In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section David Hume: Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • Primary Texts
  • Overviews and Introductions to the Subject
  • Hume and the History of Aesthetics
  • Hume’s “Of Tragedy”
  • Aesthetics and Morality
  • Hume and Literature

Philosophy David Hume: Aesthetics
by
Timothy M. Costelloe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0382

Introduction

Unlike other writers in the tradition of 18th-century aesthetics, Hume never devoted a major work to the subject despite his promise in the advertisement to the Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740) to write a supplementary volume on “criticism” that, along with one on morals and politics, would complete his philosophical system. This lacuna notwithstanding, Hume did devote a number of essays to the subject, and his corpus is replete with references to and discussions of various themes that are sufficiently numerous and substantive enough to constitute an original contribution to the field and its history. As such, Hume’s aesthetics has come to stand as a distinctive and identifiable part of his philosophy, even though its form and content must, in large part, be constructed from the various writings that make up his corpus as a whole.

Primary Texts

Though Hume wrote no single work specifically on aesthetics, he touches on such matters at many points in his major works. These include discussions of beauty and its relation to taste, pleasure and pain and utility in Hume 1998 and Hume 2007–2011; of literature, poetry and unity of action in Hume 2000; and suggestive employment of aesthetic language in his discussions of religion in Hume 2007a and Hume 2007b. Hume’s most focused treatment of aesthetic themes, which includes contributions to debates over the nature of tragedy and a standard of taste, are in the form of essays in Hume 2021 and Hume 1987.

  • Hume, David. Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Rev. ed. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1987.

    Until superseded by Hume 2021, the standard edition that collects the essays Hume composed and/or published over the course of his career, including essays either withdrawn in his lifetime or that appeared only posthumously. Essays addressing aesthetic themes explicitly are “Of Commerce,” “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” “Of Eloquence,” “Of Refinement in the Arts,” “Of the Rise of Arts and Sciences,” “Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing,” “Of the Standard of Taste,” “Of Tragedy,” and “Of Writing.” See sections Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and Hume’s “Of Tragedy”.

  • Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Hume’s so-called second Enquiry (originally published 1751) that recasts in a more accessible albeit truncated form the central arguments of Book 3 (“Of Morals”) of the Treatise. As with the latter, the second Enquiry contains references to beauty and related matters in a variety of contexts, notably in reference to personal merit, taste, and utility.

  • Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

    Hume’s so-called first Enquiry (originally published 1748) that recasts in a more accessible albeit truncated form the central arguments of Book 1 (“Of the Understanding”) of the Treatise. Section 3 (“Of the Association of Ideas”) includes a discussion of the “effects” of association “on the passions and imagination” and consideration of the “unity of action” (from Aristotle) as a principle in writing, both literary and historical. The relevant paragraphs appeared in every edition except the final posthumous one of 1777, from which they were omitted.

  • Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Edited by Dorothy Coleman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007a.

    In Sections 3 and 12 of his influential treatment of religious belief and practice (published posthumously in 1779), Hume explicitly employs language that echoes and draws on his aesthetic theory.

  • Hume, David. “The Natural History of Religion.” In A Dissertation on the Passions; The Natural History of Religion. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp, 33–87. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007b.

    Published in 1757, employs explicitly aesthetic language at various junctures in Hume’s discussions of theism and its origins.

  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 2 vols. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary Norton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007–2011.

    Hume’s major early work composed while in his twenties (originally published 1739–1740), includes the promise to complete the work with an examination of “criticism.” The Treatise contains references throughout to beauty and related matters in connection with inter alia sympathy, imagination, utility, and pleasure and pain; the most extensive sustained treatment occurs in Book 2, Part 1, Section 8 “Of Beauty and Deformity” (pp. 195–198).

  • Hume, David. Essays: Moral, Political and Literary. 2 vols. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp and Mark A. Box. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2021.

    The now-standard critical edition of Hume’s essays that supersedes Hume 1987.

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