Research - Taste - Kant, Hume, Bell and aesthetics / by Ally McGinn

A term I've been considering a great deal lately is the idea of taste, and the ways we are drawn to things. Many of the works I'm drawn to conceptually, attempt to deny factors of taste, by definition. While the draw towards some form of aesthetic ‘rightness,' at least in my studio practice, continues, both consciously and subconsciously. This is a point in my studio practice that I am attempting to work through.

Taste is generally considered to be subjective; everyone likes different things. However, there is also a tendency towards a particular aesthetic quality in some works. Put in a room full of artworks many people will like similar things, and some artworks feel ‘right’ to some majority. Entirely anecdotal these two statements have been considered valid enough to debate, for centuries.

The philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant both explored the notion of taste and this disparity between the perceived truth that no taste is superior and the more visceral sense that there is some aesthetic hierarchy that is yet undefined. (Janaway, 2006)

To Hume, it could be broken down to an issue of education and experience. Taste is a skill that can be taught, leading to an eventual consensus and a universal ‘standard of taste.'

Hume believed that we are creatures more defined by our feelings than any rationality. That we are mostly guided by our feelings, to which rationality is often later used to back up the initial feeling. We reason from, rather than to our convictions. (Janaway, 2006)

Hume believed that our feelings, or passions, could be developed, taste is one of them.

I find myself very drawn to this idea, or more accurately, to the lens Hume views human beings through.

In a classic example, Hume described a taste test. Two people taste the same cask of wine; one notes a metallic note, and the other a leathery one. Both are ridiculed for their assessments until a key on a leather thong is found at the bottom of the barrel. This case highlights an important distinction, the difference between ‘bodily taste’ and ‘mental taste.' Bodily taste can be described as the objective features that we observe and use to justify our judgment of taste; the metallic or leathery notes found in the barrel are located in the wine and are not, as the people ridiculing the tasters assumed, due to the refinement of their palette or their perception of taste. (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

The critical factor, for Hume it seems, is the removal of personal preference and prejudice in the judgment of taste. The difference between ‘Is this good?’ and ‘Do I like it?’.

This is a way of understanding our ‘faculty of taste’. We must attempt to operate this faculty from an unbiased perspective, with a knowledge of sorts, and with a considered argument justifying the judgment of taste.

Hume saw the faculty of taste as defined by five key criteria;

  • Good sense
  • Delicacy/refinement of sentiment
  • Practice
  • No prejudice
  • Comparison

Hume did not assume that all viewers of artwork should be ideal critics, but more highlighted the philosophical conundrum surrounding the issue of taste. Objectivism is critical, but only when we understand our subjectivity. (Intersubjective??)

Tangential thought/link - The only accurate judgment is one, using Hume’s view, that can stand the test of time, and can be expanded into the test of culture. Moving the artwork through time and location should not change the judgment of the ideal critic, which could suggest that the ideal critic does not exist? (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

To Kant, it was more an issue of beauty. He argued that the judgment of taste is grounded in the artwork, not our perception of it. This is a complicated argument because the ingredients of beauty cannot be explained entirely, there are some things considered beautiful to most, a sunset, roses.

There are thousands of ‘beautiful’ paintings. (It is worth noting that there are certain ‘rules’ of beauty - including theories about symmetry, etc., but that is a tangent I won't follow here)

The point remains that Kant saw beauty (vital for taste) as intrinsic to specific objects and images. Beauty, to Kant, requires ‘purposiveness without purpose.' (Kant, 2007) For an object to be purposive, it needs to have that ‘rightness’ that some objects have.

Kant argues that we see an object as beautiful because it promotes a feeling of harmony in the viewer. The generation of feeling comes from the object, not the viewer. Therefore it is intrinsic to the beautiful object.

Kant influenced a great many critics, artists, and thinkers.  His work on art was not limited to ideas of beauty, and he certainly didn't believe that all art should be beautiful. Kant believed that for a real experience of beauty the viewer must remain distanced from the object, an uncontaminated experience (independent from purpose). (Kant, 2007)

Aesthetic judgments have a normative aspect, explained basically - we either agree or disagree with them. Kant believed that we all share a type of ‘common sense’ in which we are all constructed in the same fundamental cognitive way - if one person likes something, it should hold that another can and does as well. This is an important idea, given the prevalence of art in human culture, taste is a part of the artworld, and our shared ability to experience artworks allow these conversations to take place. (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

Edward Bullough continued Kant's aesthetic theories to say that a viewer needs a degree of ‘psychical distance’ to view an artwork. A degree of open-mindedness. He argued that the inclusion of political or sexual issues would only take away from the aesthetic experience and understanding. (Janaway, 2006)

When seen like this I would argue that both Hume and Kant can be correct. Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is some element of beauty is intrinsic to the work, and aesthetic beauty can be almost universally acknowledged but the appreciation of that beauty. Moreover, the beauty found in a conceptual idea, a social statement or a witty commentary is a skill that can be honed, or expanded merely with knowledge and experience.

When thinking about taste, the physical form of the artwork is fundamental; it is the way the work is experienced. Clive Bell, an art critic, coined the term ‘significant form’ in 1914. He was talking about the combination of certain qualities that together form something that people respond to on an aesthetic level or the idea that some artworks are liked due to some underlying, and undefinable, aesthetic ‘rightness’ – Beauty - a word fraught with conflicting associations in the art world. Seen as a positive by many it is often considered unfavorable for an artist, certainly for current art students. For something to exist without needing the foundation of a well thought out context or concept, it needs to be able to rely on something else. Beauty is often the alternative. These works are art, as defined by their artistic creator, so in many ways, art can stand without context or content, but there needs to be an alternative foundation. It would be difficult to conceive of an artwork without any of it. It is worth noting here that Bell acknowledged that a critic could inform a viewer's knowledge of significant form. (Freeland, 2002)

Bell, Hume, and Kant (and others) seem to agree that to appreciate beauty the work must separate itself from other concerns. Maybe the closest we can get to that separation involves an appropriate perspective.


Regarding my practice, this research has helped highlight the importance of recognising my personal preferences in a work of art. While I've been working on my faculty of taste over the years of study, it has been more externally focused. The application of this faculty in my practice is a fundamental skill I can improve, with firmer knowledge of it I hope to be able to apply a more precise perspective to the visual ‘editing.' One free of my personal preferences - which I can already say includes a sometimes overwhelming visual aesthetic, and a tendency to lean towards an aesthetic ‘rightness,' which can be detrimental to the work.


Freeland, C. (2002) But is it Art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Janaway, C. (2006) Reading Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art: Selected texts with interactive commentary. Pondicherry: Blackwell Publishing.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Philosophy Bites (2017) ‘Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann on Disagreement About Taste’, Aesthetics Bites. [Podcast] Available from: [Accessed 01.11.17].


The image I've used to illustrate this post can be accessed here -