Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hume's Standard of Taste: the problem of the true judge consensus

Malcolm Budd speaks of Hume's "blithe optimism about the uniformity of response of his true judges of artistic value." (Values of Art:  Pictures, Poetry, and Music, 1995) and thinks "there is no reason that someone who satisfies the conditions Hume imposes on the true judge is likely to feel the same sentiment as any other true judge toward the same work."  James Shelley replies to this and similar objections to Hume in "Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges,"  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:2 (2013) 145-153.  I think that Shelley's response is basically right, although he does take a rather extreme position when he says that "true judges will never disagree" (146).  He also reads the passage on innocent disagreements as implying that although the younger man will be sensibly touched by Ovid than the older man, both will agree that Ovid is good.  The problem is that Hume does not indicate that both do judge Ovid as good. His final position is more nuanced.  He is on more solid ground in insisting that, although someone might fit all the criteria of a good judge, she still may judge a work differently than other good judges, and that Hume would insist that we would quite properly judge by asking "whether their sentiments are more responsive than hers to the anthropocentric values of beauty."  On this view, beauty just is that which gives rise to the sentiment of beauty in the majority of those humans "whose faculty of taste is sound."  The notion of soundness that Shelley references is illuminated well by the following paragraph from Hume, which is further support for Shelley's position, but which also poses problems of its own:  

"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. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy."  David Hume  "Of the Standard of Taste"

There is much that we have to go through first to find this convincing.  To contemporary eyes it looks like the set-up for an experiment:  we find the necessary conditions for a correct reading that would find "catholic and universal," i.e. objective, beauty. Yet what may seem peculiar to contemporary readers is it understands the workings of taste in terms of the workings of a watch with "small springs" that are easily disturbed whether internally or externally, and of a very young plant with a "tender and delicate nature."  All of this, of course, would explain why the feelings of men are often not conformable to the rules of beauty:  something has gone wrong with the small springs of the delicate watch, or with the tender plant.  Of course the good judges, few as they are, would have nothing wrong with the small springs of their internal watches.  So, we cannot explain the aberrant good judges by way of such problems.  If there is a problem with her watch then she will not be considered among the good judges.  This is the motivation behind Shelley saying that all good judges are going to agree insofar as they are good judges.    Perhaps the problem exists in the notion that the aberrant judge "possesses all five characteristics of the true judge":  perhaps more characteristics are needed, or some elaboration of the five characteristics in terms of the above-mentioned conditions of the good aesthetic experiment.  The good judge must, one might say, have an additional characteristic:  he or she must not have her internal springs (whatever that ultimately means in non-metaphorical terms we will leave open) disturbed. That is the value of the judge is also tested by whether he or she will still disagree with others when the conditions of the experiment are met.  Perfect serenity of mind, recollection of thought, a due attention to the object are required as much as lack of prejudice, strong sense and delicacy of sentiment.  If the aberrant critic is lacking in these then it would be false that "her sentiments track the value they track as well as the sentiments" the majority of good judges track the value they track.  Shelley asks whether the sentiments are "more responsive than here to the anthropocentric value of beauty."  Of course the core problem of Budd's objection remains.  We can't resolve the issue in any a priori way, and since there is no clear way to cash out the metaphor of the internal delicate watch mechanism by which we could have good experimental results that fit contemporary scientific standards, we do not really have a way to tell which judges, among real living judges, fall into the category of the ideal judge and which do not.  It is true that most good judges in film for example agree on certain films, for example Citizen Kane, but there is nothing to keep an extremely good critic in film from thinking that Citizen Kane is a piece of melodramatic overblown kitsch unworthy of its accolades by the majority.  We cannot assume that she just watched it without perfect serenity of mind, especially given that, as a good judge, she would have seen several performances of that movie in several different circumstances, thus eliminating the problem of an troubled mind on one viewing.  

No comments: