Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Hume and common standards of taste

We have been reading Hume on beauty and art these days in the Aesthetics course. Once again, I am struck by how different Hume is, from what we usually make him out to be. I had gone to Hume fully expecting him to support the 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' thing, skeptic and relativist that he was. But I found a Hume who, while admitting the subjectivity of the aesthetic judgment in the sense that 'beauty' is not exactly a property of things, still goes on to defend a sophisticated theory of how there can and are common standards of taste. No one in his right mind, he points out, will simply equate the great Milton with a middling other poet.

Hume certainly has not the sophisticated distinction that Lonergan makes between experiential and explanatory conjugates, but what he says above seems to fit well, at least at first sight, into this kind of thing. Or perhaps we might distinguish between 'beauty' as an experiential conjugate, and the aesthetic judgment as, precisely, a judgment, and therefore capable of being true or false.

Hume, at any rate, goes on to point out that the judgment of taste is conditioned by a series of factors: delicacy of taste, practice at discrimination, comparison; serenity; etc. And while it might in practice be difficult to agree about who exactly is a man of good judgment, it is, at least in theory, quite sensible to point out the qualities in a man of good judgment, and to say that such men of good judgment or taste can be relied on in making good aesthetic judgments.

Hume does admit that (1) personal factors and (2) cultural factors are difficult to assimilate into the above theory. Cooper feels that on these points Hume needs to be questioned. Standards of taste, he seems to suggest, and men of good judgment, are culture bound. Such standards and such men function well within a particular culture and age, but not across cultures and ages.

It might be interesting to transpose all this into a Lonergan context. From what I understand, Lonergan does not quite enter into questions of aesthetic judgment.

Then of course there is Gadamer with his treatment of art as a way to truth, a playful way to truth, in a manner not unlike the functioning of phronesis or common sense.

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