Thursday, February 28, 2008

Literary Criticism, David Hume, & Bertrand Russell

Eight months ago, one of my very best friends gave birth to a little girl. I first saw her the next day, as she was being changed, and she unexpectedly (and to her father’s chagrin) peed all over the place. ‘A natural born critic,’ was my quick reply, and we all smiled while her father washed up.

David Hume, writing in Of the Standard of Taste, claims that ‘it is natural to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled’ (Bizzell 831). In other words, he is asking us to submit that a universal bar of good taste exists in the world, and all men are seeking this universal bar through different methods and with different opinions.

Hume goes on to say that the critic with a narrow view who is unable to grant that an opposing view has merit whether he agrees with it or not can be persuaded that when shown ‘an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste, he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove, that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence;’ this critic must conclude that the dissonance lies not in the artistic principles, but in himself (Bizzell 834). Hume is claiming again that this universal bar of good taste can be evaluated, and offers as a method of evaluation the comparison of different works to prove a principle before returning to the work at hand and applying said principle. On face value, this seems to be a logical and adequate statement to make.

But as Bertrand Russell points out in The History of Western Philosophy, Hume claims in his famous Treatise of Human Nature that ‘abstract ideas are in themselves individual, however they may become general in their representation’ (661). He further states that when ‘we have found a resemblance among several objects, we apply the same name to all of them.’ I would submit that ‘good taste’ is itself an abstract idea, and as such cannot be represented apart from things that meet its criteria. Russell goes further, claiming that a common name, such as ‘cat,’ is ‘just as unreal as the universal CAT is’ (661). Christening something with the label of ‘good taste’ is has just as little meaning as the strange concept of having Good Taste be essentially a collection of ideas and techniques that are represented in things that are appealing to the educated mind.

Hume goes on in his Treatise to claim that there is no connection between any two things, and that merely the ‘sight of A causes the expectation of B, and so leads us to believe that there is a necessary connection between A and B. The inference is not determined by reason, since that would require us to assume the uniformity of nature, which itself is not necessary, but only inferred from experience’ (Russell 665). In other words, we have no real reason to think things that have been true in the past will be true on the future. Applying this to literary criticism, one must question whether something that has been deemed to be in ‘good taste’ by a significant portion of the critical audience will continue to be so in the future. Many works of art or artists come in and out of vogue as time passes; the best example in our studies would likely be Aristotle, whose studies were essentially ignored for many centuries. But in the 20th century, Will Durant said of Aristotle, ‘no other philosopher has contributed so much to the enlightenment of the world.’ And one need only to look at various fashion trends over the last fifty years to see how things once in good taste no longer are thought to be so.

Hume had fascinating ideas concerning the nature of criticism, many of which remain accurate and true to this day. Yet he seems to miss in Of the Standard of Taste, the very thing he warns against in his Treatise: that the representation of universal ideas can become general, and that at that point it is near impossible to apply universal rules to a concept, whether it be literary criticism or something else.

1 comment:

Deb said...

And the seeds of cognitive grammar are planted.

Nice comparison of two of Hume's works. It is good to look at a corpus of work to understand an author. At the same time, I hope I am not tied to words in my earlier works, but perhaps that is one hallmark of a social phobe. Of course, Hume writes from a philosophical perspective, where as I look at technology, which is ever changing, thus almost without truth or universals. Which of these works was latest? It would be interesting to add time as a variable to the analysis.