Tuesday, September 3, 2013

hume's lesson to the critic

is this a "distorted" portrait of david hume? does it matter?

it's hard to emulate hume's free spirit and honest inquiry, which is perhaps why the great emmanuel kant acknowledged that hume had awoken him from his "dogmatic slumber". a humean insight for the critic is the pervasive & lurking possibility of self-delusion (his worst fear). what follows is not "aesthetics" in that german sense of the eighteenth century tradition. hume is engaging in a broader philosophical discussion about human nature and criticism is an important part of this discussion (in that it pertains a select group of pleasures). here, i casually revise some of hume's advice for the critic (as he elaborates a sort of critic's manifesto).

of the standards of taste.
#12. It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind.
"caprice of taste"? let's separate matters of fact from opinion. "taste" --in humean-- is not an objective property of the world, like, say "solidity." taste is subjective but a matter of agreement between like-minded people (cultural habits grounded in common sense). there are two kinds of common sense: one relativistic, which defends the premise that "all sentiment is right," from which "the proverb has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes," and the other, (cautiously pluralist), holding that "some tastes are sounder than others." 
 #14. One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy, than has hitherto been attempted.
what is this delicacy? hume reiterates,
Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition...
can these "organs" be developed? sure. but here's the problem:
To produce these general rules or avowed patterns of composition is like finding the key with the leathern thong; which justified the verdict of Sancho's kinsmen, and confounded those pretended judges who had condemned them. Though the hogshead had never been emptied, the taste of the one was still equally delicate, and that of the other equally dull and languid: But it would have been more difficult to have proved the superiority of the former, to the conviction of every by-stander. In like manner, though the beauties of writing had never been methodized, or reduced to general principles; though no excellent models had ever been acknowledged; the different degrees of taste would still have subsisted, and the judgment of one man had been preferable to that of another; but it would not have been so easy to silence the bad critic, who might always insist upon his particular sentiment, and refuse to submit to his antagonist.
though "the judgment of one man is "preferable to that of another," my blue above suggests that standards of taste cannot be demonstrated (though hume is precisely doing that?). unless hume goes the kantian route of sensus communis. a dispute of taste can have at the other end a "bad critic" not easy to silence.  hume doesn't say impossible to silence. but isn't that the case with most things concerning value? one cannot pretend to settle moral issues with "all-right-angles-are-congruent" kind of statements. if the bad critic can be silenced it means not that he gives up, but that the other side has a better argument. is bad wine bad? better, it the badness in the juice? hume doesn't budge here. validity in taste (if one can speak of such a thing) is not out-there in the world, but within a community of taste-holders (is it an intersubjective property?)

is objectivity (of the critic) possible?
#21. But to enable a critic the more fully to execute this undertaking, he must preserve his mind free from all prejudice, and allow nothing to enter into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination.
this is interesting. objects --for hume-- can only elicit expressions of taste, which are not direct impressions on the senses but instead responses to "sensory impressions."
We may observe, that every work of art, in order to produce its due effect on the mind, must be surveyed in a certain point of view, and not be fully relished by persons, whose situation, real or imaginary, is not conformable to that which is required by the performance. An orator addresses himself to a particular audience, and must have a regard to their particular genius, interests, opinions, passions, and prejudices; otherwise he hopes in vain to govern their resolutions, and inflame their affections.
my green above points to hume's explicit regard for context, i.e., an epochal social convention.
Should they even have entertained some prepossessions against him, however unreasonable, he must not overlook this disadvantage; but, before he enters upon the subject, must endeavour to conciliate their affection, and acquire their good graces. 
from #23 it seems that taste depends of an informed negotiation (hume doesn't believe that taste reflects on facts on the world, but more a sort of ability to approve or disapprove). if so, how should the critic address her own biases?
A critic (...) when any work is addressed to the public, though I should have a friendship or enmity with the author, I must depart from this situation; and considering myself as a man in general, forget, if possible, my individual being and my peculiar circumstances
we know that hume's brand of emotivism will not allow him to put facts and sentiments in the same order.
Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles. They either labour under some defect, or are vitiated by some disorder; and by that means, excite a sentiment, which may be pronounced erroneous.
hume suggests five qualities to fight "erroneous judgement": 1- delicacy: "When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded." delicacy is a sort of fine-tuning of the senses. hume believed that senses can be modified through "habit," an important cipher in humean epistemology. education will not merely "convince us, that the mind is not altogether stubborn and inflexible, but will admit of many alterations from its original make and structure."

2- practice: "Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation."
practice shows a commitment to experience. let's recall that hume believes that that the ideas of cause and effect are distinct from each other, and thus there can be no "absolute contradiction and impossibility of conceiving" the occurrence of one without that of the other. if inferences from cause to effect are not grounded in any purely deductive reasoning, they need to be guided by experience.

3- comparison: "Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects., are the object of his admiration."

4- prejudice: "Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted." this is the problem of bias. in his treatise hume makes a distinction between rational or probable beliefs, adequately supported by experience, and irrational beliefs based merely on prejudice or hasty generalisations. hume is as johnsonian as he can be.

5- finally good sense: "Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent."  having a propensity is having a certain disposition. for hume not every psychological statement is such that its truth requires the existence of actual perceptions in the mind. so, if a person is not in a state such that, when he gets a certain belief he will be led to act in a certain way, mere belief alone will not suffice to lead him to act in that way. but there is still a perfectly "good sense" in which without the desire or propensity the belief would never lead to action. so,
Under some or other of these imperfections, the generality of men labour; and hence a true judge in the finer arts is observed, even during the most polished ages, to be so rare a character; Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty. 
#30. One person is more pleased with the sublime; another with the tender; a third with raillery (i love this word). One has a strong sensibility to blemishes, and is extremely studious of correctness: Another has a more lively feeling of beauties, and pardons twenty absurdities and defects for one elevated or pathetic stroke. The ear of this man is entirely turned towards conciseness and energy; that man is delighted with a copious, rich, and harmonious expression. Simplicity is affected by one; ornament by another. Comedy, tragedy, satire, odes, have each its partisans, who prefer that particular species of writing to all others.

so far so good. now this paragraph:
It is plainly an error in a critic, to confine his approbation to one species or style of writing, and condemn all the rest. But it is almost impossible not to feel a predilection for that which suits our particular turn and disposition. Such preferences are innocent and unavoidable, and can never reasonably be the object of dispute, because there is no standard, by which they can be decided. 
(one more proof of hume's pluralism, which is informed by his epistemological skepticism) though i agree with the red, what is he really saying in blue? what is the place for "our particular turn" once one realizes one's own bias?

(to be continued...)

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