Aesthetics of Hume and Kant

Inquiry into the ideas of beauty, taste, and perfection may have started in the Dialogues of Plato and the Neoplatonist Plotinus but it surely attained a much refined form in the 18th century. The prominent British Empiricist philosopher David Hume wrote his essay Of the Standard of Taste in 1757. Thirty-three years later in 1790, the German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Judgment somehow as a response to the principles of empirical aesthetics which philosophers like Hume advanced. The two works have their own share of similarities and differences, as well as strengths and weaknesses, which, after careful analysis, all point out to a greater sensibility in Kants work over Humes.

The aesthetic principles advanced by Hume and Kant are both similar and different in a number of ways.

On the similarities, both Hume and Kant emphasize that genius is an indispensable and necessary quality of fine art. They are also similar in that neither believes that beauty and the appreciation and judgment of it is based on an individuals intellectual knowledge of beauty. It is also interesting to note that Kant accepts certain of Humes conclusions but that Kant attempted to provide a priori foundations for what Hume thought were matters of mere imagination and custom (Guyer 200). In short, Kant did not exactly oppose Humes preliminary observations on the nature of judgment of taste and beauty but only opposed his conclusions pertaining to the nature of such observations.

On the subject of differences, perhaps the most significant difference between the principles of aesthetics of Hume and Kant is that while Hume concluded that the general rules of art are founded only on experience, and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature (Hume, ST, 10), Kant stated that a judgment of tastecannot be determined by bases of proof (Kant, CJ, 33) but rather by the subject himself and his cognition.

The statements of differences mean that Hume considers judgment as a result, not necessarily of the individuals perception but the perception of what Hume defines as the true critics of art. One therefore is expected to regard one thing as beautiful not on the basis of his own judgment but on a true critics opinion of it. Kant opposes this simply by saying that if ever a true critic would tell him how the food tasted, he shall rather be deaf to all these reasons and try the dish on his tongue and palate, and therebymake his judgment (Kant, CJ, 33)

Though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely, the same in all men yet
few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the
standard of beauty. A true judge in the finer arts is be so rare a character
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, ST, 23
In the aforementioned words of Hume, he somehow outlines or enumerates the aspects that an individual should have before he can be called a true judge of art. However, with this statement Hume admits that indeed only few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty (Hume, ST, 23). Hume also emphasizes, in saying that the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty (Hume, ST, 23), that the joint agreement of these critics is the true standard of taste and beauty that he himself seeks, no matter what these agreements could be.

Humes standard of taste and beauty then depends on the judgment and evaluation of otherwise acute critics who are so rare a character. These men, according to Hume, although they are rare, are still easily to be distinguished in society (Hume, ST, 27) because of their sound understanding and superior faculties above the rest of mankind (Hume, ST, 27). These men are contrasted with the majority of men who have but a faint and dubious perception of beauty (Hume, ST, 27), which Hume seems to look down upon. Although Hume, empiricist as he believed he was, did not utilize any a priori standard for taste and beauty, the aforementioned principle of Hume on aesthetics implies that somehow he has abandoned some aspects of empiricism in favor of a rather rational basis for the judgment of taste and beauty, which is in the form of the standards of a few critics. Hume seemed biased towards those distinguished in society by stating that they are the true critics of taste and beauty. Among those recognized by Hume to have been chosen by critics as true standards of poetic beauty are Terence and Virgil. They, according to Hume, maintain a universal, undisputed empire over the minds of men (Hume, ST, 26). However, is the greatness of Virgil demonstrated by the fact that he was declared to be so by true critics or is their ability as critics demonstrated by their joint agreement on Virgils merits Hume has somehow not made himself clear on this aspect.

In a similar way, Hume sounded prejudiced, accusing and more of a rationalist in defining men who are left to themselves as possessing perception of beauty which is faint, dubious and substandard, and he seems to have forgotten his skeptical metaphysics that is based on the ultimate question, How Do You Know How then did Hume know who can and who cannot judge true beauty and taste
Humes Of the Standard of Taste also contains principles that contradicted its own. Firstly, Hume somehow implies that it is impossible to reconcile the discordant apprehensions of men and that there still remain two sources of variation when it comes to the standards of taste and beauty the different humours of particular men and the particular manners and opinions of our age and country (Hume, ST, 28). Secondly, Hume also underlined the possibility of unavoidable preferences due to differences in age by stating that a young man, whose passions are warm will often prefer something amorous and tender compared to one who is more advanced in years and who usually takes pleasure in wise, philosophical reflections (Hume, ST, 29). Lastly, Hume underlined the fact that natural differences in peoples judgments may be caused by differences in exposure and training as one person is more pleased with the sublime another with the tender and a third with raillery (Hume, ST, 30) and that Hume admits there is no standard by which these different preferences can be decided (Hume, ST, 30). This somehow implies that these true critics, which Hume describes in Section 23 to possess five necessary qualities, may not actually reach a joint verdict in matters of taste and beauty due to the aforementioned possible differences in preferences. Hence Humes standard of taste and beauty seems after all empirical and arbitrary.

If we ask which is more important in objects of fine art, whether they show genius or taste, then
this is equivalent to asking whether in fine art imagination is more important than judgment. Now insofar as art shows genius it does indeed deserve to be called inspired, but it deserves to be
called fine art only insofar as it shows taste. Hence what we must look to above all, when we
judge art as fine art, is taste, at least as an indispensable condition. In order for a work to be
beautiful, it is not strictly necessary that it be rich and original in ideas, but it is necessary that
the imagination in its freedom be commensurate with the lawfulness of the understanding. For if
the imagination is left in lawless freedom, all its riches in ideas produce nothing but nonsense,
and it is judgment that adapts the imagination to the understanding. Kant, CJ, 50 (319)
Kants aesthetics, as mentioned above, is grounded on the role of taste in demonstrating fine art. He emphasizes that art deserves to be called fine art only insofar as it shows taste (Kant, CJ, 50). What then determines taste according to Kantian aesthetics

Faithful as ever to his idealism and to the basis of all his philosophy including his categorical imperative, Kant believes in the subjectivity of a judgment of taste but based on universality. Moreover, he said that a judgment of tastecannot be determined by bases of proof (Kant, CJ, 33) due to the fact that a judgment of taste is a priori. According to Kant, other peoples approval in no way provides one with a valid proof by which to judge beauty even though others may perhaps see and observe for him and that those rules of the critics are false, or at least do not apply in the present case (Kant, CJ, 33). Based on these aforementioned principles that Kant advanced towards taste, it is therefore implied that such judgments of taste or beauty are intrinsic in a man and not on particular critics. Kant stated that if he were to judge food which everyone considered agreeable and wholesome, he shall be deaf to all these reasons and try the dish on his tongue and palate, and therebymake his judgment (Kant, CJ, 33).

Kant further stated that althoughcritics can reason more plausibly than cooks, they still share the same fate (Kant, CJ, 34) for what determines judgment is not the force of the bases of proof, but only from the subjects reflection on his own state (Kant, CJ, 34). It is therefore clear that Kant does not regard critics as individuals who possess the eye for beauty and taste but rather they are no different from cooks who judge their cooking subjectively. Based on Kantian aesthetics, the saltiness of the soup is not determined by proof but rather by the subject itself. The mere presence of the chemical sodium chloride in the soup does not make an individual judge it to be salty nor does any observation made by any critic, for the only determinant of the saltiness is none other than the individual himself as he tastes the soup.

Where then does Kants notion of taste lead if it ends with subjectivity But no it does not. Just like the proof of the universality of the categorical imperative, Kants idea of a judgment of taste has its own objective aspect. Kant suggests that, instead of delving into the nature of the proof of taste and beauty, what they should do is investigate our cognitive powers and what task these powers perform in these judgments (Kant, CJ, 34), for it is here where a possible objective principle lies. Kant is saying that while the subjectivity of beauty and taste depends on the presentation or example by which an object is given us but its objectivity may lie in the rules for the reciprocal relation that the cognitive powers of understanding and imagination have in the given presentation (Kant, CJ, 34), and that according to Kant, it is with the latter alonethat we are here concerned throughout (Kant, CJ, 34). This is the a priori nature of a judgment of beauty or taste.

Furthermore, Kant underlines that he cannot possibly connect a priori a definite feeling of pleasure or displeasure with any presentation without an underlying a priori principle in reason that determines the will (Kant, CJ, 37). Hence, just like in Kants proof for the categorical imperative, one may judge something as beautiful empirically, but such a judgment can only be called an a priori judgment if he requires that liking from everyone as necessary (Kant, CJ, 37). Simply speaking, when one judges a flower to be beautiful, this is merely an empirical judgment. However, the fact that all the brains of all individuals work in the same way in judging a flower to be beautiful makes this judgment a priori.

One of the main strengths of Humes aesthetics is the common sense approach to determining what is beautiful. There is some truth in his belief that there are but very few men who are capable of discerning true standards of taste and beauty, as evidenced by the fact that there are but relatively few famous personalities in art and literature. However, the various exceptions he presented in his Of the Standard of Taste clearly undermine the stability and consistency of his arguments. It is therefore more sensible to adhere to Kants ideas on the judgment of taste and beauty. Although Kant shares Humes concept of subjectivity of the perception of beauty, the former was sensible enough to imply in his Critique of Judgment that it is not the words of a critic that determines the judgment of beauty but the individual himself, and that although beauty is subjective, it must have an a priori nature, or a certain quality that is independent of the perceiver and that makes its beauty unceasing.


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