Four Dissertations

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Four Dissertations is a collection of four essays by the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, first published in 1757. The four essays are:

  1. The Natural History of Religion
  2. Of the Passions
  3. Of Tragedy
  4. Of the Standard of Taste

The Natural History of Religion[edit]

In this essay, Hume pioneers a naturalist account of the causes, effects, and historical development of religious belief. Hume locates the origins of religion in emotion, particularly fear and the desire to control the future. He further argues that monotheism arises from competition between religions, as believers seek to distinguish their deities as superior to all rivals. The monotheist drive to dominate other beliefs, and to burnish the primitive, emotional core of religion under a veneer of theology, Hume concludes that this yields intolerance, intellectual dishonesty, and unnatural moral doctrines.

Of the Passions[edit]

Hume begins the passions with giving a trite example of what Good and Evil are. Good, being pleasure. Evil, being pain. He then begins to analyze emotion as a reasoning faculty of the human mind. He argues that not only can emotions mix, they can also destroy one another. He also argues that our imagination and sentiments combine to create an impression of something/someone. For example, you see your grade on a test and it is good, you then attribute that good grade to having a good teacher, and even maybe an interest in the class as well. Hume tries to exclude religion from our reasoning faculty of right and wrong in that we make our decisions based on the over-riding passion during that moment. Your wife may divorce you, but I bet winning the lottery would make you forget about it. He concludes by saying that this mixture of emotion and sentiments give rise to hope and fear, which gives rise to religion in ancient society.

Of Tragedy[edit]

Of the Standard of Taste[edit]

Of the Standard of Taste was a seminal essay on aesthetics that is innovative because it requires Hume to address the apparent relativity of taste, a conclusion that appears to follow from his own assumption that the "good" or "beauty" of a good work of art is identical with the positive human responses it generates. The essay's focus on the subject (the viewer, the reader) rather than the object (the painting, the book) is typical of the British "sentimentalists" or moral sense theorists of the eighteenth century. Unlike the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, who sought an objective definition of beauty, the British school tended to look for the connections between taste and aesthetic judgments.

Summary[edit]

Hume begins with the observation that there is much variety in people's taste (or the aesthetic judgments people make). However, Hume argues that there is a common mechanism in human nature that gives rise to, and often even provides justification for, such judgments. He takes this aesthetic sense to be quite similar to the moral sense for which he argues in his Book 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740) and in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). Furthermore, he argues that this still leaves room for the ability to refine one's aesthetic palate. (Fieser, 2006, §2)

Hume took as his premise that the great diversity and disagreement regarding matters of taste had two basic sources - sentiment, which was to some degree naturally varying, and critical facility, which could be cultivated. Each person is a combination of these of two sources, and Hume endeavours to delineate the admirable qualities of a critic, that they might augment their natural sense of beauty into a reliable faculty of judgment. There are a variety of qualities of the good critic that he describes, each of which contributes to an ultimately reliable and just ability to judge.

References and further reading[edit]

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