Monday, October 04, 2004

Week 07, Johnson, Hume

David Hume Notes

David Hume says we must ground ourselves in common experience. The point is not to prove things by intellection but rather to live well and get along with others.

488. “No sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind....” One possibility is the commonsensical notion that there is no point in criticizing taste. There cannot be any universal standard of beauty. Another possibility is that the realm of taste is about social consensus, not abstract truth or logic. Rather, it is in the realm of shared experience: “but though this axiom, by passing into a proverb, seems to have attained the sanction of common sense; there is certainly a species of common sense which opposes it....”

489. “But though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by genius or observation.” There are general rules we can derive from common sentiments over time. But individuals will sometimes failed to arrive at this level due to various factors. Refinement and delicacy are required of cultures and individuals. Homer will always appeal to us, although some periods may fail to appreciate him.

490-491. “In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state....” The faculty of taste: the sound or competent judge is necessary. This is Hume’s way of inscribing the authority principle he seemed to have abandoned. Yes, taste is a matter of experience, and so it is at base natural. However, only “sound” nature’s exhibit good taste. The best judge will possess delicacy of taste, and will have developed or grown into the full use of what nature has provided. The aim is to keep things distinct, not to lump them together. The example Hume provides is from Don Quixote -- Sancho’s relatives each taste a cask of wine; one tastes iron and another tastes leather. Both are correct because of what lies at the bottom of the cask -- a key with a leather string.

492. “Nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.” Here we see the neoclassical idea of “nature methodized” again. Practice and experience perfect the organ of taste. The artist and the perceiver must practice. We come to desire and like what others desire and like.

493. “By comparison alone we fix the epithets of praise or blame....” Hume makes a claim of objectivity here -- when we hear that word, somehow we want to run quickly. Still, it is a fine ideal. Comparative culture gets its start here -- we must compare various cultures without being prejudiced. Still, Hume puts down what he evidently considers the crudeness of Indian taste.

494. “Reason, if not an essential part of taste, is at least requisite to the operations of this latter faculty.” Reason is part of taste -- we must compare parts to the whole, find out the purpose of a given work, and so forth. If consensus is to mean anything, reason and discernment must guide needed sentiment. The principles of taste are universal, but not “just anyone” is fit to reach them or talk about them. Education and leadership (not necessarily connected to absolutism) are central to Enlightenment thinkers.

595. “But in reality the difficulty of finding... the standard of taste, is not so great as it is represented.... theories of abstract philosophy, systems of profound theology, have prevailed during one age: in a successive period, these have been universally exploded....” Sentiment is most meaningfully universal -- philosophies and religions come and go, but the passions remain the same.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

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