David Hume, A Standard of Taste, and Film Criticism
by C.H. Newell
In his essay “Of the Standard of Taste”, David Hume attempts to discern the boundaries of aesthetics, as well as whether taste is an objective observation or if its roots lie in relativity. While some philosophers focus on beauty and sublimity as qualities in an object which produce such reactions, Hume’s sentimentalism focuses on the subject as the source. In other words if Hume lived to see the invention of film his philosophy asserts qualities of beauty and sublimity are found in a film’s audience. Hume is also concerned with the role of the critic. In the cultivation of taste every person exerts both sentiment and critical faculty; sentiment itself is varied by nature, whereas critical faculty is something each individual can refine. Hume’s conclusions on taste fall into two distinct areas divided by scepticism. On one hand, standards of taste in the individual do not concern objects they perceive, but rather rely heavily on the perception of the individual themselves. On the other hand, Hume overcomes his own scepticism by acknowledging primary and secondary qualities in the objects an individual perceives. There is no definitive standard of taste and Hume concludes the susceptible to sentiment which is relative to every individual. It is possible for an individual to hone their critical faculty through “good sense and a delicate imagination”, as well as being “free from prejudice” (Hume 495). Hume is always sceptical these qualities are found in any specific person. Ultimately, he acknowledges “all mankind” can agree such qualities of a good critic are “valuable and estimable” (Hume 495).
Any art is subject to criticism. Although, in this day and age film critics in particular crop up in every corner of the internet. With such widespread accessibility to platforms from which individuals can endlessly put their opinions into the public sphere, how can we determine who is or is not a good critic? Using Hume and his essay as a basis, we first must distinguish between sentiment and critical faculty. Hume writes “all sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself” (Of the Standard of Taste 487). Therefore, if every person exhibits sentiment and all sentiment is right, then it follows no sentiment is wrong. However, this demonstrates the variety of sentiment insofar as every individual has a relative sense of judgment. In addition, this relativity confirms a lack of objectivity within the object of perception. For instance, we cannot perceive any film as objectively the best of all time, as there are no qualities within any film which are definitively beautiful or sublime. Hume confirms this in “Of the Standard of Taste”, as he writes: “No sentiment represents what is really in the object, [but] only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind” (488). As an example, a film critic cannot make objective claims such as “This film is the greatest of all-time” and state them as true. In contrast, a critic can claim this as their individual opinion, however, there is no way to argue for certain this sentiment holds true for all other individuals. Hume believes the critical faculties of individuals will come to a consensus among particular groups. This consensus does not rely on sentiment, but instead comes about through an overall “delicacy of taste” (Hume 491).
Since sentiment is relative, Hume further distinguishes the standard of taste as “confirming one sentiment and condemning another” (Of the Standard of Taste 487). Sentiment cannot act as the standard of taste. If so, there is no way to determine one critic as being better or worse than another. In this sense, critical faculty is of concern to Hume. On page 491, Hume likens an individual’s standard of taste to the “good palate” in terms of flavour: it is not “tried by strong flavours [rather] by a mixture of small ingredients” (Of the Standard of Taste). Moreover, this mixture in terms of a delicacy of taste concerns good sense, the acknowledgement of prejudice, and the act of practice. Hume regards good sense and the acknowledgement of prejudice as interrelated. As an example, if a critic watched a film about a taboo subject like incest and judged the movie as terrible based solely on their prejudice about incest, then through Hume’s view this is not a sensible judgment. At the same time, a different critic who separates themselves from their prejudice about incest is closer to making a proper criticism about the film, whether positive or not. Consequently, a good critic “allow[s] nothing to enter into his consideration [other than] the very object which is submitted to his examination” (Hume 493). In order for a critic to conquer their prejudice, practice is of utmost importance. Through the repetition of practice a critic sheds their prejudice and refines their good sense.
Where a good critic is concerned, Hume also believes their criticism is less likely to come across as hesitant and reserved. Rather, the good critic has feelings which are “more exact and nice” (Hume 492). All this is due to practice. Examining the role of the film critic through Hume’s theory on taste, we must lean more towards the experienced individual, as opposed to paying attention to the criticisms of the “unpractised” (Of the Standard of Taste 492). To demonstrate, many bloggers writing reviews online are unpractised in the sense they not only have no formal training in terms of writing or critical theory. Moreover, these same bloggers often lack the experience of having seen a wide number and variety of films. If a film critic has only watched mostly one genre of film, or if they have only seen a few dozen movies, how can other film fans trust in their criticism? Hume believes such a critic cannot be trusted because “a man, who has had no opportunity of comparing the different kinds of beauty, is indeed totally unqualified to pronounce an opinion with regard to any object presented to him” (Of the Standard of Taste 493). Yet if a film critic has seen thousands of films across a large number of genres, their standard of taste is considered higher and more worthy of attention than the former inexperienced bloggers. Furthermore, Hume considers practice in the good critic similar to a healthy organ in that “the organ acquires greater perfection in its operations” (Of the Standard of Taste 492). For that reason, a good film critic can also be defined by their nature as one who is prolific. As opposed to the unpractised film critic, a good one is productive and writes often. Hume cannot reconcile good criticism with an unproductive nature. It is through the practice and productivity of experience an individual goes from having mere opinion to being a good critic.
The reality of good criticism is acknowledged by Hume in “Of the Standard of Taste”. He further confirms there is no objective rule of taste, but rather individuals come to a consensus among different groups. At the same time, Hume’s essay examines how an individual becomes a good critic. First, the elimination of prejudice is required in order for any criticism to appeal objectively. After avoiding prejudice, it is necessary the good critic is practised. Finally, Hume believes no critic can be good without a wealth of comparison, in the sense their practice also comes with productivity. Although Hume consistently denies the properties of beauty and sublimity lie in the object itself, a certain amount of objectivity in the critic is required to consider their observations good or sound.
Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Good Taste”. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001; pp. 486-499.