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
Timothy M. Costelloe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0382


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) 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 2000; of literature, poetry and unity of action in Hume 1999; 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 1987.

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

    Collects the essays Hume composed and published in various editions over the course of his career, including ten essays either withdrawn in his lifetime or that appeared only posthumously. Essays addressing aesthetic themes explicitly include “Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion,” “Of Eloquence,” “Of Simplicity and Refinement in Writing,” “Of Refinement in the Arts,” “Of Writing,” “Of Tragedy” and “Of the Standard of Taste.” 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: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Hume’s 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 “unity of action” (from Aristotle) as a principle in writing, both literary and historical.

  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by David Fate Norton and Mary Norton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    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. 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. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007b.

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

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.