Topics Worth Investigating

  1. David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Immanuel Kant, among other writers, deny that taste is a single, unique faculty. How does this assumption logically help avoid the conclusion that ęsthetic qualities are essentially subjective?

  2. Contrast the essays by David Hume and Edmund Burke on taste. Although they have many ideas in common, do both philosophers agree that standards of taste can be established by experimental methods? Do Hume and Burke agree that standards of taste less often disputed than standards or reason? How can this agreement be so if standards of taste are subjectively established?

  3. Francis Hutcheson writes that all persons have a passive power of apprehending the beauty of uniformity and variety:

    It is of no consequence whether we call these Ideas of Beauty and Harmony, Perceptions of the External Senses of Seeing and Hearing, or not. I should rather chuse to call our Power of perceiving these Ideas, an Internal Sense, were it only for the Convenience of distinguishing them from other Sensations of Seeing and Hearing, which men may have without Perception of Beauty and Harmony. [1]

    What reasons does Burke adduce in his essay "On Taste" to oppose this hypostasized faculty?

  4. William Fleming in his Vocabulary of Philosophy defines "sensibility" as follows:

    … a general term to denote the capacity of feeling, as distinguished from intellect and will. It includes sensations both external and internal, whether derived from contemplating outward and material objects, or relations and ideas, desires, affections, passions. It also includes the sentiments of the sublime and beautiful, the moral sentiment and the religious sentiment; and, in short, every modification of feeling of which we are susceptible.…[2]

    How well does this definition fit Burke's use of the term "sensibility" in his essay "On Taste"? How does Burke's characterization of "sensibility" differ from Fleming's? How does Burke relate the faculty of sensibility to imagination?

  5. Immanuel Kant argues that Burke's psychological account of beauty and the sublime leads to ęsthetic relativism:

    The transcendental exposition of ęsthetic judgements now brought to a close may be compared with the physiological, as worked out by Burke and many acute men among us, so that we may see where a merely empirical exposition of the sublime and beautiful would bring us. Burke, who deserves to be called the foremost author in this method of treatment, deduces, on these lines, "that the feeling of the sublime is grounded on the impulse towards self-preservation and on fear, i.e., on a pain…" Hence if the import of the judgement of taste, where we appraise it as a judgement entitled to require the concurrence of every one, cannot be egoistic, but must necessarily, from its inner nature, be allowed a pluralistic validity, i.e., on account of what taste itself is, and not on account of the examples which others give of their taste, then it must found upon some ą priori principle (be it subjective or objective), and no amount of prying into the empirical laws of the changes that go on within the mind can succeed in establishing such a principle.[3]

    Evaluate to what extent Kant's criticism prevents Burke's analysis of the beautiful and sublime from being universally applicable to human beings.

  6. Burke argues that good taste does not directly depend upon knowledge of the world in his analysis of the story of the ancient painter and the shoemaker:

    The shoemaker set the painter right with regard to some mistakes he had made in the shoe of one of his figures, and which the painter, who had not made such accurate observations on shoes, and was content with a general resemblance, had never observed. But this was no impeachment to the taste of the painter; it only showed some want of knowledge in the art of making shoes.… On the subject of their dislike there is a difference … arising from the different kinds and degrees of their knowledge; but there is something in common to the painter, the shoemaker, … the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated.… So far as taste is natural, it is nearly common to all.

    In point of fact, Sir Joshua Reynolds, perhaps the foremost portrait artist of the Enlightenment, is said to have painted a hat both on the head and under the arm of his subject.[4] Would the incongruity in the picture overshadow any pleasure of the beauty of the painting?



Francis Hutcheson. An Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. London: J. Barby, et. al. 1725. I: X.


William Fleming. Vocabulary of Philosophy. In A Vocabulary of the Philosophical Sciences. Charles P. Krauth. New York: Sheldon & Company. 1878. 463.


Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment. 1790. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1911. Section 1. Book 2. ¶ 29.


The Book of Lists, 472.