Hume: An Empirical Approach to Taste and Beauty
David Hume, in strengthening the use of sensory taste as a metaphor for aesthetic taste, shines light on further problems with Kant’s philosophy. He begins his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” by noting the variety of opinions of aesthetic taste: “The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 103). Indeed, this observation alone should be enough to counter Kant’s belief in a universal beauty.
As an example, imagine that two people are viewing the cubist painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso. One person is a Spaniard who lived through the Spanish Civil War; the other is an American expert in modernist painting. Will the two people view the painting in the same objective way? Certainly not: the Spaniard might have an emotional reaction based on the content of the work, which depicts through its abstract forms a battle that he has personally experienced; the art expert, on the other hand, will experience the work more intellectually, comparing it to other works by Picasso and other modern artistic depictions of war. Sure, the two people (if their senses are behaving normally) will both sense certain objective qualities of the painting (e.g., its size and color). However, they will both read the same painting differently–even if they both find it beautiful; it will present each with a different meaning. They will not share a standard of beauty because they are approaching the painting from different cultural backgrounds and different levels of experience and learning.
To be sure, if a third person was to view Guernica, and this person has only ever experienced representational painting, the unfamiliar cubist forms would surely strike him as ugly. Like the Spaniard and the art expert, he has applied his rational faculties and compared the painting to others he has experienced, but because he lacks experience with abstract painting, he cannot locate the beauty that Kant would argue is inherent in the artwork. Why is this? Hume answers: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 104). So, to use the cliché, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The cliché is so commonplace now that it is difficult to grasp just how dangerous this idea was to the foundations of Western philosophy in the eighteenth century. If beauty as a value originates in the subject, then the subject becomes the source for value. Our values, both moral and aesthetic, are no longer out there in the realm of being, waiting for us to grasp them with our reason and intellect. Instead, they are readily available through experience, custom, and exposure.
For Hume and many other empiricists, knowledge only comes from sense experience. From this, it follows that aesthetic taste can be learned and cultivated as one expands her experiences and level of learning. And this goes for taste in food just as it does for taste in art. (Hume certainly makes it a point to highlight the analogy between sensory taste and aesthetic taste.) And not only can taste be cultivated, but a standard of taste can develop within a community that shares a cultural background and similar levels of experience and learning. This standard can develop for art and food alike, and a person with the proper attributes and experiences should be able to judge both art and food by the same type of standard. Hume writes: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (Hume “Of the Standard of Taste” 109). Here, Hume can be talking about wine tasting as much as art criticism. As Korsmeyer writes: “Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Below is a contemporary example of how similar art and food actually are.