9.3 What Is the Nature of the Experience of Beauty? – Hutcheson and Hume


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • How the empiricists of early modern Britain were concerned primarily with the experience of beauty.
  • How Frances Hutcheson argued that we possess a specific faculty of mind he called our Sense of Taste.
  • How David Hume refined this idea and showed that although our tastes our subjective, we can find guidance in knowing which arts are most worthy of our interest by trusting the opinions of Ideal Critics.

When we look at aesthetics in the early modern period of European philosophy, the dominant question is not whether art has social value, but “What is the nature of the artistic experience?” What makes it unique from other kinds of human experience? The 18th century age of Enlightenment saw the explosion of empiricism in Europe, especially in Great Britain (See Chapter 4.2.3 above). Empiricism generally held that all knowledge comes primarily from our experience, not from innate ideas. This would include our aesthetic judgments and evaluations as well — our notions of beauty and artistic value would emerge from our perceptions of artworks and other beautiful objects. Hume’s empiricism took the internal nature of experience to its extreme and suggested that there is no basis for believing in an objective world.


Frances Hutcheson was an Irish philosopher born in Ulster to a family of Scottish Presbyterians who became known as one of the founding fathers of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University and is remembered as author of A System of Moral Philosophy. He wrote during the Baroque age of Western art.

Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746)

Hutcheson may further be regarded as one of the earliest modern writers on aesthetics. His speculations on this subject are contained in the Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design, the first of the two treatises published in 1725. Hutcheson begins his discussion about aesthetics by embedding it within the empiricist distinction between simple ideas of sensation and complex ideas.

The only Pleasure of Sense, which many Philosophers seem to consider, is that which accompanys the simple Ideas of Sensation: But there are far greater Pleasures in those complex Ideas of Objects, which obtain the Names of Beautiful, Regular, Harmonious. Thus every one acknowledges he is more delighted with a fine Face, a just Picture, than with the View of any one Colour, were it as strong and lively as possible; and more pleas’d with a Prospect of the Sun arising among settled Clouds, and colouring their Edges, with a starry Hemisphere, a fine Landskip, a regular Building, than with a clear blue Sky, a smooth Sea, or a large open Plain, not diversified by Woods, Hills, Waters, Buildings: And yet even these latter Appearances are not quite simple. So in Musick, the Pleasure of fine Composition is incomparably greater than that of any one Note, how sweet, full, or swelling soever. (Inquiry, I.VII)

Portrait of Sir John Rushout turned slightly to the right, face forward, wearing a red coat.
Sir John Rushout, 4th Baronet (1716)

The experience of simple ideas of sensation like a color, a musical note, a texture he describes as “external” sense experiences. We humans share these with the animals. But the deeper, “internal” sense of beauty is unique to human beings. (Inquiry, I.X1). Hutcheson further wants to describe this internal sensation as not requiring knowledge or categorization. It is an unmediated sensation of the beautiful.

This superior Power of Perception is justly called a Sense, because of its Affinity to the other Senses in this, that the Pleasure is different from any Knowledge of Principles, Proportions, Causes, or of the Usefulness of the Object; we are struck at the first with the Beauty: nor does the most accurate Knowledge increase this Pleasure of Beauty, however it may superadd a distinct rational Pleasure from Prospects of Advantage, or may bring along that peculiar kind of Pleasure, which attends the Increase of Knowledge (Inquiry, I.XII).

In this distinction Hutcheson thus argues that the pleasure derived from perception of the beautiful is a unique faculty of the mind. This encounter with beauty evokes a direct, unmediated, and universal sensation that activates an internal faculty in us, a sense of taste.

For Hutcheson, one important characteristic of this unique experience is that it evokes a disinterested pleasure. Hutcheson argued that when we perceive something as beautiful, the pleasure we take in it is disinterested – meaning we appreciate and enjoy it for its own sake, not because it brings us any practical or material benefit. We appreciate beauty in a selfless way, without concern for what advantage or profit we can gain from it. The appreciation is not driven by our self-interest. For example, we enjoy a beautiful sunset simply because of the delightful visual sensations it gives us. We don’t look at it wondering “how can this sunset make me rich?” Rather, we contemplate it with a sort of virtuous, uncaused delight at its loveliness. This is unlike our interest in more tangible things – for example, we are interested in money or food because owning or consuming them is practically useful for us. But beautiful things give us a different, higher type of pleasure.

A second important feature of this experience is that relies upon perceiving a harmony or balance between uniformity and variety.

The Figures which excite in us the Ideas of Beauty, seem to be those in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety. There are many Conceptions of Objects which are agreeable upon other accounts, such as Grandeur, Novelty, Sanctity and some others, which shall be mention’d hereafter. But what we call Beautiful in Objects, to speak in the Mathematical Style, seems to be in a compound Ratio of Uniformity and Variety: so that where the Uniformity of Bodys is equal, the Beauty is as the Variety; and where the Variety is equal, the Beauty is as the Uniformity. (Inquiry, II.III)

For Hutcheson, beauty results from balancing aspects of similarity and unity in an object along with contrast and uniqueness. There is attraction in seeing divergence and novelty emerging out of an orderly whole. Too much uniformity leads to bland boredom while excess variety approaches disorderly chaos. Art requires resolving unity with change.

Hutcheson also made a distinction between Absolute Beauty and Relative Beauty. Absolute Beauty refers to beauty that results from uniformity amidst variety in the very intrinsic form, shape, or structure of an object. It is beauty in the exact proportions, colors, arrangement of something irrespective of external relationships or subjective preferences. It results purely from the objective design qualities rather than anything extraneous. Relative Beauty, by contrast, describes beauty that emerges relative to subjective judgments and changing cultural ideas, individual tastes, customs, moral beliefs, or views on utility. It involves comparatives and rests on subjective mental acts of comparing objects to arbitrary standards external to the things themselves.

An example may help illustrate the difference. The Parthenon’s architectural symmetry, unity of elements and perfect Golden Ratio proportions reflected absolute beauty for Hutcheson. The building had inherent design excellence. On the other hand, finding a certain hair color or clothing style fashionably beautiful depends on relativistic, changing cultural norms and personal appetites external to the hair or clothing themselves.

In conclusion, Hutcheson articulated the idea that humans possess an innate, inner moral and aesthetic sense of taste that immediately perceives and feels beauty without rational deliberation or self-interest. It involves direct emotional appreciation via intuition. This internal sense apprehends both absolute, intrinsic beauty in objects and formal excellence irrespective of utility. The pleasure and approval of beauty via this sense of taste is disinterested and not grounded in seeing utility, serving virtue or meeting biological needs. This inner faculty of taste provides universal foundations for claims about beauty amidst disagreement. In many ways, Hutcheson originating the idea of a special internal sense that immediately, pleasurably and disinterestedly perceives beauty paved the way for much of subsequent aesthetics.


We met David Hume in our section on empiricism [4.2.3] and found him to be one of the most important empiricists of the age. He wrote on aesthetics in what has come to be known as the Neo-Classical era of Western art.

Hume denied we could have rational foundations for our moral beliefs, that there were no universal principles behind them, but instead ascribed them to a particular kind of “feeling.” In section two of his A Treatise On Human Nature he argued that

The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration. We go no farther; nor do we enquire into the cause of the satisfaction. We do not infer a character to be virtuous, because it pleases: But in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous. The case is the same as in our judgments concerning all kinds of beauty, and tastes, and sensations. (Treatise, II).

Our judgments of beauty are likewise derived from a similar subjective emotional faculty. As the Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it,

This moral and aesthetic subjectivism attracts Hume for the same reason that it attracts Hutcheson. The appeal to sentiment offers a middle position between the two prevailing theories within English letters, Hobbesian egoism and ethical rationalism. Hutcheson holds that virtue and beauty are not qualities of the people and things to which they are attributed. We may speak as if objects and people have moral and aesthetic properties, but the relevant property is merely an “idea raised in us.” Hume alters Hutcheson’s theory by imposing his own philosophical vocabulary, making beauty an impression rather than an idea. But they agree that to describe a person as virtuous or an object as beautiful is to make a claim about their tendency to cause a certain response.1

Hume’s most important ideas about the aesthetic experience come to us from a short treatise entitled “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757). In writing this short essay Hume sought to remedy a contradiction in the thought of Hutcheson. Recall, Hutcheson had argued although our judgments of taste are subjective, they also all recognize certain objective principles, chief among them the interplay of uniformity and variety. Hume also noted that although our experiences of taste are subjective, we seem to be able to say that some expressions of art are more beautiful, better than others. This “paradox of taste” implies a standard outside of our personal preferences. How can this be?

Common sense reveals to us that there is among us all a wide variety of taste. His essay begins,

The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation. Men of the most confined knowledge are able to remark a difference of taste in the narrow circle of their acquaintance, even where the persons have been educated under the same government and have early imbibed the same prejudices. (Paragraph 1)

The problem then for Hume is how, despite this variety of subjective experience, there can still be ways which allow us to judge one work of art as more beautiful than another, despite the absence of a universal understanding of what constitutes “the beautiful.” He finds a solution to this dilemma by drawing our attention to what he sees as “rules of art.”

To fully understand Hume’s theory of Taste and the rules of art we must recall his epistemology. For Hume, factual knowledge ultimately comes from and must correspond to sensory experience. This aligns with his view that judgments of artistic/aesthetic merit derive from our felt emotional and imaginative impressions of an artwork. Taste is grounded in human sentiment. Reason alone cannot generate new knowledge without impressions providing the materials to work with. Similarly, he argues rule-bound rational critiques alone cannot judge beauty. Thus there can be no objective standards of beauty.

However, we still seem to have standards. There seems to be agreement in the world that certain works are more beautiful than others. This agreement, he argues, comes from certain “rules of art” which emerge in society over time. In comparing specific instances of beauty these general laws/rules eventually take shape. This applies to emergent general rules of art Hume thinks can have intersubjective validity when based on collective critical pronouncements over time. Standards of taste emerge intersubjectively among critics of refined perceptive capacity sharing judgments, not from abstract rules.

Charles Towneley in his sculpture gallery with three other men surrounded by sculptures. Two are sitting in chairs reading. Two appear to be engaged in conversation.
Charles Towneley in his sculpture gallery (1782)

This leads Hume to posit the need for a set of Ideal Critics. The Ideal Critics are those who have developed their appreciation of art. In experiencing a great deal of art and in refining their inner awareness they come to be aware of the more delicate emotions that art can evoke. For example, one might compare them to wine connoisseurs. When a person first tastes wine they do not have a sophisticated palate. Over time, those who taste many different wines develop their sensitivities to a high degree and recognize more readily than the non-connoisseur why some wines are better than others. So too in aesthetic appreciation, the Ideal Critics, who have a long-practiced experience of art, would help to educate society in what ought to be the correct response to works of art.

Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty. (Paragraph 23)

Through their work differences of opinion might be reduced and all might come to a common and more or less objective standard of taste.

An example might be helpful here. Suppose you and I each listen to a Taylor Swift song and you find it to be beautiful while I dislike it. How can we determine who is right? We cannot appeal to some platonic standard of universal beauty, for such abstractions are meaningless to Hume and the empiricists. Moreover, careful analysis of the song for its lyrics, harmonies and rhythms will not convince either of us to change our minds. Hume suggests that although each of our impressions of the song are valid, yours comes closer to taste. Why? Because the song has been judged by the “Ideal Critics” of our time (the AGMA—American Guild of Musical Artists) to be a hit and the marketplace has agreed by purchasing a million copies of the title. (Other modern Ideal Critics exist for other art forms, such as the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes for film, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Inc. (CFDA), the Pulitzer Prize for literature, etc.) Thus, even though you and I might disagree, a common social sense of Taste has leant its weight to your opinion being the correct opinion.

In this way, Hume believed he had found a way to standardize the idea of Taste without appeal to rational principles or universal standards.

Works Cited

Frances Hutcheson (1694-1746), Av Allan Ramsay/Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow 𝒲., https://snl.no/Francis_Hutcheson, Public Domain. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.

Godfrey Kneller, Sir John Rushout, 4th Baronet (1716), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_the_United_Kingdom#Early_18th_century, Public Domain. Accessed 11 Mar. 2024.

1 Gracyk, Theodore, “Hume’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/hume-aesthetics/>.

Johann Zoffany, Charles Towneley in his sculpture gallery (1782), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassicism. Public Domain. Accessed 11, Mar. 2024.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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