“Exceptional Criticism: Questions of Critical Authority in Hume and Pope”

Katelyn Cunningham

Exceptional Criticism: Questions of Critical Authority in Hume and Pope


            Both David Hume and Alexander Pope privilege art and the beauty of language over criticism, and both search for a standard in how readers create and respond to texts. These 18th-century authors posit questions such as: In what is critical authority grounded? Should one look to the ancients for authority and standards? Should one create a new standard? Should a standard be set at all? Are there exceptions to the “rules,” and if so, what roles do exceptions play? All of these questions seem problematic for Hume and Pope, and both look for the sources of critical authority and the role it plays individually, as well as socially. For Hume, a matter of consensus is the only “standard” readers can set; there is no right or wrong in terms of sentiments and tastes. This leaves open the door for new “standards” to emerge, but also for exceptions to be made, as individual taste does not always align with tastes of society. Pope looks to the past for both inspiration and rules, suggesting that the ancients set the standard while also providing particular exceptions. Both Hume and Pope are looking for some sort of balance where exceptions can be intriguing and inspiring; however, always following exceptions can lead to something more “monstrous.” Relying on excess and exceptions tends towards extremes, a place where neither Hume nor Pope wish to ground their argument, for both are working to achieve some sort of balance in reading and responding to texts.

            While Hume and Pope work to find a balance, they do so differently (in many ways), for Hume focuses on sentiment and suggests that the senses are always observing and interpreting—giving power to the self, art, and nature when the senses are employed and passionate; whereas Pope relies heavily on past standards set by the ancients. However, these authors can be linked in the sense that the power of aesthetic effect outweighs judgment. For the purpose of this essay, it seems questions of critical authority can be broken down into a number of sections: nature, performance, past influences, and influences on ever-evolving language and culture. Each section illustrates the method of interpreting and judging texts, and still focuses on the importance of aesthetics and exceptions.


            For many 18th Century authors and critics, nature is often the root of passion and sense impressions; one opens themselves to the beauty of nature and experience. For Pope, nature is the ‘source, end, and test’ of art; he writes:

“First follow Nature, and your judgment frame/ By her just standard, which is still the same; / Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, / One clear, unchanged, and universal light, / Life, force, and beauty must to all impart, / At once the source, and end, and test of art. / Art from the fund each just supply provides, / Works without show, and without pomp presides (Pope 2499, lines 69-73).


Here, Pope suggests that one should leave themselves open to the inspiration and beauty of nature, for involvement with nature shapes aesthetics and allows for inspiration. While Pope finds nature to be most important in creating a work of art, Hume sees nature as invoking the senses and increasing the appetite for passions in the form of both pleasure and pain. Nature allows the senses to engage, placing emphasis on what we can learn and construct from sensory responses—an involvement with nature prompts sentimental response and aesthetic creation and interpretation.

            Although nature allows for many (if not infinite) sentimental responses and the construction of realities based on ‘natural’ energies, there is no way of verifying truth(s). Finding truth, it seems, would be an extreme and/or exception in regards to aesthetics, because a search for truth(s) can limit an immediate sensory response and interpretation. Hume goes on to suggest that there is no right or wrong in terms of sentiment; however, there is much diversity in regards to tastes and pleasures, as critic Scott Yenor illustrates: “the diversity of opinion on matters of taste is an impetus to search for a standard” (Yenor 336). While Hume is not necessarily looking to create more rules or standards, he understands that individuals tend to categorize as one “not only perceives the beauties and defects of each part, but marks the distinguishing species of each quality, and assigns it suitable praise or blame” (Hume 237). Categorizing requires an active role in assigning taste as it sets limits and standards, but Hume, while addressing the social tendency to create rules, keeps standards at a distance, fearful of stripping freedom and pleasure from nature and the senses.

            Pope, on the other hand, is more concerned with truth(s), for he looks to the past for advice, comparing the rules of ancients to the rules of nature, arguing that both know best and have already provided readers with truth(s) and standards—Pope’s An Essay on Criticism is a vehicle for instruction; critic Ripley Hotch remarks:

“The equivalence of poetic talent and rules and nature’s laws is shown in the way a poet’s inspiration can go beyond its own laws to create new laws which are after all only extensions of the old ones” (Hotch 476).


Just as nature can control and teach itself, the ancients have held back, often relying on past styles and forms to control aesthetics. While Pope supports the notion of restraint due to ancient influence and critical authority, he also appeals to exception, but does so in a way that keeps the ancients ‘in power’—because the ancients determine aesthetic standards, they also establish acceptable deviations from the standard; deviations the ancients and Pope seem to illustrate as ‘natural.’

            Hume and Pope view nature differently, yet each author sees nature as an authority in the writing and reading processes. Hume relies on the sensory responses provided by the beauty of nature, while Pope sees nature as vital to art in relation to talent and inspiration, and just as nature provides the source of poetic creation for Pope, the ancients provide their view of nature to shape the aesthetics of those who came after.

Past Influences

            Pope borrows a line from John Sheffield, writing that “Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well,” suggesting that nature not only determines talent but that the ability to write well comes from those who have written well before (qtd. in Pope 2512, line 724). While Hume sees aesthetic response as a space for most anyone to read and write, Pope sees the ancients as monarchs, suggesting that they rule the literary world: “Pope brings us to regard the kingdom of poetry as a kingdom in the fullest terms. Furthermore, it is a hereditary kingdom, reaching back to the ancient and hallowed past. Its laws are not only directly available to the true poet through his talent and learning, but through the classical tradition that learning represents” (Hotch 476-77). For Pope, critical authority is grounded in past ideas and ‘rules.’ However, for Hume, there is no definitive standard, for sentiment is the key to critical authority. While Hume does look to the ancients’ ‘canonized’ texts to provide examples of reason, he sees reason as subordinate to passion and sentiment, finding art in almost everything and suggesting that any object can be art/text for one to experience and interpret. Hume illustrates that sensory responses can come from anywhere: “all sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it” (Hume 230). Sentiment, for Hume, comes from experience and emotion, while Pope often finds his version of sentiment in works of the ancients—relying on feelings that have been expressed in the past.

Hume “criticizes previous philosophy for imposing an artificial, rationalist order on the world,” writes Yenor (Yenor 333), because for Hume, reason is subordinate to sentiment, for sentiment is an immediate call to taste and pleasure, and there is no predetermined notion that senses adhere to. Therefore, sense is the first impression or stimulation one feels upon viewing a text or work of art; it is not the work’s past influence(s) that determine a text’s meaning and interpretation. However, it is important to note that for one to assess their sentimental responses and experiences, judgment of influences and reactions must enter at some point, according to Hume.

As touched on previously, Pope suggests that because the ancients created the “rules”/set the standard, they can also break their rules when it comes to aesthetics, for making exceptions allows art to transform and artist to achieve; however, always following and focusing on exceptions can take the art to a “monstrous” place. For Pope there must be refinement in writing and criticism, because if exceptions are not kept to a limit, the work becomes unqualified.


To experience the many possible (or perhaps infinite) sentiments and interpretations nature allows, there is action involved. First, the senses must perform; a sensory response followed by a response/construction from the individual experiencing the work—within these “performances” there is power in both the art and interpretation. The performances of interpretation and criticism differ for Hume and Pope, for Hume focuses on the method, while Pope focuses on an ideal critic. As critic Ralph Cohen writes, “Hume offers no such hypothetical critic, for even the best critics are subject to personal and social prejudices,” arguing that Hume finds impartiality to work best when trying to understand criticism and critical authority (Cohen 272). When readers cannot agree on taste and/or beauty, confusion sets in, and this is why Hume suggests a standard: “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another” (Hume 229). Just as a ‘standard’ of taste allows for a matter of consensus, the search for a ‘standard’ also invites boundaries and categories, as some believe categories to be ‘natural.’ When analyzing any piece of art, the reader forms a sequence of images and responses to create meaning and engage the imagination. Here (at least for Hume), the reader is negotiating the text, moving towards construction and agency—the text is supplied, but the ‘reader’ provides meaning(s) based on his/her tastes and passions.

For Hume, real sentiment is immediate and often associated with beauty; Hume writes that “beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty” (Hume 230). When beauty pleases the senses, an internal reaction occurs—the system for which individuals use the senses to receive pleasure is somewhat standard: the senses pick up on beauty, which provokes a sentiment of pleasure. However, while the physical process in which the senses react or perform may be ‘standard,’ there is diversity in what individuals deem beautiful as well as in how art makes them feel—sentimental and interpretive performances exude.

            Pope not only suggests critical performances for the audience, but he himself performs for his readers, exacting in his own lines the verse he is censuring. Pope completes an exercise in wit: “While expletives their feeble aid do join, / And ten low words oft creep in one dull line: / While they ring round the same unvaried chimes, / With sure returns of still expected rhymes” (Pope 2504, lines 346-49). Here, Pope illustrates the notion that poetry must please as well as instruct, and while aesthetically pleasing, Pope’s rhythm is making meaning—Pope is, in a way, performing an interpretation for others to interpret, for “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance. / ‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense, / The sound must seem an echo to the sense” (Pope 2505, lines 362-5). Pope enacts the “rules” he proposes, stressing that he is limiting himself and controlling the text. While Pope suggests that one should limit their creativity, his couplets suggest that he sees himself as an ideal critic—believing that he has learned from the ancients how to balance creativity and criticism, and do so in a performative manner.

Influences on Ever-Evolving Language and Culture

            In working to establish methods, standards, exceptions, etc., Hume and Pope aim to develop new theories (at least during their century) and are seemingly ahead of their time, for Cohen writes that Hume’s essay “was the most complete statement of the method for contemplating and judging a work of art that had appeared up to the time of its publication” (Cohen 270). Hume is a rebel of sorts, polemically opposed to judgment, not committing to a concrete standard or extremes, but to a range of sentimental responses and exceptions; none of which outweighs another. Hume writes: “If some negligent or irregular writers have pleased, they have not pleased by their transgressions of rule or order, but in spite of these transgressions: They have possessed other beauties, which were conformable to just criticism; and the force of these beauties has been able to overpower censure, and give the mind a satisfaction superior to the disgust arising from the blemishes” (Hume 231-2).

            In a response to Norman Holland, critics Marshall Alcorn and Mark Bracher look to Hume and write, “as Hume pointed out, we cannot directly apprehend a cause as such, neither can we function for very long without the concept—particularly in the realm of theory. Theory, despite its etymological roots, inevitably invokes the unseen; insofar as it offers explanatory (and not merely descriptive) power, it must posit what cannot be directly observed” (Holland, Alcorn, Bracher 819-20). Hume seems to posit that a standard should not be set or even viewed or explained—he instead looks for a method of interpretation, for the variety and exception associated with sentimental responses cannot be ranked or privileged.

In terms of more modern literary theory, Hume seems to align himself with the ideas of Postmodernists and many Reader-Response critics, as they set strategies for reading, yet their ideas allow for more freedom of interpretation and combat universal truth(s). Hume seems to foresee Reader-Response strategies as he searches for a standard of taste (albeit unsure if a standard can/should be applied); leaving open the door for new ‘standards’ or strategies to emerge, and, as Yenor writes: “Hume’s teaching of moral sentiments further suggests that there is at least a similarity between this postmodern ‘species of philosophy’ and Hume’s own view: neither thinks reason provides a basis for making moral distinctions” (Yenor 337). Within any text/work of art there are gaps that are filled by senses within the ‘reader’ as projections, experiences, memories, and/or natural energies are conjured up to seal those gaps. Reader-Response critic, Wolfgang Iser, argues that readers make interpretive choices, collecting and assembling meanings based on gaps and blanks the text has created. Iser suggests that a text is a multilayered structure; readers construct their own interpretations, and according to Iser, interpreting is a process—just as sensing, forming taste, and interpreting is a process for Hume and readers. By finding meaning within the gaps, the reader builds relationships with perception and experience, and opening one’s self to experiences is something Hume suggests all readers should allow. Because there is consensus but no universal truth for Hume, he allows readers to fill the gaps to find more possibility within a text—an opportunity to align with a reader’s particular sentiments and pleasures.

            Similar to some Reader-Response critics, Hume suggests that there are no qualitative distinctions to be made between the sentiments of readers; Hume writes, “where there is diversity in the internal frame or external situation as is entirely blameless on both sides, and leaves no room to give one the preference above the other; in that case a certain degree of diversity in judgment is unavoidable, and we seek in vain for a standard, by which we reconcile the contrary sentiments” (Hume 244). There is no predetermined meaning, only possibilities for an impartial critic. Hume does not seek truth(s), but a method, and with his contemplation and exploration of method(s), Hume bases art and judgment on reflection, not morals.

Within Hume’s Essays, it is evident that (like Reader-Response criticism), interpretive communities can be created with regard to taste and the search for a ‘standard,’ and that gaps within a text/work of art call upon sentiments. While it may seem far-fetched to apply contemporary theories to issues of the Enlightenment, Hume and Pope are involved in their own version of an 18th Century interpretive community—both using rhetorical rebellion as an avenue to suggest the rethinking of critical authority and interpretation. Hume is focused on sensory responses, suggesting that there can be many exceptions, for no one response trumps another; instead, sentiment defeats judgment. Pope, while heavily relying on the rules of the ancients, does allow for progress in the fact that he points out the importance of aesthetic expression through way of exception. While Hume can be somewhat aligned with Postmodernists and Reader-Response critics, it seems, in modern terms, Pope would find comfort with Deconstructionists, for he turns his argument on its head over and over again, using strategic language and devices to make his arguments. While Pope is less prescriptive than some before him and may not provide ‘new-fangled’ inspiration, he is working to tweak the conversations of his day to work for his present and the future.

            For Hume it seems that critical authority lies in the initial response to a work, that sentiment has the highest influence when interpreting; whereas for Pope, it is the reader’s historical knowledge and wit that take critical precedent. Hume is not necessarily calling himself an “expert” or placing himself among the ranks of critical authorities, yet Pope seems to view himself as somewhat of an authority, for at the end of his essay, he somewhat humbly presents himself: “The learned reflect on what before they knew:/ Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame; / Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame; / Averse alike not to flatter, or offend; / Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend” (Pope 2513, lines 740-44). Because Pope takes advice from the ancients, he believes himself to be an authority, whereas Hume searches for clarification and methodology. While ahead of their time, Hume and Pope are not looking to be extremists or to focus merely on exceptions, but they are looking for new ways to interpret and balance a work of art—both Hume and Pope offer something for the future and ever-evolving language and culture.


Works Cited

Cohen, Ralph. “David Hume’s Experimental Method and the Theory of Taste.” ELH 25 (1958): 270-289.

Holland, Norman, Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., and Mark Bracher. “Literature, Psychoanalysis, and Reader Response.” PMLA 100 (1985): 818-820.

Hotch, Ripley. “Pope Surveys His Kingdom: An Essay on Criticism.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13 (1973): 474-487.

Hume, David. Essays: Moral, Political, & Literary. Ed. Eugene F. Miller, rev. ed. IndianapolisLiberty Fund, 1985.

Iser, Wolfgang. “Readers and the Concept of the Implied Reader.” The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978): 27-38; Reprinted in Donald Keesey. Contexts for Criticism 140-147.

 Mcintyre, Jane L. “Strength of mind: Prospects and Problems for a Humean Account.” Synthese 152 (2006): 393-401.

Noggle, James. “Literary Taste as Counter-Enlightenment in Hume’s ‘History of England.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 44 (2004): 617-638.

Pope, Alexander. “An Essay on Criticism.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. 1.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 2497-2513.

Wieand, Jeffrey. “Hume’s Two Standards of Taste.” Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1984): 129-142.

Yenor, Scott. “Between Rationalism and Postmodernism: Hume’s Political Science of Our ‘Mixed Kind of Life.’”Political Research Quarterly 55 (2002): 329-350.


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