Thursday, November 04, 2010

(AP) Hume and Vicious Circularity

I don't want to leave Hume prematurely, so let's take a closer look at his proposed solution to the antinomous depiction of art as open to "critical" (that is, objective) judgments that are irreducibly subjective in origin (and as such appear to be uncriticizable or, as he says, "all right"). Hoping ultimately to reconcile a multiplicity of human "sentiments," (or tastes) he invokes (what he supposes are) instances of universal agreement from which to generate principles of artistic excellence. But on what basis does Hume assume that mere (inter-subjective) agreement is sufficient to generate an objective (that is, trans-subjective) standard? Is he simply claiming that "the best art" always conforms to standards implicit in our best artistic products and processes? If so, Hume is open to the charge of vicious -- or at least ineffectual -- circularity.

T. Gracyk agrees:

Whatever the standard, Hume's essay poses the problem of an apparent circularity in argumentation. A limited number of works are used to identify the best critics (leading, in turn, to the list of the qualities of such critics), but those works attain the status of masterpieces only through the judgment of such critics. So Hume either defines good critics in terms of good art, or good art in terms of good critics. (Is Homer's greatness demonstrated by the fact that true critics say so, or is their status as good critics to be demonstrated by the fact that they agree on Homer's merits?)

It may be, as Hume claims, that we face "questions of fact" in asking whether someone possesses the characteristics he attributes to true critics, or whether a specific work has appealed to such critics across cultures and the ages. Either way, how has he shown that "established" beauties provide the "finest" pleasure? Why are they superior to the "vulgar," transitory entertainments Hume dismisses? The features of the true critic are often read as Hume's way out of this trap. But Hume seems to have predetermined that only someone with wealth, education and leisure will ever possess good taste. The only answer, in the end, is the verdict of our common human nature: "the sentiments of all mankind are agreed" that such critics are superior.


  1. I agree that Hume's circle is, to put it charitably, a fair bit too small. I wonder, however, what procedure we would use other than a (perhaps substantially enlarged) version of his to derive standards of beauty. If aesthetic experience really is subjective, then an intersubjective accounting, if large and ecumenical enough, could give us rough standards that we could use as starting points for conversation about the aesthetic merits of some artwork. I don't like admitting that opinion polls constitute data, but perhaps they are all the data to be had in this venue.

  2. As the constructivists rightly note, all experience is subjective, even my experience of intersubjectivity! The important question then (and the one they ignore) is whether we can provide an explanation of the content and source of our impressions by reference to something "outside" of subjective experience (natural form, Hume's "internal fabric" of the mind, social expectations, language, etc.).

  3. It has always seemed to me that we could, in principle, give such an account of the objective features that tend to comprise what we generally find beautiful. I've had this notion roundly rejected in so many conversations about art and beauty, however, that I've all but given up discussing it. Maybe perceptions of beauty really are relative to time, culture, and even sometimes individuals.

  4. I share those intuitions; I guess it's important to qualify the scope of the analysis, too -- it's not beauty alone or even most centrally for which we might supply a naturalistic explanation, but aesthetic impressions generally.

  5. Quite right, and here some evolutionary and neurological work on visceral disgust reactions is interesting, so far as it goes. There do seem to be some hard-wired negative aesthetic responses that reach very deep into our developmental past as a species. But here's the rub: it seems we can learn to overcome or even reverse them with practice -- witness the evidently acquired but fierce aesthetic attachment of many people to really, really stinky cheeses.