The Literary Life



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Plenty of people would deny that standards for literary taste are important or even desirable. Doesn’t everybody have a right to his or her own tastes? These are important questions for anyone living the literary life and for whom serious literature matters. Who decides what is serious literature anyway?

Just for the sake of having a text to respond to for these questions I have been showing you some things David Hume, our friend from the 18th century, says in Of the Standard of Taste had to say.

I ran into Hume years ago as an undergraduate. It took me years, though, really to appreciate him (or Hume). Maybe it was because I read him in a used textbook from the college bookstore.

Anyway, Hume distinguishes between sentiment and judgment. Sentiment is what most of us think of when we refer to individual tastes. It is solely personal and therefore indisputable.

Literary judgment is something else altogether. Unlike sentiment, judgment resides outside of our selves. If I say I don’t like Steven Spielberg’s movies because I hated E.T. and all his movies were spoiled after that, I am merely expressing my personal sentiment, Hume would say.

But if I condemn outright all Steven Spielberg movies and insist they are all trash produced by an idiot, I am simply showing up myself to be the foolish one. I am displaying my poor taste. Wouldn’t just about anyone agree? Sure I can dislike Spielberg’s movies all I want. But I really cannot judge them based simply on my experience with E.T., can I? Why? Because the standard judgment of Spielberg’s movies is different from my personal sentiment?

What do you think? Use whatever terminology you like, but are there differences between personal and impersonal responses to a work of literature?

So Hume says, “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste: a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and abandoning another.” Hmm.

Artistic beauty, then, Hume goes on to say, appeals to our common sentiments shared by all simply by reason of our being human? Do you agree? Is Hume right? Are we, by chance, human still today in postmodernity the same way Hume thinks of being human in 18th-century mid to upper class England?

While opinions might vary, Hume would continue, emotional responses are universal–to readers of sound judgment.  Alas, there’s the rub.

Not many people have sound judgment; many are uncultivated, confused, inexperienced, not sufficiently educated, or simply apathetic.

Thus, for David Hume, as I partially quoted in an earlier post, “Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it.”

So there you have it; we just need to distinguish between sentiment and judgment? When I figured this out years ago it was an eye-opener, the difference between sentiment and judgment.

Is Hume right? Is there any application to how we think of literary taste today? Perhaps we can change the terminology. But is the dichotomy still relevant?

Make comments. Let’s start a conversation. Re-blog. Re-tweet. Follow The Literary Life. The more readers who are posting comments the better.

Paul Varner




  1. Pat says:

    The rub, to me, is who decides what is sound judgment.


    • Paul Varner says:

      That’s always the rub, isn’t it? In the next few installments I will show you what Hume says. But, isn’t it obvious that somebody or something is determining what the differences are between good taste and bad taste simply because there are some extremes that are so great that almost nobody would see it as good taste? Or extremes that are so great by way of genius, reputation, etc. that to disdain would be to reveal bad taste? If there are extremes which cause no controversy, what about with matters not extreme? What do you think?


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