David Hume – Photography’s Patron Philosopher?

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David Hume has been a ‘philosophical hero’ since I was a teenager. Here’s a quote (in classical, sceptical, style) which illustrates partly why that is:

Hume regarded popular Protestantism as being just as far from true and genuinely rational religion as popular Judaism, Islam and Catholicism. He presented as corrupt and degenerate any religion which represents God as so infinitely superior to human beings as to have a tendency to ‘sink the human mind into the lowest submission and abasement’. (Harris, Hume: An Intellectual Biography, pg 293. Hume quote from Four Dissertations, 1757).

I think there is a strong case to be made that Hume should be Photography’s Patron Philosopher, with his empirical and grounded approach in all things, from the scientific, to the moral and the aesthetic. On Beauty, Hume wrote that there was nothing absolute about it:

‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves : It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty’. (Selected Essays, pg. 136).

He went on to say that some people are better are discerning it than others.

There is a delicacy of taste observable in some men, which very much resembles this delicacy of passion, and produces the same sensibility to beauty and deformity every kind‘. (Selected Essays, pg. 10).

Hume argued that ‘passion’ drives our choices rather than ‘pure’ rationality, and that seems to resonate with the act of image-making – as does his focus (pardon the pun) on the ‘real world’.

Central to Hume’s notion of ‘passions’ is the idea of ‘sympathy’. Each of us have sympathy, to varying degrees, with the situation, actions, and beliefs of others. Depending on the degree of sympathy (e.g. do we sympathise with the murdered or the murderer, to be extreme) our passions drive our moral beliefs. It is not a question of rational or taught principle. It is a question of human nature, of the agreeableness (Hume’s word) of the feeling we have.

He also argues that self-interest not logical analysis leads to our acceptance of Government – protecting our property and other civil rights, for example. In other words, there is utility in our personal view.

By corollary, in fact by design, Hume therefore argues against morality being defined by religion (or God), or set by ‘scheming’ politicians.

One of his enduring claims to fame is ‘Hume’s Fork‘, describing the separation between ‘ideas’ and ‘matters of fact and real existence’. He makes a distinction between what is necessary versus what is contingent (concerning reality), a priori versus a posteriori (concerning knowledge), and analytic versus synthetic (concerning language). Relations of abstract ideas align on one side (necessary, a priori, analytic), whereas concrete truths align on the other (contingent, a posteriori, synthetic). (Wikipedia).

Hume thus places the truths of human experience ahead of theory.

I have long argued that a leader’s values must be congruent with those of his or her followers, for there to be any trust built between the two. This notion of congruence is similar to the sharing of sympathies, but has more agency on the part of the individual sympathising.

From Harris (Hume: An Intellectual Biography) :

Hume’s confidence that the moral sentiments could be explained in terms of the way sympathy picks up on utility and agreeableness led him to extend the catalogue of virtues in a manner ostentatiously at odds with the philosophical common sense of the age. (pg 135)

Hume was ahead of his time. But, what does this have to do with photography? I think it raises the question as to what extent we are in sympathy with our subject, and whether that therefore sets our photography on some kind of moral (ethical?) basis.

Then, to what extent does that sympathy and moral foundation drive our actions. It also begs the question as to what extent we see utility (usefulness) in what we do.

That would certainly be the case for the classical documentary photographers such as Lange, Smith, Frank.


Notes by Theodore Gracyk from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Hume was probably not aware of Alexander Baumgarten’s Reflections on Poetry of 1735, the work that introduced the term “aesthetics.” Hume’s reflections on aesthetics occupy a pivotal niche between the appearance of fine art theory and Kant’s defense of an independent aesthetic judgment in the Critique of Judgment – a defense clearly influenced by Kant’s reading of Hume’s essays and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.


Hume is an inner sense theorist who treats aesthetic pleasure as an instinctive and natural human response. Successful art exploits our natural sentiments by employing appropriate composition and design.

Only empirical inquiry can establish reliable ways to elicit the approval of taste.

Hume regards the natural capacity of taste as fundamental to the human ability to make moral and aesthetic judgments. Like his predecessors, Hume sees an analogy between an “inner sense” for beauty and the sense of taste for food and drink. Natural, general laws guide both. Both permit of education and refinement and thus better and worse responses. Both produce sentiments or feelings of approval and disapproval. But only the “mental” taste, the exercise of which is involved in moral and aesthetic judgment, admits of refinement through “the interposition” of ideas (Treatise of Human Nature, p 275).

Hume’s eighteenth-century terminology includes a pair of terms no longer in general use. In his basic nomenclature, “taste in morals, eloquence, or beauty” assigns either “approbation” or “disapprobation” (or some combination of both) to objects of taste (Treatise of Human Nature, p 547n). Approbation is “a peculiar delight” (Treatise of Human Nature, p 298) and a “particular kind of pleasure” (Treatise of Human Nature, p 472). It feels different from other pleasures.

He variously characterizes approbation as a feeling of approval, liking, or affection. A beautiful object or action strikes us as amiable, agreeable, and desirable. Hume describes the feeling of disapprobation as one of disapproving, disliking, and contempt. An ugly object or vicious action feels odious, disagreeable, and undesirable.

Facebook ‘likes’, anyone?


[Hume’s] official theory is that there is “mental, as well as bodily taste” (Of the Standard of Taste, p 274), and both moral and aesthetic discrimination depend on mental taste. The requisite sentiments are spontaneous products of the mind, but they are not uninformed responses.

Mental taste normally requires some intervening thought process. So the pleasures and pains of aesthetic judgment are not immediate in being direct responses to other impressions.

Mental taste arises in response to ideas that arise in response to impressions (e.g., viewing a photograph occasions thoughts about the place pictured, leading to thoughts about experiences one had or might have there, and the thoughts arising in this imaginative process are pleasurable or painful).

Hume regards this “immediacy” of taste as entirely compatible with the influence of intellectual and imaginative faculties.

Hume’s theory of sentiments requires that if we are going to have an aesthetic evaluation of a play’s plotting and language, then we are also going to have a moral response to its display of virtue and vice.

Both must enter into our final sentiment of approbation or disapprobation.

There’s a proper paper in this … to be continued.


Some comments about Hume and the Harris book (Hume: An Intellectual Biography) that were made on Facebook:

Tony Cearns – One of my intellectual heroes for his scepticism. But how do you equate your rationalist tendency with his belief that cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself?

Mick Yates – A fair challenge. I’ll take a sideways tilt at it. In his dismissal of miracles (to paraphrase, as they happen in the real world then they are of the real world and not something outside it), Hume demonstrates his fundamentally empiricist approach to external events.Hume’s comments on ‘thinking’ about cause and effect are still anchored in observational experience of real world events. His scepticism leads him to say thar the sun rising tomorrow is a ‘belief’ rather than a causal fact. I’d argue that, whilst Hume suggested there was no rational basis of proof that the sun will rise, it is a rational belief!

Tony Cearns – The only necessity (causation) is ‘logical necessity’ which Wittgenstein showed is a function of language.

Mick Yates – Newtonian Causation is surely Independent of language …

Tony Cearns – Well, Newton’s model for causation is being found to be very limited, as you know; hence the crisis in physics. I think there are no isolated data; every act of experience has its own interconnections in an ever-expanding web of relations. It is difficult to think in terms of simple causation about anything. The world just isn’t like that. Language and grammar is just nature catching up with itself …

Mick Yates – All I’d say is that whilst Newton is found wanting, it is still most definitely and practically useful. Which of course could lead to a conversation (on another level) about utilitarianism!


BAUMGARTEN, Alexander. 1735. Reflections on Poetry. London: Cambridge University Press. 1954 Edition. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/reflectionsonpoe030202mbp/reflectionsonpoe030202mbp_djvu.txt (accessed 12/09/2019).

COHON, Rachel. 2004. Hume’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Revised 2018. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/hume-moral/ (accessed 11/09/2018).

DELEUZE, Gilles. 1953. Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. 1991 Edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

GRACYK, Theodore. 2016 (revised from 2003). Hume’s Aesthetics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (Ed.). Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-aesthetics/  (accessed 12/09/2018).

HARRIS, James A. 2015. Hume: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

HUME, David. The Philosophical Works.

HUME, David. 1738. A Treatise of Human Nature. Ed. Selby-Bigge, L.A., 1888. 2010 edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HUME, David. 1777. Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Ed. Selby-Bigge, L.A., 1893. 1962 Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HUME, David. 1993. Selected Essays. Editors Copley, Stephen & Edgar, Andrew, 2008 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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