Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius VI: The Standard of Taste

The set of questions that Alexander Gerard is inheriting concerning the standard of taste is heavily influenced by the philosophical work of David Hume, so it may be worthwhile to begin with a discussion of Hume's own essay on the subject, Of the Standard of Taste.

The standard of taste is "a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another." Almost immediately we reach a puzzle. One possible position that could be taken is to say that there is no standard of taste. To say that there is a standard of taste is to say that in matters of taste some judgments may be wrong and others right or, at the very least, that some judgments are better than others in some way. But one could hold that as taste is a matter of sentiment, and all sentiments are on a level, not representing anything about the world, that there is no way to engage in such evaluations. As we say, there is no disputing over tastes. Yet we also say things that cut against that proverb. Indeed, in practice no one actually treats all tastes as being on a level. Some differences of taste are so great it is virtually absurd to suggest that they are equally good; some judgments of taste are so extreme that there is no way they can be seriously defended. This suggests that there must be some kind of standard, however limited it may be.

Being an empiricist, Hume denies that the standard of taste could be a priori; art has to be governed by some rules recognized by genius or observation. These rules will be implicit in common human sentiment. The 'common' part is important, since it's the reason why not just any sentiment is equally good, and gives us some grasp on how to determine what the rules are:

Those finer emotions of the mind are of a very tender and delicate nature, and require the concurrence of many favourable circumstances to make them play with facility and exactness, according to their general and established principles. The least exterior hindrance to such small springs, or the least internal disorder, disturbs their motion, and confounds the operation of the whole machine. When we would make an experiment of this nature, and would try the force of any beauty or deformity, we must choose with care a proper time and place, and bring the fancy to a suitable situation and disposition. A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge of the catholic and universal beauty. The relation, which nature has placed between the form and the sentiment will at least be more obscure; and it will require greater accuracy to trace and discern it. We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from the durable admiration, which attends those works, that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy.

Establishing the standard of taste, then, involves removing biases from our sentiments; this by its very nature regularizes our sentiments and gives them a regularity and order. The question of taste is very important for Hume's philosophy, of course, because he regards morality itself as a form of taste.

Gerard, having taken a different route to the question, formulates the problem somewhat differently. Gerard's standard of taste essay is a late addition to his Essay on Taste; it presupposes the previous discussions of taste, which had already argued for taste on reflex-sense grounds. We already by this point can see that novelty, sublimity, and the like are relevant to the judgments of taste, that they are based on internal sense, and that our judgments achieve their full perfection through sensibility, refinement, correctness, and proportion. How is it, then, that we disagree as much as we do? (Many of Gerard's examples of such variation are also found in Hume's discussion.)

Gerard's response, on the basis of his previous account, is that this disagreement is in fact inevitable, for two reasons. First, there is an inequality in the powers from which taste is derived. Second, there are differences in how these powers have been cultivated.

(1) We know, for instance, that there is variation in the external senses. Some people have better eyesight or hearing than others. These can certainly have an effect: color blindness and tone deafness can easily affect one's judgments of art. Even more than these, we can easily recognize that not everyone's internal senses are the same. People don't all equally have the capability to conceive something and keep it clearly in mind. Some people have more lively minds, easily moving from one to the other at a speed that would tire out someone else. Gerard has argued at length that the development of the internal senses is heavily influenced by association; differences in associative ability will thus have an effect. For similar reasons, tastes are affected by the passions, as Hume suggests above: sometimes we're in a cool mood and sometimes in a hot one, and some people are more disposed to one than to the other. Reasoning and the power to compare also have a significant effect on taste, and these are also provinces in which not everyone is equal.

(2) Given all these causes of diversity already implicit in the internal senses, it is unsurprising that differences in cultivation can also create differences. Most people don't develop these capabilities at all, or at least in any consistent way, and so will come up against limitations in their experience. People who have lived only in the wilderness may well appreciate its beauties, but this does not necessarily prepare them for appreciating the beauties of city gardens. Likewise, someone may cultivate a taste in painting and have none in music. We might say that taste is path-dependent: since it is capable of cultivation, differences in taste will arise depending on differences in the paths taken in cultivating it.

We come back again to the problem (ET 207):

Either we must allow that all these different and opposite tastes are equally good, or we must acknowledge that some of them deserve the preference, and that there are means of determining, which these are.

Like Hume, Gerard notes that despite the proverb that tastes are not to be disputed, we in practice are constantly giving the preference to some tastes beyond others. Nobody consistently follows the advice of the maxim. Also like Hume, Gerard suggests that we tend to violate the maxim most when tastes are very different. When we think the difference relatively minor, we tend to cleave to it more carefully. It's a matter of how uneasy the difference makes us. If we are made very uneasy by someone's different taste, we tend not to treat it as equal to our own. When the difference is not very great, says Gerard (ET 210), "we allow ourselves to admit sophistry, that we may banish suspence" -- that is, rather than forcing a choice between the alternatives, we accept any excuse for not having to do so at all. In such a case, uneasiness at the difficulty of having to choose leads us to find a way not to choose, just as previously uneasiness at the sheer difference of another's taste leads us to dismiss it immediately.

Gerard likewise deals explicitly with the argument against a standard of taste that was considered previously by Hume: sentiments have nothing to do with external objects as such, and therefore there's no real sense in saying that they are right or wrong. Gerard, however, is much harsher with the argument than Hume is, and argues that it has a number of problems. First, it ends up being too strong. If we look at the features on the basis of which people say that sentiment is merely a matter of how objects fit with us, so to speak, and so tells us nothing that can be right or wrong, they are all shared by the external senses. External senses are also in some sense relative to us, having the same kinds of variations as the internal senses. In addition, Gerard thinks the basic supposition of the argument is wrong: sentiments do tell us things about objects, and we can't make sense of them without recognizing this (ET 214):

It is not a copy of any thing exterior; but it is the result of it : it is not an image of a quality inherent in the object; but it is the natural effect of it : and when a quality acknowledged to exist in an object, fails of producing its natural and usual effect upon a person, the failure indicates a deficience or perversion in that person's organs.

The third reason why the argument fails is that taste is not purely a matter of sentiment; it is sentiment organized by judgment, and having this judgment component guarantees that there is at least some kind of standard applicable to the situation.

If we continue this idea, we can distinguish between taste insofar as it is sensation and taste insofar as it is discernment. In the former sense it is just our capacity to be pleased by certain kinds of features of objects and to be pained by others. This "direct exercise" (ET 215) does not in and of itself admit of a standard; it's just the reaction of our minds to the world. In the second sense, however,

it is a faculty by which we judge the true causes of our pleasure or of our dislike; by a reflex act, it discerns the several qualities which are fit to excite pleasure or disgust; it estimates the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction which every object ought to produce.

Gerard had noted that we do use our sentiments to determine things about the external world, as indicators rather than direct presentations. But given that we do so, it obviously becomes legitimate to ask whether we are doing so reasonably or not. Given the differences at the level of sensation, the point of a standard of taste can never be to reconcile all tastes; it can, however, distinguish between better and worse tastes, due to the fact that taste is not merely sensation but also discernment. And we see precisely this, in fact, in the social character of taste: if I do not have a musical ear, I will defer to those who do rather than simply resting with my own sensations; if I have not studied sculpture, I at least let my judgments be informed by those who have rather than simply assessing statues on the basis of gut reaction.

There's an analogy to this in the way we use our reason to correct our senses. We know that the senses can fool us. But reason can compensate for that fact. Likewise, we can easily recognize that we sometimes don't have good taste. And, in the same way, reason can compensate for that.

We must, however, avoid certain mistakes when it comes to the standard of taste. One is to oversimplify and treat the differences in taste as simply incidental features that can be cleared away (Gerard gives Burke as an example). Another, which Gerard attributes in varying degrees to Hume, Kames, and du Bos, is to put too much emphasis on consensus. The standard of taste cannot simply be read off of common agreement. In determining what 'everyone' holds, we aren't actually counting everyone: some people are left aside as not having had the right kinds of experience or education, for instance. Others may not have considered the question. As Gerard points out, when we say that everyone recognizes the superior excellences of Homer, we aren't actually saying that (say) the Chinese have all read Homer and agreed with the Europeans. It doesn't even mean that China would agree with Europe; it could be that the tastes in the two places are sufficiently divergent that it is hard for each to appreciate fully the excellences of the art of the other. It also raises the question of how we handle rediscoveries and new kinds of art. It is difficult to see what the general approbation could be, or at least what any general approbation that could be straightforwardly applied to matters of taste could be. Serious recognition of a standard of taste requires recognition of the fact that it often takes study, careful philosophical inquiry into causes, and profound analysis. To the extent that general approbation of any kind has any force for taste, it is for different reasons (ET 248-249):

When we deny that general approbation is the proper or immediate standard, we are far from insinuating that it is of no account. It is of very great account. Though it be not itself the standard, it is the materials of which the standard must be composed: it is the block from which it must be hewed out: it is the principal of those ingredients from which it must be extracted. It holds the same place in this enquiry, that experiments and observations concerning the real phænomena of things, hold in physical investigations of the laws of the material world. It is from the experiments and observations, that all just conclusions concerning these laws must be deduced; it is only by examining and comparing them, that the laws of nature can be discovered: that cannot be truly a law of nature, which is contradictory to the phænomena; however plausible it may appear, however strongly supported by some of them, there must be an error in the reasoning by which it is inferred: such error may very readily be committed; many false hypotheses have been adopted in natural philosophy; but it will not follow, that we ought to rest satisfied with observing the phænomena, not attempting to investigate the laws according to which they are produced, or that these laws may not be traced out successfully by a more careful and skilful induction,: when any general law is traced out, it accounts for phænomena which at first sight appear unaccountable; it reconciles such as appear discordant and often shews that they proceed from the fame principle differently modified; it answers many purposes which could not be answered by a mere collection of the experiments from which it is inferred. All this is directly and without difficulty applicable to our present subject.

In other words, the critic is taking human sentiment and tracing its causes, making sense of it and setting it in order. The general approbation is part of what a critic has to consider. This consists in practice of seeing how various qualities that are fit to please are related to each other, and seeing how they interact with each other in a given work. And if Gerard's account of taste is right, it is an inquiry well worth the work.

So that is Gerard on taste and genius. We usually think of these things as having to do with aesthetics; but as we've seen, the topic continually raises important questions for other fields, like epistemology and ethics.

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