David Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste" (1757)

Many and frequent are the defects in the internal organs which prevent or weaken the influence of those general principles, on which depends our sentiment of beauty or deformity. Though some objects, by the structure of the mind, be naturally calculated to give pleasure, it is not to be expected, that in every individual the pleasure will be equally felt. Particular incidents and situations occur, which either throw a false light on the objects, or hinder the true from conveying to the imagination the proper sentiment and perception.

One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy everyone pretends to: everyone talks about it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feeling of the sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy than has been hitherto attempted....

At this point in the essay, Hume is in the process of enumerating possible obstructions to clear and accurate judgments of objects of taste. In the paragraph above, his comments are suggestive of a rising cult of feeling, whose pretensions span both arti stic and moral worlds, but whose definition of delicacy is vague. In order to achieve clarity here, Hume proceeds to illustrate delicacy in an example from Don Quixote, of a man with an exceptional sense of (literal) taste. That example leads him to formulate the following definition:

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 we call delicacy of taste, where we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.

This definition leads Hume to have faith in the theoretical existence of a rigorous standard of taste, since the judgments of objects of taste are "questions of fact, not of sentiment." In spite of all of the elements of subjectivity in their perceptions, critics can work to purify their judgments. In this way, universally valid pronouncements in the realms of art and morality can be obtained.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
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source bibliography
critical bibliography