The Literary Life



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Let’s continue the ideas from the previous posts as we compare our 21st-century ideas of literary taste with those of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume that represent fairly well ideas common until the latter part of the 20th century.

For Hume, as we have seen, the principles of taste are universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all humanity; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty.

Hume bases his claim for “eternal and immutable” taste upon his Enlightenment views of the universality of ideas, and he claims the standards of taste share common sources with the sciences: “Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience; nor are they any thing but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and all ages.”

For most of you today these are extraordinary claims at odds with our cultural assumptions and general democratic principles of human equality.

But Hume piles it on in Of the Standard of Taste. Of poetry specifically, he says “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.”

Of course, even for Hume, there are exceptions to this basic standard. Obviously some poets in English literature prior to the 18th century had not always followed the rules. (Ahem, what about that most un-Enlightenment-like William Shakespeare?) Yeah, but so what, Hume concedes: “If some negligent or irregular writers have pleased,” he obviously sneers, “they have not pleased by their transgressions of rule and order, but in spite of these transgressions.” Ah, David, oh boy.

So there are exceptions to the universal elements of taste. It’s just that for all these poets who don’t follow the rules of order, “They have possessed other beauties, which are conformable to just criticism; and the force of these beauties has been able to overpower censure.”

But regardless of the exceptions, “the general rules of art are founded only upon experience and on the observation of the common sentiments of human nature.” And less we start saying that these ideas leave open to everyone having any opinion about their personal taste, Hume qualifies: “we must not imagine that, on every occasion, the feelings of men will be conformable to these rules.” But, and here’s the point to end this discussion and take up next time, BUT “few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art.” Only the few, the select, and the proud can decide what proper literary taste is.

Let’s take this idea up next time.

But do you agree or not? Write your comments in the comment box. And let’s see your comments no matter when you read this blog. None of the ideas I am approaching are time sensitive.

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


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