there are universal principles relating the properties of an object to a properly functioning and ideally situated aesthetic sense, and therefore, the problem is merely one of determining the hindrances to correct experience. If these hindrances can be identified, we will be able to go some way toward determining the difference between relative correctness of aesthetic judgment-that is, the difference between better and worse taste.

This brief sketch of the intellectual context in which Hume’s essay was written sheds some light upon his understanding of the problem he addresses. The two standards of taste he signals an explicit interest in, rules that reconcile and decisions that confirm or condemn, encapsulate the opposing sides in the debate about how criticism should proceed. Do carefully formulated rules provide a standard of critical judgment, or are the judgments of the man of taste such a standard? In addressing these questions Hume is positioning himself in relation to a long-running and familiar debate that was of great interest to “polite society.” As we will see, the position he takes is decidedly opposed to the neo-classical conception of the relation between rules and criticism. Moreover, he did so in the form of an essay, and this too has a certain significance for understanding what he is trying to do in the essay.

“Of the Standard of Taste” is one of a large number of essays Hume wrote on diverse topics, so it is important to try to achieve some perspective upon what he conceived of these essays as doing, who they were aimed at and what relation they had to his philosophy. In another essay, entitled “On Essay Writing,” Hume reflects on these issues. Noting with great approval a coming together in his age of the distinct worlds of learning and “polite conversation,” he writes:

It is to be hoped that this league between the learned and conversable worlds, which is so happily begun, will be still further improved to their mutual advantage; and to this end, I know nothing more advantageous than such Essays as those with which I endeavour to entertain the public. In this view, I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other.

As such an ambassador, Hume conceives of his essays as providing those who engage in polite conversation about serious matters with “whatever commodities I find in my native country proper for their use and entertainment.” Hume’s reflections on taste, therefore, are aimed at those who wish to converse with like-minded people on matters of substance and they are conceived of as food for this conversation harvested and imported from the dominions of learning. Hume notes that topics of the sort his essays address require the company and conversation of our fellow-creatures, to render them a proper exercise for the mind; and this brings mankind together in society, where everyone displays his thoughts in observations in the best manner he is able.

This gives us a clear picture of Hume’s essays as works employing philosophical reflection for the furtherance of conversation about serious matters between the educated and cultivated of society. “Of the Standard of Taste” discusses what support philosophy can give to the common-sense view that there is a right and wrong or a better and worse taste. It is left up to individuals engaged in polite conversation to draw their own conclusions. Such an aim is consistent with the strategy of hinting at a number of different standards of taste, but drawing the possibilities to a close with a final position which, as we shall see, is the weakest of possible standards. Hume’s final position, I will argue, is that there is a standard of taste, but it is at best a “sceptical standard.” Before I can make clear what this means we need to consider Hume’s attempt to offer the best support he can to sceptic-opposing rule standard.


Hume begins by dismissing the possibility that any rules of art could be formulated a priori by abstract reasoning. Instead, he tells us, the rules have the same foundation as “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 all ages.” This is a very different conception of the rules of art from that which runs through the neo-classical critical tradition. For such critics the rules of art were the result of rational theoretical inquiry and not mere empirical observation of what pleases. Dryden, for example wrote:

The liking or disliking of the people gives the play the denomination of good or bad, but does not really make or constitute it such. To please the people ought to be the poet’s aim, because plays are made for their delight; but it does not follow that they are always pleased with good plays, or that the plays that please them are always good.

For Dryden, the rules of art are the rational principles that tell us whether a poem or play is really good or bad, regardless of whether or not it is pleasing. Hume’s rules of art are, by contrast, determined by careful investigation of those features of works “suited by nature” to giving aesthetic delight to those who encounter them. In the second Enquiry Hume provides an example of such a rule: when a dramatist presents a hero suffering great evils at the hands of others and our passions are aroused against the villains:

It is here esteemed contrary to the rules of art to represent anything cool and indifferent. A distant friend, or confident, who has no immediate interest in the catastrophe, ought if possible to be avoided by the poet; as communicating a like indifference to the audience, and checking the progress of our passions.

Hume’s example, and a moment’s reflection, should leave us in no doubt that there are such general principles reflecting universal expectations and responses to works of art. Other examples of rules that continue to inform literary and dramatic texts might be “villainy must be seen to receive its just reward” and “a successful drama must have a clear and coherent plot.” They are not, however, necessary rules since it is not only possible to cite successful and admired works that break these rules, it is also the case that it is in the breaking of such rules that a work’s aesthetic values may lie.

Virtually all the theorists of taste accepted there were some general rules of art, what most denied was that these rules constitute a firm standard of taste if on some occasions they can be broken without the work failing or if the sublime could only be achieved through the breaking of some rules. Where they differed from the neo-classical critics was in their conception of the origins of the rules and the degree to which the artist and critic should be guided by them. For the neo-classical critic the rules of art were primarily derived from ancient examples and supported with rationalist theory. As Pope put the point:

Those Rules of old discovered, not devis’d, Are Nature still, but Nature methodis’d.

For such critics, both the artist and critic ought primarily to be guided by neoclassical ideals and accompanying theory, but they typically acknowledge the possibility of achieving the sublime through the breaking of rules. Pope again:

Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend. And rise to faults true critics dare not mend.

By contrast, Hume supposes the origin of the rules to be careful empirical investigation of what pleases universally, and he is completely dismissive of the possibility that exact adherence to rules could ever achieve a work even remotely pleasing.

This can be explored further by considering the question of how Hume thinks a rule is supposed to provide a standard of taste. It might be tempting to suppose, as the neo-classical critic tended to, that the answer is a simple one: those works which most conform to the rules are judged better than those which tend to deviate from them. Hume, however, explicitly rejects this way of thinking when he writes:

To check the sallies of the imagination and to reduce every expression to geometrical truth and exactness … would produce a work, which, by universal experience, has been found the most insipid and disagreeable.

Here we see the influence of Longinus upon Hume. For Longinus, the “sallies of the imagination” are where magnificence and the sublime are produced and appreciated. But Hume goes further than Longinus. The latter claimed that “correctness escapes censure: the magnificent earns admiration as well,” while for Hume “exactness” can only be “insipid and disagreeable.” In making this claim Hume is not only rejecting the critical standards of neoclassical criticism, he is also aligning himself with those who emphasise the sublime and the liberation of art and criticism from the neo-classical straitjacket.

Hume’s definition of the rule standard-as “a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled”-suggests a rule provides a standard in virtue of the use to which it may be put. A rule of art that could bring together differing sentiments would be a standard of taste because it would be a means of settling the dispute by bringing those involved to a common evaluative response. How could a rule such as the one cited from the second Enquiry ever be a means of ending a dispute over a drama? Here we need to remember that if a rule of art is properly descriptive of what is pleasing or otherwise universal, then it should state something about which the sentiments of mankind are already reconciled. Should one person approve of a work which breaks some rule, then that rule can be cited by another critic in conjunction with an explanation of its applicability to the particular work to bring the sentiment of the former into line with the work’s true value. Hume confirms this understanding of how the rule standard functions when he writes:

When we show [the bad critic] an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence; he must conclude upon the whole, that the fault lies with himself.

The crucial step in using the rule standard to resolve disputes of taste comes when, after the rule is acknowledged, we must prove that the same rule is relevant to the case under dispute. Notice, however, that in order to prove the applicability of the rule there must be some fact we can point to either about the work of art or about the failings of the spectator that will change their response to the work.

Let us first look at the possibility that there are facts about works of art that can be cited to prove the applicability of a rule. If there are such facts about works of art, then those works must have features that are naturally suited to causing specific sentiments in the spectator. Hume calls these objective features “particular forms or qualities from the original structure of the internal fabric” and speaks of them as “fitted by nature to produce … particular feelings.” He cites works such as those of Homer, Virgil and Terence that have been universally admired despite “all the caprices of mode or fashion, [and] all the mistakes of ignorance and envy” as evidence that there are such properties. Having gotten agreement from the disputant about some rule of art, we then point to those objective features of a work to prove the applicability of the rule in this case. Hume certainly thinks this can in practice be done: “Many men, when left to themselves, have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty, who yet are capable of relishing any fine stroke that is pointed out to them.” Coming to relish a “fine stroke” that is pointed out is a change in the way the work in question is experienced. It is certainly true that on occasion a work we dislike can be defended by someone such that when we consider the work again we come to appreciate what we had previously overlooked or disliked. There is no guarantee of this happening, however; for we may upon returning to the work find it just as displeasing, and conclude that the person who defended the work by pointing to features of it was in fact misidentifying faults as virtues. Without such a guarantee, however, there is little reason to be confident the rules of art will function as a practical standard for resolving disputes of taste. The rules of art, it will turn out, have a very different function for Hume.

Before considering this, however, we must first examine the second path to proving the applicability of an agreed rule to a work whose value is disputed. If works of art have properties naturally fitted to producing certain sentiments, then we ought to be able to explain the widespread disagreement on matters of taste by drawing a distinction between those whose response to a work displays a fine sensitivity to those properties, and those less sensitive to them. From this distinction we could then derive the notions of a right and wrong response to a work. This is precisely the direction Hume’s argument takes. Referring to the common sentiments of human nature, he writes:

Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine … A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting … we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty.

If one’s response deviates from the natural response to a work with such-and-such qualities, then there must be something wrong with that spectator or with the conditions under which they are attending to the work. And if this is so, then someone who experiences the work correctly who wishes to employ a rule to resolve a dispute about a work’s value will need first to bring the errant spectator to experience the work correctly. If, however, one were able to remove exterior hindrances and correct internal disorders such that the errant spectator was brought to experience the work correctly, then it would render the rule standard largely redundant. Citing a rule would no longer be necessary as the errant spectator could be made to experience the work correctly and this alone would be sufficient to settle the dispute by reconciling the disputant’s sentiments. Alternatively, in certain cases a dispute might be resolved by one of the disputants convincing the other that their experience is the result of an incorrectable fault. For example, a dispute over the value of a vividly colored painting might be resolved when one or other of the disputants concedes that their severe color blindness is an (incorrectable) hindrance to their ability to find the contemplation of the painting pleasurable. In granting their experience of a work is necessarily distorted by a visual incapacity, the fair-minded will defer to the judgement of the normally sighted. The dispute is resolved, but again whatever rules of art there are have no part to play in that resolution.

Notice, however, that the notion of a rule standard is not rejected as incoherent, but rather of limited effectiveness for carrying out the task one seeks a standard for. Hume’s point is not that rules of art are impossible, nor that they have no use whatsoever in guiding artistic and critical judgment. Rather, employing them to resolve critical disputes by reconciling sentiments requires that one be able to prove the rule’s applicability in any particular case, and this supposes it possible to bring the errant spectator to acknowledge their error, if not have their experience corrected. If, however, sense can be made of what it is to experience a work correctly, then that will provide the foundation both for the rules of art and the standard by which disputes can be resolved. Indeed, Hume writes: “In every creature there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a standard of taste.” Those in such a sound state are often referred to as “true judges” by Hume, and it is to his account of them we must now turn.


A sizeable portion of Hume’s essay is devoted to elucidating the qualifications of a true judge. He identifies five criteria a critic must meet in order to be considered a true judge capable of applying the rules of art correctly. First, Hume considers delicacy of taste which he defines thus: “where the organs are so fine as to allow nothing to escape them, and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition.” This capacity of the true judge is explored by Hume through a discussion of the story of Sancho Panza’s kinsmen adapted from Don Quixote. Two of Sancho’s kinsmen are asked to give their judgment on a hogshead of wine already thought to be excellent because of its age and vintage. After mature reflection the first judges the wine to be good but for a slightly perceptible taste of leather. The second likewise considers it good but for an easily distinguishable taste of iron. These judgments are much ridiculed before being vindicated by the discovery inside the eventually emptied hogshead of an old key with a leather thong attached. The central moral to be drawn from this tale is the simple one that some are more sensitive to subtle or diffuse qualities in a work of art. To form a correct judgment of a work requires that one have such a delicate taste.

The degree to which someone possesses a delicate taste can be tested, Hume argues, by means of those already formulated principles of art. He writes:

Here then the general rules of art are of use, being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases and displeases, when presented singly and in high degree; and if the same qualities, in a continued composition, and in a smaller degree, affect not the organs with a sensible delight or uneasiness, we exclude the person from all pretensions to this delicacy.

Suppose there is a rule of drama that states that “The hero must ultimately triumph over the villain,” which has been derived from observation of responses to “established models” which illustrate the rule “singly and in high degree.” If the spectator is able to discern the hero-triumphing feature of the most simple established models, then it is at least possible they possess delicacy of taste. To be more certain, however, we need to present him with other works possessing the hero-triumphing quality to a lesser degree or in a more subtle manner. For example, instead of the hero killing the villain, let us suppose the drama ends with the hero scoring a significant if subtle moral victory over his assailant. If again he succeeds in discerning the quality, then we have stronger evidence for affirming that this critic’s taste is delicate.

We do not, of course, determine good critics by putting them through such tests. Instead critics approve and condemn works and give reasons for their opinions. When their reasons consistently reveal something to us about works of art that we had not perceived, we judge them to possess a delicate aesthetic sense. The delicate critic’s reasons for their opinions are principles that link features of the work with the pleasure and delight of the audience. So when Sancho’s kinsman judged the wine was good, but for a taste of leather, he was implicitly invoking an agreed rule such as “Any taste of leather in wine is a displeasing fault.” The rule justifies the judgment on the wine just as the discovery of the leather thong did when the hogshead was emptied. As Hume makes the point: “To produce these general rules or avowed patterns of composition, is like finding the key with the leathern thong, which justified the verdict of Sancho’s kinsmen.” The difference in the two cases, however, is that the citing of a rule won’t settle the dispute the way the finding of the key and thong will. But that doesn’t alter the fact that those with a delicate aesthetic sense are better able to cite the appropriate rules in justification of their opinions. A good critic needs agreed rules of art to justify their opinion, and those assessing the critic’s conclusions need rules of art to measure whether the critic has a delicate aesthetic sense. It is important to stress, however, that although delicacy of taste is an ability the observer has to discern every ingredient in the composition, we can only hope to estimate the degree to which a critic possesses it. Even Sancho’s kinsmen only discerned one each of the two faults with the wine, but that is enough to suppose their judgment upon the wine is a better measure of its true quality than those who failed to discern either taint.

Some can improve their delicacy of taste through practised attention to, and comparison of, various works. In order to do so, however, they will also need to possess a sophisticated ability to unburden themselves of all prejudice. The critic who judges without prejudice is both a disinterested and a sympathetic spectator. That is, the critic must both “allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination” and “must place himself in the same situation” as the artist’s intended audience. If the work alone is the object of examination, the critic must adopt a disinterested attitude toward it, setting aside their knowledge and feelings of and about the creator of the work. Moreover, if the work is to be fairly considered, the critic must set aside their own social, cultural, and historical position and endeavor to consider it from the point of view of its intended audience. Hume writes of the person whose judgment is influenced by prejudice:

If the work be addressed to persons of a different age or nation, he makes no allowance for a different age or nation, he makes no allowances for their particular views and prejudices; but full of the manners of his own age and country, rashly condemns what seemed admirable in the eyes of those for whom alone the discourse was calculated. If the work be executed for the public, he never sufficiently enlarges his comprehension, or forgets his interest as a friend or enemy, as a rival or a commentator.

At this stage in the argument of the essay, Hume writes as if he believes such disinterested and sympathetic attention is possible. Later he qualifies this view by noting that “it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition.” The significance of this qualification will become apparent shortly, but for the moment it is worth pointing out that like delicacy of taste, being without prejudice is something that one can only achieve to a relative degree.

The final qualification of the true judge is what Hume calls “good sense” by which he means intelligence, rationality, and the intellectual resources to grasp the intended meaning and significance of the work. Good sense has several roles to play in assisting one to arrive at sound judgments of taste. First, it checks the influence of prejudice and assists the critic in adopting an appropriately sympathetic attitude to the work under consideration. Secondly, it assists the critic in discovering the “natural relation and correspondence of parts” that give a work its “consistence and uniformity.” Thirdly, good sense is required to judge of the correct end for which a work is intended, and “how far the means employed are adapted to their respective purposes.” Fourthly, to arrive at sound critical judgments about a work, one must have the intellectual resources to follow its “chain of propositions and reasonings.” Similarly, artists needs good sense if they are to create works of subtle intelligence and representational consistency. Finally, good sense provides the critic with an essential “clearness of conception,” “exactness of distinction” and “vivacity of apprehension.”

This account of the qualities and qualifications of the true judge is summarized by Hume as follows:

When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: the finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitancy. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the objects of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent.

Hume is certain the majority of people suffer from one or other of these defects and that, therefore, true judges of the fine arts are “rare” characters.

Some commentators, however, have understood Hume’s true judges to be ideal spectators, and therefore, so rare as to be nonexistent. James Shelly, for example, argues that: [I]f Hume were to allow that true judges are real people, he would place himself in the embarrassing position of denying empirical fact, namely, that there are no real critics who can never be wrong, and that there is no group of such critics who usually, if not nearly always, agree in their judgements.

Shelly is certainly right that Hume is hinting at an ideal spectator theory when he describes the true judges, but by taking that to be Hume’s final position, he mistakenly supposes Hume to have failed in his endeavor to provide a workable standard of taste. Shelly’s mistake is to confuse what is in fact evidence against a workable ideal spectator theory with an argument for such a theory.

To see why this is so we need only spell out the implications of Hume’s description of true judges. If these “rare” characters really do exist, we should expect them to arrive at the same conclusions about the merits of a work of art. The problem is that those who are most readily able to demonstrate their superior critical insight do not always agree, and when they do it is often for different reasons. From this is follows either that true judges are ideal or that those acknowledged to be true judges are capable of faulty or limited judgment on some occasions. If one takes true judges to be ideal rather than real, then the search for a standard of taste of any use in resolving disputes is thwarted. Since it is just such a standard that Hume seeks, he takes the other path and concludes that the judgment of one acknowledged true judge provides neither a reliable nor a practical (in the sense of dispute-resolving) standard of taste. However, if a group of those acknowledged to possess the qualities of a true judge were to agree in their judgment upon a work, that agreement would provide some kind of standard of taste. Hume makes this point when he writes that the “joint verdict” of those possessing the rare and admirable character of true judges “is the true standard of taste and beauty.”

What of Shelly’s point that real critics agree very infrequently? How much agreement there is between noted critics obviously depends on the question they are addressing. If we recall how Hume characterizes the common-sense view he is trying to support, we can see Shelly’s point is off the mark. Common sense tells us that not all critical judgements are on the same level-that is, there is better and worse (if not right and wrong) taste. This intuition manifests itself in our dismissal of some judgments as absurd and ridiculous Hume’s example, again, is the judgment that Ogilby is as good as Milton. I would assert, against Shelly, that most of those admired as superior critics would agree on many such critical judgments. They do not always agree but that does not undermine the power of whatever agreement is possible to serve as a sort of standard of taste.

Wherever we might find such agreement, we cannot expect it to function as a standard of taste capable of reconciling deviant sentiments. For example, if I am so unlucky as to find Hamlet a boring play, then the fact that everyone acknowledged to be a true judge thinks otherwise and would dismiss my judgment as absurd and ridiculous will not by itself bring my evaluation of the play into line with prevailing qualified critical opinion. Nevertheless, Hume makes it clear that the person who can demonstrate that he has the qualities and qualifications of the superior critic will always have their judgment treated with respect and approbation. Such critics may not be able to reconcile differing responses to a work, but they may convince some of the soundness of their judgments in virtue of their reputation for critical insight and experience. It is unlikely, for example, that the evaluative judgments of Sancho’s kinsmen on the quality of wine were not so lightly dismissed after the incident with the hogshead. Consequently, even if true judges cannot reconcile tastes, their decision provides a standard which can perform the more modest task of “confirming” or “condemning” a particular sentiment. This assumes, however, that superior critics will always be recognized as such. A serious problem for the decision standard arises here. For the sceptic can merely modify his argument from the question of how to distinguish between right and wrong sentiment, to the question of how to distinguish between true and false judges. Indeed, Hume draws attention to just this problem with the joint verdict standard:

“But where are such critics to be found? By what marks are they to be known? How distinguish them from pretenders? These questions are embarrassing; and seem to throw us back into the same uncertainty from which during the course of this essay, we have endeavoured to extricate ourselves.”

Hume has two answers to this problem, both of which point to his final position on the standard of taste.

First, having noted that whether a critic is a true judge or not is a question of fact and not sentiment, Hume is able to conclude that determining whether a critic is a true judge or not is a matter of conducting careful investigation. He is in fact more cautious than this, however, treating the question of who is a true judge as one which

may often be the subject of dispute, and be liable to great discussion and inquiry … Where these doubts occur, men can do no more than in other disputable questions which are submitted to the understanding: they must produce the best arguments that their invention suggests to them.

Hume says nothing to suggest he thinks we will always or even sometimes be able to resolve such factual disputes about who is and is not a true judge. The sceptic can reply, of course, that without the ability to decide this question with a reasonable degree of certainty, there will be no standard of taste because no certainty about which joint verdicts are to constitute the standard. Hume’s reply to this is interesting. Disputes about the status of a critic can only arise on the assumption that there is a standard of taste; the possible irresolvability of the dispute suggests no more than that the disputants should have “indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard.” We may not be able to achieve agreement on the factual matter of the identity of true judges, but any dispute about the status of a particular critic presupposes the superiority of some evaluative judgments over others, and therefore, the existence of a standard of taste. Here again we see hints of an ideal spectator theory. For unless the judges are ideal, the sceptic has a powerful response to Hume’s argument-namely, that disputes about who is and who is not a true judge are as fruitless as disputes over taste, and therefore, inferring the existence of a standard of taste from such disputes is invalid.

Again Hume continues by rejecting the ideal spectator theory and meeting the objection of the sceptic head-on:

It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we have proved, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, and that some men in general, however difficult to be particularly pitched upon, will be acknowledged by universal sentiment to have a preference above others.

Even if we can’t necessarily decide the factual question of who the true judges are, there will be some people who will be admired and approved by all as superior critics. Here the question of who the true judges are is determined by the “universal esteem” in which they are held as critics. This esteem is directed to those critics “easily … distinguished in society by the soundness of their understanding, and the superiority of their faculties above the rest of mankind.” Disputes may arise about whether those esteemed to be superior critics are in fact so, and these disputes may not be resolvable, but where there is near universal esteem for a critic we can infer the superiority of their judgment as safely as we can infer from the universal esteem that the works of Homer, Virgil and Terence are held that these works really do have properties naturally suited to pleasing. If everyone who concerns himself or herself with literature approve certain critics in virtue of his or her insight and experience, and all those superior critics agree in their judgment, then that agreement constitutes a standard for use in justifying the dismissal of certain dissenting opinions. Since such a standard of taste depends upon both the agreement of superior critics, and agreement about who counts as a superior critic, the standard of taste might be loosely characterized as general opinion. Indeed, in another essay Hume writes of “general opinion” that “in all questions with regard to morals, as well as criticism, there is really no other standard by which any controversy can ever be decided.”


If one places too much emphasis upon the properties naturally suited to producing sentiments in one’s reading of Hume’s essay, one will tend to interpret him as providing an argument against the sceptic’s claim that there is no disputing taste and for a relatively precise tool for resolving such disputes. If, however, one puts the emphasis upon the evaluative agreement that arises around a work possessing these qualities, then it is more natural to interpret Hume as providing a more modest restraint upon the scope of the sceptic’s argument. Hume’s emphasis upon irresolvable disputes of taste indicates how modest a restraint it is:

Where there is such a diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference over the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgement is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard of taste.

This blameless diversity is identified by Hume as arising from “the different humours of particular men” and the “particular manners of our age and country.” The stage of life one’s in, one’s character, temperament, circumstances, and cultural background are all unavoidable and blameless influences upon the judgments we make. When these factors come into play, the resulting sentiments aroused by the work can, Hume writes, “never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard by which they can be decided.” That is, where people are sufficiently different in character and background we cannot expect them to agree, and without agreement we have no standard by which the dispute can be decided. In such cases philosophy cannot support resistance to the sceptic’s claim that it is fruitless to dispute over matters of taste. But this is to be expected since it is the existence of just such circumstances that ground the sceptically supported intuition that some disputes are fruitless. By contrast, where critics of similar background and experience cannot reach authoritative agreement about the value of a work, despite the absence of such “blameless diversity,” there is at least the possibility of convergence-and this justifies the dispute proceeding.

This, of course, is not to say that there cannot be works which, despite these unavoidable and blameless influences, are granted the status of canonical by all. Indeed, Hume is clear that there are canonical works and that real genius will eventually always triumph over any local prejudice and eventually be agreed by all to be of the highest merit. It is because Hume locates the standard of taste in the degree of agreement there is about a work that he can confidently state at this point in his argument: “In reality the difficulty of finding, even in particulars, the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented.” After all, determining what there is agreement about is much less difficult a task than finding some means of reconciling divergent tastes.

Since Hume merely limits the scope of the sceptic’s claim, he provides what I think is correctly called a “sceptical” standard of taste. For Hume calls the results of arguments that proceed by inference from experience “sceptical solutions,” and this is just the kind of argument he uses in support of the common-sense view that critical evaluations are not all on the same level. From near universal agreement, when and where it occurs, is inferred the existence of properties naturally suited to causing a certain sentiment in those who have a refined sensitivity to their powers. More simply, from agreement is inferred better and worse judgment. It is a sceptical standard, moreover, because it is a purely descriptive standard. From the fact that all acknowledged superior critics agree that Hamlet is pleasing rather than boring, it does not follow that I ought to find it pleasing. And this is so even if I recognize the joint verdict of these esteemed critics is a standard of better judgement on the matter. Even if all the critics I admire for their insight and experience agree that it is profound rather than boring, providing me with sufficient evidence for thinking Hamlet genuinely profound and my judgment the result of an “internal hindrance,” coming to that conclusion does not constitute a sufficient motivation to correct my response-providing, of course, I am willing to live with my opinion being dismissed as “absurd and ridiculous.”

To conclude, recall Hume’s reflections on the aim of his essays in “On Essay Writing.” There he wrote of his task as that of providing “whatever commodities” learning has for the furtherance of polite conversation on matters of interest and importance. “Of the Standard of Taste” provides such material for those wishing to engage with the central questions of critical practice widely and publicly discussed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The matters he touches upon include: What are the aims of criticisms? What qualifications must the critic possess? What is the relation between the rules of art and the opinions of taste? Does classical literature provide a critical ideal for the moderns? To what extent does prevailing morality provide a basis for criticism? and, of course, Is there a standard by which critical disputes can be resolved? This last question is clearly the most central, but by placing Hume’s essay in its historical and intellectual context we can see his argument having a more important purpose. For the overthrow of the neo-classical rules, together with the kind of scepticism about the reality of value that many took to be a natural consequence of their replacement with the opinions of taste, threatened to render critical discussion and practice pointless. In supporting that thread of common sense that resists such a conclusion, Hume makes the important point that scepticism about the reality of value does not make all disputes about values pointless, nor does it imply an unrestrained relativism. The possibility of agreement justifies some disputes; and the existence of agreement constitutes a limitation upon relativism about value. This sort of argument is familiar to us now, but in Hume’s day, as we know, such restrained scepticism was neither familiar nor popular. Hume perhaps hoped that those naturally hostile to his scepticism would, in conversation, come to recognize its virtues.