The Collective Standard of Taste
Critical Reflection and Contribution to David Hume’s Theory on the Standard of Taste
In Hume’s essay on the standard of taste, he argues both that good work of art endure over time and that certain facts about some persons make them true critics of beauty or merit. In this essay, I will argue that Hume is correct in his assertion that some works of art are objectively better than others, and some people are in fact better at identifying those works than others might be, but that his depiction of the true judge is entirely unrealistic and actually hinders our understanding of good taste. Whereas Hume’s true judge is an extraordinary individual, he fails to account for the social dynamics that play into our assessment of beauty and the value of weighing several opinions before deciding on the quality of some work. I put forth the idea that the judgement of a work cannot be assuredly decided by the opinion of a single person, but can, in fact, only be concluded by a sufficiently large collection of opinions.
Hume’s opening position is that the different sentiments of men can be either confirmed or condemned based on a standard of taste. Putting forth that “the general rules of art are based purely on experience,” Hume writes about how we use our experiences as a tool to judge art, without seeming to acknowledge how wildly different our experiences can be. As he continues to define the requirements for reaching a valid conclusion on the quality of a work of art, his criteria for a true critic quickly become unrealistic. Hume says that without (1) “perfect serenity of mind,” (2) “a gathering together of our thoughts,” and (3) “proper attention to the work of art,” our judgement of a work is not valid. Regarding the second and third requirements, I can understand how attention to the work and our own mental organization will help us be sure of our judgement, but I take issue with the vague depiction of those requirements. How will I know if my thoughts have been gathered? Exactly how much attention is the proper attention to the work of art? I think that the description of the standard of taste can’t fully be realized without a clear standard of judgement. The first requirement to judge a work as defined above begins his depiction of the true judge as an infallible being. Humans are imperfect by nature. To propose that reaching a valid judgement of a work of art requires “perfect serenity of mind,” to me implies that nobody is capable of truly valid judgement. So long as humans continue to be the fallible creatures that we are, I don’t believe that anyone can live up to the depiction of the true judge that Hume describes.
The qualifications of the true judge continue to raise past the point of impossibility when Hume tells us the true judge “must keep his mind free from all prejudice.” As humans, everything we see, hear, feel, or taste, we do so with prejudice. Some people have an affinity for songs that were sung to them as a child, and some people have a distaste for a certain genre of music. These are things beyond our control, and a method of measuring good taste that doesn’t account for these simple human tendencies is either ignorant, optimistic, or simply insufficient.
My argument that the true judge couldn’t exist in the real world could quickly be dismissed with just a single example of such a character. In his essay, Hume provides us an example of two individuals with the delicacy of taste required of a true judge. Unfortunately, these are two fictional characters from the story Don Quixote. I can see how the narrative of the two experts who were mocked until their genius was revealed makes for a great emotional hook to his argument. We sympathize with these characters, and Hume really makes us want to appreciate the genius of the true judge. But ultimately, these characters are fictitious and still don’t qualify as the example I’m looking for in the real world. Hume does start to discuss where these real true judges can be found. He states, “[t]hough men of delicate taste are rare, they can easily be picked out in society by the soundness of their understanding and how much abler they are than the rest of mankind. Because of the high status they have acquired, their lively approval of any work of art tends to become the general view.” Maybe it’s my failure to understand the translation of the language over time, but I feel that this instruction is insufficient in helping me find an example of a true judge. If, for example, the builder of a home has a sound understanding of how it was made and a greater ability to build it than the rest of mankind, is he a better judge of that home than the architect who designed it? Based on the vague description of the true judge given by Hume, I couldn’t say. I think the fact that a simple scenario such as this could still be debated means that his description is ultimately insufficient.
“Every convert to the admiration of the real poet or orator is the cause of some new conversion”
Hume’s description of high social status as a trait of the true judge is an interesting correlation that assumes causality. When someone popular praises a work as good, the work tends to become more widely accepted as good. This is a factual correlation. When Hume says, “[b]ecause of the high status they have acquired,” he seems to imply that it is the popular person’s ability to identify good work is the cause of their high status, or at least that this ability has helped them achieve their status. It seems to me that it could be their high status that causes the piece to receive more acclaim than it would otherwise. It is a challenge to distinguish correlation from causation and an even greater one when social dynamics are to be considered; though these social dynamic are critical in our understanding of good taste.
The judgement of a piece of art is only really relevant within a social context. A piece could be considered great by one generation and terrible by the next, as “[t]he son accepts a different system from the father.” But truly great works are continually praised by the aggregation of diverse opinions. I believe that instead of taking the judgement of the experienced critic as gospel, we should decide if a work is great or not by weighing the opinions of many. As people are prone to prejudice and “[o]ur internal organs are subject to defects,” increasing our sample size of judgements will stand to be the most objective method of measuring the beauty or quality of a work. A pool of judges could be asked to rate a work on almost any of its qualities (beauty, humor, taste), and if these responses could be recorded in a numerical fashion, such as a scale of 1 to 10, we could objectively and statistically measure both the quality of the work in that aspect and, the quality of each individual judge’s good taste. Mapped out as a graph of distribution, an average work of art would look like this:
Some judges would argue that this art is terrible, and some would disagree and claim it to be a masterpiece. But to us, the impartial observer of judgements, it is clear that the real quality of the work is X. For an exceptional work, the distribution is likely to look much more like this:
A truly impartial observer who sees only these ratings can remain free from prejudice having not seen either of the works themselves. Such an observer would have trouble arguing that this second work is not better than the first, assuming the pools of opinions were similar. Already, we’ve developed a method for judging art that is tolerant to the faults and prejudices of humans. The more opinions we aggregate and the more diverse those opinions, the better this method will be at finding the true quality of a work of art. Some trendy works like popular songs might start out with many high ratings, but as more opinions as aggregated over time and across populations, the objective rating of the work will slide downward. Alternatively, a great masterpiece like Beethoven or Shakespeare will hold its high regard as more and more opinions are added over time.
“The same Homer who pleased people at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago is still admired today in Paris and London”
Now with a sufficiently large pool of ratings from a given judge and with a sufficiently large pool of opinions for each judged work, we can objectively and even mathematically determine who does and who does not have good taste. Based on a combination of factors we can and can’t control, some of us are better able to give the real X rating of a work than others. These individuals can be considered to have good taste. The good taste of a critic can be concluded with clear metrics and measurements through this method of evaluation. Here, Hume and I have come almost to the same conclusion. We agree that not everyone has the same good taste. We also agree on what factors play into someone’s ability to be a good judge or not. Hume outlines in detail that his true judge, what I would call a good judge, is someone who is practiced, gives attention to details, does their best to hide their personal prejudices, and has some natural good sense. Most of these traits can be learned and practiced over time to improve one’s sense of taste.
Nobody could possibly be a perfect judge of every work. As new genres of music are developed, an expert critic of older music would have to relearn the delicacies of the new genre and consider the context and audience that the new music was made for. A great judge might never even be able to be a good judge of a new genre, but the nice thing is that he doesn’t have to be. We can simply accept our internal sentiments as our own contribution to the true evaluation of the work. Our support of a particular work will shift the distribution towards the positive, and supporting multiple works that feature a particular theme will eventually help move that theme into the accepted standard of a quality work. People will then use their experience with those works to judge future works. As time marches forward, our cultural standard of good taste will continue to evolve not based on the judgement of a few true judges, but under the collective judgement of the community as a whole.
I have heretofore described in this essay that while I agree with Hume’s conclusion that some people have better taste than others, I feel his assessment of whether or not someone qualifies as having good taste is vague and debatable. I have also defined what I feel is a more objective method for measuring the true quality of a work of art, and subsequently using that data to measure someone’s good taste. The more judgements that are collected on a work, the more assured we can be of the true quality of the work and the good taste of each individual judge. As the pool of collected judgements grows, either by distribution across geography or across time, the work is either cemented as a masterpiece or exposed as a fad. One can practice their good taste if they so choose by researching comparable works and trying to minimize their own prejudices. However, I feel that given a large enough pool of opinions, the ignorance and prejudices as well as the expertise and good senses of a single individual’s opinion are marginalized as we reach a communal evaluation anyone can agree upon as conforming to the standard of taste.
Shoutout Prof. Taylor for making me learn some stuff about philosophy! Give me a👏 if you think my argument has some validity or just appreciate the work I put in here