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.

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