Had we but world enough and time: A critique of Hume’s test of time



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In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume lays out his aesthetic account that aims first to show that aesthetic relativism is untenable by arguing that the taste of all individuals is not upon equal footing, and, second, to provide a standard of taste, which praises proper, and condemns improper, critical judgment. The special pleasure that leads to the idea of beauty, for Hume, arises in the subject when certain beauty-making features inherent in the object are triggered by their interaction with the subject’s mind. The standard of taste is the joint verdict of true critics, who are idealized detectors of such pleasurable sentiments. A way to see the idealized true critics’ empirical embodiment is, for Hume, to conceive of the test of time that shows us works of art that true critics would pick out over time and across cultures. However, I argue that the test of time may be iatrogenic. That is, the test of time may bring about the very aesthetic relativism that it is supposed to inoculate against by unintentionally allowing for “false positives” and “false negatives.” Both outcomes reveal that not only does the test of time sometimes simply gets things wrong but, worse, it can lead to aesthetic chauvinism.



Aesthetics, Hume, History of Philosophy