What is ‘the self’ according to David Hume?

  • In “Of the Standard of Taste,” Hume notes a paradox: everyone knows that taste is subjective, and everyone knows that some artworks are objectively better than others. He then formulates a theory of taste on the basis of which he argues that the paradox is apparent not real.

    Hume accounts for the diversity of artistic taste by saying that aesthetic responses are not perceptions of qualities in objects; rather, beauty is the pleasure we experience at the sight of something. A taste judgement, therefore, is not the expression of a belief. Beliefs represent the properties of objects, and are about something; pleasure is a felt reaction to something and is therefore a noncognitive state. This is why disagreements in taste can’t be resolved: there is no matter of fact that makes one judgment true and another false, such that establishing the facts would resolve the dispute.

    But even though there are good reasons to think that taste is subjective, we don’t really believe it. There must be a standard of taste to explain the cases of universal agreement about particular artworks, but the standard must be such that difficulty in correctly applying it brings about inconsistencies. The difficulty is that in order for artworks to elicit an aesthetic response, certain conditions must obtain, but frequently they do not. In most responses to artworks, external factors interfere with the features that stimulate the response. That’s why there is disagreement in taste judgments.

    If we want to know the standard of taste, we should observe people who satisfy the conditions. Most people do not, at least not to any great degree. So the responses of most people to artworks are unreliable. Good critics are distinguished by their possession of certain characteristics. Identifying them is therefore an empirical matter, a matter of fact, a case of objective knowledge. These characteristics are:

    • “Delicacy” (the ability to discriminate).
    • Long experience.
    • Broad experience.
    • Impartiality, or lack of prejudice.
    • Intelligence. (“Good sense.”)
    • Concentration, or the ability to focus attention on the work and not be distracted.

    The standard of taste is the consensus of qualified critics of different periods and from multiple cultures: the “test of time.”

    One objection to Hume’s argument is that it’s circular.

    • To see whether X is a good artwork, we are to ask a good critic.
    • To see whether Y is a good critic, we are to ask whether Y has the critical virtues.
    • To see whether Y has the critical virtues, we are to ask whether Y approves of good artworks.

    It seems we must first know what a good artwork is, if we are to identify critics who can tell us which are the good artworks.

    Another is that it involves an infinite regress.

    • P and Q disagree about the quality of artwork X.
    • P and Q seek the opinion of a good critic, i.e. one with good sense.
    • P and Q disagree as to who has good sense.

    The deeper problem, though, is with Hume’s concept of objectivity. As he defines the latter, taste judgments are necessarily subjective and therefore empirically unresolvable. Therefore, it’s possible that a different concept of objectivity might enable us to avoid them.


    In “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy” (1965), Stanley Cavell discusses a distinction Kant makes in the Critique of Judgment between the beautiful and the agreeable. Kant says that if someone is challenged on their judgment that something is agreeable, it’s appropriate for them to reply “it’s agreeable to me.” But if someone is challenged on their judgment that something is beautiful, it would be “laughable” to retreat to “it’s beautiful for me.” “For,” as Kant says, “he must not call it beautiful if it merely pleases him.” Cavell asks:

    What are these examples supposed to show? That using a form of expression in one context is all right, and using it in another is not all right. But what I wish to focus on is the kind of rightness and wrongness invoked: it is not a matter of factual rectitude, nor of formal indiscretion but of saying something laughable, or which would be folly. It is such consequences that are taken to display a difference in the kind of judgment in question, in the nature of the concepts employed, and even in the nature of the reality the concepts capture. […] And how can psychological differences like finding something laughable or foolish (which perhaps not every person would) be thought to betray such potent, or anyway, different, differences?

    Cavell’s point is that aesthetic judgments, while not right or wrong as matters of fact, are nevertheless right or wrong. Aesthetic judgments can’t be backed up with evidence, proof, or expertise. Rather, the critic “turns to the reader not to convince him without proof but to get him to prove something, test something against himself. He is saying: Look and find out whether you can see what I see, wish to say what I wish to say.”

    Cavell illustrates what is involved with the following exchange:

    A. “He plays beautifully doesn’t he?”

    B. “How can you say that? There was no line, no structure, no idea what the music was about. He’s simply an impressive colorist.”

    If the reply to B is “Well, I liked it,” we would interpret this “retreat to personal taste” as a “feeble rejoinder.” This is because B’s reasons are “obviously relevant to the evaluation of the performance, and because they are arguable, in ways that anyone who knows about such things will know how to pursue. A doesn’t have to pursue them; but if he doesn’t, there is a price he will have to pay in our estimate of him.”

    Aesthetic judgments are essentially first personal, but they attempt to move from the first person singular to the first person plural (and, ultimately, to the third person). Failure in this attempt isn’t so much a matter of failing to tell the truth but discovering that you are unable to make the transition from “I” to “we.” This is how to understand the basic tension between subjective judgment and the critic’s claim to objectivity. All that can justify an aesthetic judgment is the ability to give reasons for one’s judgment. This means that the critic must be able to put her experience of the work into words, for that’s what the claim of objectivity amounts to. “The problem of the critic,” Cavell writes, “as of the artist, is not to discount his subjectivity, but to include it; not to overcome it in agreement, but to master it in exemplary ways.” The critic must make her own individual experience representative, so that others will be able and willing to experience the art as the critic does.

    The idea is that the critic wants her critical utterances to be her own, to exhibit her unique personality and personal judgment and desire, which means standing out and sometimes going against others, yet also being relevant to others as expressing shared problems and opportunities. Indeed this is what we all want; it’s the very problem of being an individual person. How is it mastered? To say it involves “reflection” may be true but not helpful. For Cavell, it involves paying close attention to ordinary behavior and language, staying with it and resisting the temptation to transcend it, but also being sensitive to its limits and pitfalls. The critic aims at expressiveness (just as the artist does), which requires resisting the temptation to deny what one has in common and knowing how to acknowledge what one shares with others: to affirm the ordinary without being wholly absorbed by it.

    In criticism, we treat our responses as representative and see where that can and can’t lead us. In the contemporary art world, where there is no authoritative understanding of what art is, where skepticism reigns, art is inseparable from criticism, the question now being not “Is it beautiful?” but “Is it art?” An impersonal style, the attempt merely to assume an objective voice, won’t fly in such a time, so the critic must begin with the personal and advance from there to the universal, creating the “we” to whom she wants to appeal. Speaking for oneself isn’t merely a matter of subjectivity, because to understand myself I must make myself understood to others. This process of expression and communication doesn’t involve proof and argument, but it isn’t irrational or subjective; it has its own integrity and rigor. Indeed, it’s only against a background of such a shared understanding that logical or scientific knowledge is intelligible. We must first share a world, and to do that we must express ourselves and understand one another. For Cavell, critical statements are like philosophical statements, which are like artistic statements: they are essentially first personal and go from the singular to the plural (or not). Objectivity, rightly understood, is intersubjectivity.

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