Four Dissertations by Enlightenment philosopher David Hume


David Hume was an 18th-century Scottish philosopher, known for his empiricism and scepticism. He was a major figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. 

Hume begins his essay Of the Standard of Taste by discussing whether it is possible to propose a universal system of ethics. He proposes that the mere naming of specific moral attitudes gives the impression that these are desirable, but study of poetry soon makes it clear that different poets, and different cultures, praise different ethical values. He proposes that there is no merit in a notion of a universal morality, and that there can be no general standard of taste. This derives (p. 208) from the idea that there are two ways to consider an object, through judgement and through sentiment. 

What does ‘sentiment’ mean here? 

Judgements, ‘determinations of the understanding’, ‘have a reference to something beyond themselves’, namely ‘real matter of fact’. Because judgements make reference to real facts they can be true or false. But sentiment (in effect, feeling), the way an individual feels about an object, cannot conform – ‘all sentiment is right’ as it derives from the individual’s perception and experience, culture, education, etc. ‘Beauty … exists merely in the mind which contemplates [things]; and each mind perceives a different beauty’. 

What Hume is proposing is that anything can provoke a wide range of reactions of taste; an object has no inherent quality of taste. ‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty’. 

Thus when Burns addresses the mouse or the louse, he is not celebrating humility or an object of a lower status, but showing that a sharply perceptive sensibility can see emotion in any subject. The poem is not about the animal, but about Burns’s projection of the nature of the world and his experience of it on to the creature. Burns invests an apparently insignificant object with emotional significance, partly through the process of addressing it directly.

Full title:
Four Dissertations. I. The Natural History of Religion. II. Of the Passions. III. Of Tragedy. IV. Of the Standard of Taste
1757, London
David Hume
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Public Domain
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British Library

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