“On Taste”

Edmund Burke


(What does it really mean for an opinion to be "a matter of taste"?)

WhatisArtJacksonPollockpaintingAn art museum visitor observing a Jackson Pollock painting; from the blog Art Now and Then, by Jim Lane. 


When we say “it’s just a matter of taste”, a bold and negative message lies behind the word “just”.  Whether intended or not, the word creates a whiff of denigration.  We discredit the thing we’re describing, reducing it such that it does not require much attention or respect.  It’s a surefire conversation-ender.  We are in effect saying that the question of whether the food is good, the music inspiring, or the sight beautiful, is not really worthy of discussion.  We are also espousing a momentous philosophical position: that the matter at hand is subjective, in the sense that two individuals considering it may come to contradictory conclusions about it and neither could possibly be justified in criticizing the other.  Probably not very many of us, when we make such a statement, are actually prepared to defend our implicit position, or the accompanying subliminal evaluation.  More likely, we are simply incorporating into our daily language certain assumptions about the world, about truth, about goodness and beauty and love and appreciation and worthiness.  Sometimes we can use quippy phrases because they come easily, whether or not we realize that we are taking a side on something.  In time a fallacious circle is likely to complete itself: someday when we actually consider the matter, we will find ourselves thinking our assumption very likely to be true, simply because our manner of thinking has been shaped by our (and our community’s) manner of speaking.  If we are trained long enough to talk as if something is so, we will tend to think it is so unless we examine our ideas deliberately.

BurkeSublimeBeautifulCoverPageEdmund Burke, better known for his political ideas and oratory than for his philosophy of aesthetics, nevertheless sets forth an interesting position on the nature of taste.  He originally appended it as an introductory essay to his acclaimed (and only purely philosophical) work, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful; but the Taste essay stands alone.  In it he argues that we ought to see “matters of taste” as objective and universal, in the sense that ideally everyone ought to have the same opinion on such matters, and whenever there is difference of opinion, somebody is mistaken.  His theory has three premises.  First, everyone’s senses perceive the same things, and we share a natural enjoyment for certain types of sensory input.  Second, our imagination is a common faculty as well, and we use it in the same way by being affected either by the properties of something, or by the realism of an imitation of something.  (Granted this is a very dry and limiting description of the imagination, but let's move on.)  Third, in some matters we are called upon to exercise not only our senses and imagination, but our judgment. And as this is practiced in accordance with reason, and improves for anyone in the same way with more attention and observation, it can also be seen to be fundamentally the same for all.  Since these three aspects of our personality (senses, imagination, judgment) are what are involved in assessing, say, a work of art, the idea that different people could use these faculties properly but come to radically different conclusions is nonsensical.

Ah, the relentlessly egalitarian Burke.  Perhaps every reader at this point will see in this argument much to be desired.  But before we throw a cliché in the statesman’s face and move on, he does make a serious accounting for the variation we see around us in the attitudes people have towards things.  Variation can arise from different levels of knowledge either about reality (as when an anatomist notices a defect in a human sculpture), or about art (as when flaws in a musical performance go unrecognized by an inexperienced listener).  Variation can also result from defects of sensibility (as when someone has with strong spices dulled their taste buds or their mental ability to appreciate subtleties of food), or from defects of judgment (as when someone is being irrational or is biased by some emotion that is irrelevant to the object at hand).  In addition, we can cultivate preferences that do not come naturally to us, thus generating acquired tastes that some may have while most do not.  However, despite any forays into unusual territory we still maintain cognizance of what the natural taste is: for instance, we all understand why the adjective "sour" is negative when we attach it to somebody's personality, even if we have individually cultivated a taste for sucking on sour candy or lemon wedges.

With this battery of major caveats in place, I tend to agree on the whole with Burke's assessment of taste as having an underlying universal standard, insofar as we are all humans.  But I also tend to think that we see exceptions nearly as often as we see rules in this area, meaning that his exceptions may often be driving our tastes as much as or even more than the rules do.  I find his sources of variation convincing, but I would subsume them and many others under two broad umbrellas: our genetic individuality and our experiential individuality.  Very few people are genetically identical, and even slight genetic differences could affect the way people perceive, imagine, and judge.  Probably even more significantly, no two people travel the same paths in life, or are influenced by exactly the same things.  So everyone develops a perspective, bounded by a common human nature for sure, but nevertheless idiosyncratic to each individual's history and lifelong sensory input and thought.  The combinations of sensory input and thought any two people have accumulated are bound to be different, and more different as their environments or lifestyles are more different.  Accordingly, one person's imagination is likely to work differently than another.  Take the potency of associations, for example.  I have a suspicion that much of what I like about the color green derives from my association of it with nature—with plants—for I have always liked the outdoors.  And I liked the color blue as a child, and was given blue things whenever there was a choice of the matter (whether my preference or my parents’ came first, I don’t know); and so I have another suspicion that much of what I like today about the color blue derives from my association of that color with the preferences of my youth.  I cannot amputate these associations from my appreciation of green and blue.  Such connections are part of how these colors excite my imagination.  But they are idiosyncratic to my history, and so are necessarily routes away from a community of taste.

One particular source of variation Burke does not mention is the tendency for our judgment to be affected by our beliefs on philosophical or religious matters.  At the Uffizi as a teenager I was stunned by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus… so much so, and increasingly as I sat there in front of it, that for a moment I wondered if I would be the same person when I left the museum.  However, I recognize that a puritannical view of the human body may lead to a distaste for that same painting that would not be shared by others who do not share those convictions.  So our taste in some areas may only be as similar as our beliefs that inform or modulate our judgment.  And we all know that in some sensitive areas, our beliefs are quite divergent.  This is not to say that there is no correct taste, however.  We might want to argue, for instance, that the puritannical attitude towards the human body is in fact a wrong attitude, and so the distaste is misguided.  And, not to be imbalanced here, we might recognize that any sexual attraction to the Venus in the painting is liable to be confused or mingled with appreciation of the beautiful.  In this case we would want to investigate how to disentangle these, recognizing our biases, and inquiring as to whether we should treat these experiences as interactive, or else attempt to subtract desire in order to yield pure aesthetic appreciation.

To step back a bit, all of these accumulating sources of variation in our opinions on “matters of taste”, even as they impress us with their pervasiveness and diversity, do not force us to jettison the idea of a universal standard for such judgments.  It is impossible for us to prove the matter one way or the other, but I believe the most engaging and rich results come from accepting Burke’s spirit of an ideal universality of taste.  Only then will we have an incentive to discover what our differences of taste are and to investigate why they exist—what the sources of variation are in particular cases.  The person who believes something is “just a matter of taste”, with no universal basis, has no reason, and in fact no ability, to explain anyone else’s opinions on the matter.  On the other hand, if I accept a universal basis for taste in principle, I would try to convince other people, and would also be willing to have others try to convince me, on matters of taste.  If someone likes something that I don't, I should look very closely for some lack of knowledge, or lack of sensibility, or unreasonableness, or inexperience, or inattentiveness, or personal bias, or false beliefs, in myself (or in the other person, I suppose).  Only after I have satisfied myself on all of these accounts, would I feel I have the right to disagree with that person’s judgment.  Of course, we can never do all these things perfectly, but that is hardly a reason for abandoning objectivity.  In fact, since we can never perfectly account for differences in taste, nobody has the right to be bullheaded on either side of the subjective-objective dichotomy here.  We can never get at the truth—the question is which attitude is more proper given our ignorance.  I suggest that the best attitude towards art and beauty is one of discovery, which is impossible if we take the position that there is nothing to discover, but only to invent for ourselves alone!  Discussions of "matters of taste" are useless, if we assert from the start that there is nothing that anyone else could ever get us to see.  To consider the responses of ourselves and others as nothing more than incommensurate prejudice renders meaningless all personal growth and interpersonal communication on these matters.  The reign of the "subjectivity of taste" therefore seems to me a sad and stifling thing.  Burke, despite a rigidity in his philosophy and a lack of relevant empirical understanding, is defending something worth defending. 

All of this having been said, there is a sense in which our peculiarities can be interesting and valuable in and of themselves.  If something is particularly meaningful to one person, even if we cannot share in the experience directly, we can perhaps appreciate this experience and share in a portion of the meaning ourselves.  Perhaps some of our idiosyncrasies of taste are due to things about us that, although personal, are not better or worse in any sense than the idiosyncrasies of others.  Something like this, of course, will be the rejoinder to the above argument, and to Burke's.  Still, in such cases I will probably find myself thinking "this person has had an experience that I have not… and so they are seeing something that I do not."  And thus the ideal returns.  Only by having all possible experience and knowledge could we ever have all possible appreciation.

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On a superficial view, we may seem to differ very widely from each other in our reasonings, and no less in our pleasures: but notwithstanding this difference, which I think to be rather apparent than real, it is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures.


For when we define, we seem in danger of circumscribing nature within the bounds of our own notions, which we often take up by hazard, or embrace on trust, or form out of a limited and partial consideration of the object before us.


I never remember that anything beautiful, whether a man, a beast, a bird, or a plant, was ever shown, though it were to a hundred people, that they did not all immediately agree that it was beautiful, though some might have thought that it fell short of their expectation, or that other things were still finer.


For since the imagination is only the representation of the senses, it can only be pleased or displeased with the images, from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities; and consequently there must be just as close an agreement in the imaginations as in the sense of men.


...the critical taste does not depend upon a superior principle in men, but upon superior knowledge.


So far then as taste belongs to the imagination, its principle is the same in all men; there is no difference in the manner of their being affected, nor in the causes of the affection; but in the degree there is a difference, which arises from two causes principally; either from a greater degree of natural sensibility, or from a closer and longer attention to the object.


On the whole it appears to me, that what is called taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners, and actions.


For sensibility and judgment, which are the qualities that compose what we commonly call a taste, vary exceedingly in various people. From a defect in the former of these qualities arises a want of taste; a weakness in the latter constitutes a wrong or a bad one.


Every trivial cause of pleasure is apt to affect the man of too sanguine a complexion: his appetite is too keen to suffer his taste to be delicate.


...the taste (whatever it is) is improved exactly as we improve our judgment, by extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise.


To multiply principles for every different appearance, is useless, and unphilosophical too in a high degree.


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...you are wondering whether or not "beauty is in the eye of the beholder";


…you are considering what it really means for something to be "just a matter of taste".



(for the muser on things aesthetic:)

  • Longinus, On the Sublime  (1st century)
  • Francis Bacon, "Of Beauty" in Essays  (1625)
  • David Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste"  (1757)
  • Edmund Burke, The Sublime and the Beautiful  (1757)
  • Théophile Gautier, Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin  (1835) 

(for the admirer of the English essay:)

  • Francis Bacon, Essays  (1625)
  • William Hazlitt, Table-Talk: Essays on Men and Manners  (1822)
  • Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia  (1823)
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, Roundabout Papers  (1860-3)



There is no affordable and widely available collection of Burke's writings that includes this essay, on account of current popular interest being directed almost exclusively to his political writings.  A new edition of selected writings will be published in 2015, so we'll see what that contains.  Till then, perhaps the best bet is getting it used in the Harvard Classics series:



The Oxford World's Classics version has "On Taste" together with the Sublime & The Beautiful work that it originally introduced.

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. on 15 November 2014 at 1:39 pm Dan Said:

    I was close to throwing out the baby (the idea of a “universal standard” of taste) with the bathwater (all your red herring caveats); however, your argument (as I think I see it)–that faith in the possibility of a universal standard is a necessary foundation upon which to try to build a shared humanness–really works for me.

  2. on 15 November 2014 at 2:58 pm David Lahti Said:

    Hi Dan, I know what you mean– at first, it seems only modest and open-minded to allow for diversity of taste without imposing some independent or objective standard. But then if we wholeheartedly accept that view we find ourselves in the strange and isolated position of being unable to communicate with each other. Our initial intuition must therefore be an overreaction. Maybe what we really want is to appreciate personal differences but also recognize some ideal shared standards in principle, even though in practice we can never attain an ultimate objective “God’s eye” view. Oddly enough this perspective will prompt us to pay attention to others’ opinions much more than if we think we’re simply 8 billion people with thoroughly unassailable, incommensurable tastes.

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