David Hume on the Perception of Beauty

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was a moral philosopher, historian, and leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment. In an essay entitled, “Of the Standard of Taste,” included at the end of Part I of the Liberty Fund collection of his essays, Hume outlines his perception-and-contemplation-driven account of judgements concerning taste and beauty:

On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because 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; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being. Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter. (FROM ESSAY XXIII: OF THE STANDARD OF TASTE) - David Hume

In this quote, Hume stresses that beauty is not a quality of objects in themselves; nor is it located in the “eye of the beholder.” No, beauty is a descriptive quality (or an aesthetic sense) that originates in the thinking mind of an observer, who judges and thereafter deems something to be “beautiful.” In other words, beauty is a subjective finding, because as Hume says in this very quote, “each mind perceives a different beauty.” Different individuals with different minds—shaped by different experiences and carrying different preconceptions—can, and often do make different evaluations of what is and what is not “beautiful.” In the most extreme cases, Hume says, what is “beautiful” to one person might appear “deformed” to another.

For this reason, Hume counsels against trying to come up with objective guides for taste and for beauty. As he writes near the beginning of the essay, “We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension: But soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.” In a similar vein Hume suggests it would be “fruitless” to come up with a ‘gold standard’ (“the real beauty”) for either evaluative judgement. Rather Hume uses normative language (“ought”) to argue that everyone should “acquiesce” (from the Latin, “to rest”) in their own judgements of what is beautiful (or ugly) and in high (or poor) taste. If others do not share these judgements, Hume says, so be it. If in his view discovering true beauty or deformity is impossible even for a singular observer as an academic exercise, then it is no surprise that Hume would warn against attempts to impose alternative standards of taste and beauty-judgement on those with their own views in the real world. Under such circumstances an intellectual problem becomes a social and political one, particularly insofar as coercion is employed to try to standardize differing judgements of beauty and taste.

*“De gustibus non est disputandum.” *