Articles, Philosophy

Hume and Tolstoy on Aesthetics

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy which attempts to understand the nature of beauty and art in general. Aesthetics attempts to answer such questions as ‘what is the value of art?’, ‘what is the relation of beauty and art?’, ‘what makes art different from non-art?’, ‘what is the nature of the aesthetic experience?’

David Hume thought that the value of art arises in the amount of pleasure it evokes in the observer of art. He thought that the amount of pleasure a given piece of art evokes is subjective, meaning that art does not have intrinsic value but instead depends on the individual preferences. That being said, he did not think that all opinions on the value of a piece of art are valid. Instead, he proposed that only to a certain degree can individual’s have differing opinions on a piece of artwork. There must exist certain limits or standards of judgement which arise from human nature, and he thought that all artistic judgments must remain within these limits in order to be considered valid.

As he wrote in his essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’:

“Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric [of the human mind], are calculated to please, and others to displease; and if they fail of their effect in any particular instance, it is from some apparent defect or imperfection in the organ. A man in a fever would not insist on his palate as able to decide concerning flavours; nor would one, affected with the jaundice, pretend to give a verdict with regard to colours. In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment.”

Leo Tolstoy was another interested in the nature of art. Tolstoy ascribed to expressivism, which is the view that what matters in the experience of art is the emotional experience it evokes. Tolstoy, in his book ‘What is Art?’, puts forth the simple but profound view that in creating art, the artist, inspired by a deep and intense emotional experience, embodies that experience in a work of art which is then communicated to others through the artwork.

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by theseĀ  feelings and also experiences them.”

The poet William Wordsworth also ascribed to this same view, stating beautifully that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.”