Theories of taste ran rampant in the eighteenth century, but things have settled down a bit in academic circles. Despite all the books on aesthetics, few people (if any) have offered new theories of aesthetic taste. Yet we live in a time where the exercise of taste has become quite pervasive. Content creators and audiences can interact in real time with people all around the world. Someone can know quickly (sometimes in minutes) whether people liked their work. Plus, the influx of reality shows based on judging performances and improving homes illustrate that society is not done with taste.
But what is taste anyway? Theories of taste developed in the eighteenth century, so below is an overview of some prominent ways those thinkers approached aesthetic taste. This list is clearly not exhaustive, but it serves as an introduction to some ways we might think about taste, even today.
Taste is Innate
Philosophers, such as Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, believed taste was an innate faculty (or internal sense), similar to the five physical senses. Possibly, it was a sixth sense. Those senses are given at birth, and aesthetic taste was also thought to be a capacity that humans had from birth. But this does not mean that one automatically achieves maximum use of this ‘sense.’ The first time someone drinks scotch, for example, they will not taste all the subtleties and complexities. Likewise, the first time someone sees a different kind of painting, they might not see its details because they are not used to this style yet. While it is immediate, like opening your eyes allows you to see, it takes time to hone your taste.
Taste is Grounded in Reason
Aesthetic taste based on reason means that people are born more like a blank slate, in reference to the aesthetic. Moses Mendelssohn and Johann Gottfried Herder claimed that people develop their understanding and experience of beauty through the use of reason. In order to really exercise aesthetic taste, people must prepare themselves for the experience, according to Mendelssohn. It is important for this view that people are not relying solely on their emotions, not to say that emotions are not part of an aesthetic experience. But emotions can be easily manipulated, so this view grounds taste in reason.
Taste is an Association of Ideas
Alexander Gerard and Archibald Alison both developed views of taste that are classified as associationism. Simply put, this means that the mind (or imagination) relates ideas that are similar or connected by custom or experience. As a simple example, if you knew a lot of impressionist paintings, you would be able to connect a new painting to impressionism, based on your past experiences. Both Alison and Gerard start with the mind in their approach to taste and the experience of beauty. Despite some differences between their views, both assert that a strong passion or emotion is what instigates the association with previous experiences and emotions. Alison, in fact, refers to this as a train of taste. Just like someone can have a train of thought where the mind connects ideas to one another, people can also have a train of taste. This involves connecting the material quality of an object with an emotional quality. Developing taste requires that a person have experience with emotions and objects being correlated.
Taste is an Ideal Judge
David Hume claimed that beauty is subjective, yet he also asserted that no one would believe that Ogilby and Milton are equally excellent. This may seem contradictory, but he would explain that the objects that affect the higher sentiments are the ones we believe are more beautiful. Hume posits an ideal judge that is equipped to make good judgments of taste. The ideal judge, according to Hume, is someone whose taste is freed from prejudice, improved by practice, and perfected by comparison. Additionally, this judge should possess a delicate sentiment and a strong sense. These five characteristics of the ideal judge are goals that we should strive to attain, though no one will do so perfectly.
While this list is abridged and these different views may not have solved the issue once and for all, we don’t need a flawless theory of taste to have a working notion. Taste is the capacity to find pleasure in objects for their aesthetic merit, which usually leads to a pronouncement about whether we like the object or not (and to what degree). Regardless of which view someone favors, they still have to develop and hone their taste from experience.
While this may seem obvious, it takes a particular kind of effort and decision-making to actively pursue the development of taste. And this happens largely through experience. Someone has to see paintings or hear music to develop the ability to have taste in them. This does not require (or preclude) formal education, but it does require experience and some amount of knowledge. Someone who has no formal education in art history, but goes to museums and spends a lot of time viewing paintings, has gained the requisite experience to make certain judgments about the paintings. Stephen Bayley claimed that taste is a mirror and a window; it reflects aspects of yourself and reveals aspects of other people. By being intentional about expanding your taste, you broaden the knowledge others will have about you, but you also learn about other people, which can deepen your empathy.
For Further Reading:
George Dickie, The Century of Taste (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Michael Spicher, “Aesthetic Taste,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.