David Hume and the Science of Criticism

David Hume and the Science of Criticism

Amyas Merivale

Leeds Aesthetics Seminar
Leeds, 14th March


The Threat of Relativism

If we can depend upon any principle, which we learn from philosophy, this, I think, may be considered as certain and undoubted, that there is nothing, in itself, valuable or despicable, desirable or hateful, beautiful or deformed; but that these attributes arise from the particular constitution and fabric of human sentiment and affection. What seems the most delicious food to one animal, appears loathsome to another: What affects the feeling of one with delight, produces uneasiness in another. This is confessedly the case with regard to all the bodily senses: But if we examine the matter more accurately, we shall find, that the same observation holds even where the mind concurs with the body, and mingles its sentiment with the exterior appetite.

The Sceptic

A Simple Reply to the Relativist

Perhaps we can say:

And Hume does indeed say:

A Challenge: Arbitrary Foot Stomping 1

The phrase good sense describes; it also approves. What has happened is that in his attempt to reduce disagreements about aesthetic values to disagreements about facts, Hume has simply pushed the value judgement a step back: the question Is x a good poem? has become: Does y have good sense? And both are evaluative questions, questions of 'sentiment', not (solely) questions of fact.

Peter Kivy, 1967

Why are the works enjoyed and preferred by ideal critics characterized as Hume characterizes them ones that I should, all things being equal, aesthetically pursue? Why not, say, the objects enjoyed and preferred by izeal critics—who are introverted, zany, endomorphic, arrogant, and left-handed?

Jerrold Levinson, 2002

A Challenge: Arbitrary Foot Stomping 2

I am not simply raising the complaint that Hume is trapped in circularity: we identify the good art by identifying the good judges and identify the good judges by their ability to identify the good art. Hume could break that circle on either side if doing so would not leave him sitting on top of his educative programme. My argument is that whether he plumps for the programme directly, or indirectly by plumping for judges that exemplify that programme's details, he ultimately plumps for his programme. And he has no argument—no argument—for his programme over against other competing programmes. So the problem is not circularity (or regress). The problem is that Hume is committed to the arbitrary, foot-stomping horn of Agrippa’s Trilemma. The question that expresses this horn is this: why should we accept Hume’s method of producing consensus about matters of taste and not some other method, given that each would produce comparable degrees of consensus? Hume has no answer to that question as far as I can see. (Because there is no answer to that question as far as I can see.)

Brian Ribeiro, 2007

The Science of Criticism 1

The subjects of the understanding and passions make a compleat chain of reasoning by themselves; and I was willing to take advantage of this natural division, in order to try the taste of the public. If I have the good fortune to meet with success, I shall proceed to the examination of morals, politics, and criticism; which will compleat this Treatise of human nature.

Treatise advertisement

Men, in this country, have been so much occupied in the great disputes of Religion, Politics, and Philosophy, that they had no relish for the seemingly minute observations of grammar and criticism. And though this turn of thinking must have considerably improved our sense and our talent of reasoning; it must be confessed, that, even in those sciences above-mentioned, we have not any standard-book, which we can transmit to posterity: And the utmost we have to boast of, are a few essays towards a more just philosophy; which, indeed, promise well, but have not, as yet, reached any degree of perfection.

Of Civil Liberty

The Science of Criticism 2

[T]he unfeigned tears which flowed from every eye, in the numerous representations which were made of it on this theatre; the unparalleled command, which you appeared to have over every affection of the human breast: These are incontestible proofs, that you possess the true theatric genius of Shakespear and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one, and licentiousness of the other.

Dedication of the Four Dissertations

A very great part of the merit of most works of genius arises from their fitness to agitate the heart with a variety of passions... Genuine criticism... investigates those qualities in its objects which, from the invariable principles of human nature, must always please or displease; describes and distinguishes the sentiments which they in fact produce; and impartially regulates its most general conclusions according to real phaenomena.

Alexander Gerard, Essay on Taste, 1756

The Science of Criticism 3

The design... of this chapter is to delineate that connection [between passions and the fine arts], with the view chiefly to ascertain what power the fine arts have to raise emotions and passions. To those who would excel in the fine arts, that branch of knowledge is indispensible; for without it the critic, as well as the undertaker, have nothing left but to abandon themselves to chance. Destitute of that branch of knowledge, in vain will either pretend to foretell what effect his work will have upon the heart.

Henry Home, Lord Kames, *Elements of Criticism*, 1762

Meeting the Challenge 1

Meeting the Challenge 2

But though all the general rules of art are founded only on experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature, we must not imagine, that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules. Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine.

ST 10

Meeting the Challenge 3