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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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TO 1770


“Taste” is relevant to the history of ideas as the power
of liking or disliking something, and of ruling one's
judgment or conduct according to this power. Still, in
this broader meaning, “taste” is used very widely but
rather atypically; it is of major importance only as
applied to aesthetics, where it becomes, during the
seventeenth century, one of the central and most con-
troversial notions. As such, it is the subject of many
discussions and of extremely wide implications—the
basic dimensions of which follow below.

The main feature of aesthetic taste is that it is con-
ceived as an instinctive feeling, independent of reason-
ing; but, for many authors, reflection may at least
partially modify its responses. An inferior kind of taste
is considered to cherish some aspects of beauty which
do not, or do not necessarily, correspond to absolute
aesthetic value as established by the rules of art; a
superior kind of taste, increasing its importance with
the crisis of “classical” aesthetics, is itself the standard
of aesthetic value and the foundation of the rules. As
such, taste is first considered as the power of evaluating


beauty insofar as it is inherent in objects; afterwards,
it is rather seen as the power of evaluating the response
of the mind to objects, with beauty no longer being
a characteristic of things in themselves, but consisting
in a relationship between the mind and its objects.

The increased importance of taste as a standard of
beauty raises the problem of its being universal or
merely relative, a problem particularly felt by “neo-
classical” aesthetics, once more in quest of established
values; but as tastes are manifestly different in man-
kind, a universality of taste may be asserted only with
respect to “good” taste, in contrast to a “bad” taste
which is relative. But who is endowed with “good”
taste? A minority of people, of course; for some au-
thors, only a few connoisseurs living in nonbarbaric
ages. The basic condition for belonging to this minority
may be that of having a good education and polished
manners; here it is assumed, as most authors do, that
taste may be educated by exercise or by study. On the
other hand, the factual disparity of tastes in different
nations and eras raises the problem of elaborating a
typology, and of justifying historically and psychologi-
cally this diversity, which, though generally considered
as not consistent with perfect “good” taste, is not
always referred to as altogether “bad” or “perverted”
taste, but as an intermediate condition.

Another question is that of the foundation of taste.
Is taste a simple, unique faculty or an assemblage of
different faculties? How is it connected with other
faculties, especially with reason and with other feel-
ings? Its relationship to reason does not only concern
the possibility of arguing about taste, but, more basi-
cally, the problem as to whether taste should be con-
sidered as a power related to that of immediate assent
to basic truths, i.e., to right reason (common sense,
natural light of reason). If so, in taste, is the judgment
about beauty founded on the pleasurable feeling raised
by beauty, or vice versa? An identification of “taste”
and “judgment” (of beauty) is frequent, but neither
universal nor univocal. A further basic problem is that
of the relationship of taste to the judgment of truth,
and to the judgment (or feeling) of utility, of bodily
pleasure, and of goodness. In the course of the eigh-
teenth century taste grows more and more independent
of other factors: at that time aesthetics is being recog-
nized as a particular science, and it tries to assert its
individuality by claiming to rest on an original princi-
ple, not subordinated to those of other branches of


Taste (Italian, gusto) seems to have been connected
for the first time with beauty in Renaissance Italy.
Filarete wrote in 1464: Ancora a me solevano piacere
questi moderni; ma poi, ch'io comenciai a gustare
questi antichi, mi sono venuti in odio quelli
... (“I also used to like the Moderns; but,
as soon as I began tasting the Ancients, I came to hate
the Moderns....”; Quellenschriften, 1890). Other
Renaissance views include F. Rinuccini, who used gusto
as a synonym of “right judgment” (Rinuccini, 1840).
Gusto is used in connection with beauty by
Michelangelo (Buonarroti, 1863), by Ariosto in 1532
(Ariosto, 1532), by Leone Ebreo in 1535 (Leone Ebreo,
1929), by Cellini and Varchi (Cellini, 1857; Varchi,
1857-58), by Dolce in 1557 (Dolce, 1557), by Zuccolo
in 1623 (Croce, 1946b), by Graziani in 1671 (Graziani,
1671), but only occasionally; it does not become an
important notion in Italian aesthetics until C. Ettorri's
Il buon gusto ne' componimenti rettorici (1696), and
then probably under Spanish or French influence. Af-
terwards, its fortune was assured, as shown in 1708 by
a work of L. A. Muratori, Delle riflessioni sopra il buon
... (1708), and by the foundation in Palermo
in 1718 of an “Accademia del buon gusto”
(Mazzucchelli, 1753-63). For Muratori, taste (also
called giudizio and dritta ragione) is a power of judging
individual cases which cannot be decided according
to universal rules (Baeumler, 1923). In fact, the first
extensive use of “taste” as a mysterious, instinctive
power enabling man to make the right choice in the
different circumstances of life, as the foundation for
a civilized behavior, occurs in the works of the
Spaniard Gracián, in 1647 (Borinski, 1894); but he also
uses it in a specifically aesthetic sense (Gracián, ed.
del Hoyo, 1960). Nevertheless, taste had (in Gracián's
day) not yet become a central notion in Spanish aes-
thetics: Feijóo, in his Razón del gusto (1727-30), still
applies this term indiscriminately to food, drink, music,
etc., identifying it with the feeling for the pleasurable.


In France, taste is applied to beauty at least as early
as 1645 by Guez de Balzac (Borgerhoff, 1950), and is
used with this meaning by Molière in 1659 (Molière,
1659; 1663; 1669), and by La Fontaine in 1668. La
Rochefoucauld, in a posthumous essay, Du goût, is
probably the first theorist of taste in France. Taste is
variable, depending on personal inclinations and cir-
cumstances, but good taste (bon goût) is an instinctive
power of correct evaluation based on judgment (juger
sainement, discernement, lumière naturelle
) rather than
on feeling; it concerns all kinds of intellectual, moral,
and aesthetic objects (La Rochefoucauld, 1949). Méré's
bon goust (1677) is very similar; it is thought to be
un sens intérieur peu connu, independent of learning,
but founded sur des raisons très-solides; mais le plus
souvent sans raisonner
(Méré, 1930). For Saint-


Evremond, on the contrary, taste may, as bon goût,
bon sens,
be close to reason, but more generally it is
relative and whimsical (von Stein, 1886). Malebranche
in La Recherche de la vérité (1674) regards taste as
pertaining to sensory things (beautez sensibles), an
inferior, sensitive kind of beauty, and holds it as relative
(Malebranche, 1958f.). But, if for Rapin and Bouhours
taste is relative to centuries and to nations (von Stein,
1886), for Bouhours good taste, especially connected
with aesthetics, is a sort of instinctive good judgment,
une espèce d'instinct de la droite raison. And La
Bruyère writes that good taste is the effect of sound
judgment: Entre le bon sens et le bon goût il y a la
différence de la cause à son effet
(Les Caractères, “Des
Jugements,” 1694). This rationalist conception of good
taste, shared by Mme Dacier (Dacier, 1684), reaches
a climax in aesthetics with Crousaz (1715), who con-
siders taste a sentimental substitute for reason, which
can be improved by education (Baeumler, 1923).

This attitude is opposed, under English influence, by
the Abbé Dubos (1719); taste as a sensitivity to beauty
is for him basically a matter of feeling; this feeling
is not a substitute for reason, or the expression of an
unconscious rational judgment: it is the basis of the
judgment of beauty, as a special faculty, defined as a
“sixth sense” (Baeumler, 1923). A lively discussion with
Charles Rollin ensued (Rollin, 1725). Cartaud de la
Vilate was also inclined to irrationalism; and he was
especially interested in the study of the evolution of
taste through the ages (Cartaud, 1736).

But the rationalist trend still dominated in French
aesthetics. For the Abbé Batteux (1747), taste is knowl-
edge of rules through a feeling which can be educated
(Baeumler, 1923, von Stein, 1886). Diderot conceives
taste as a faculty of immediate judgment; a faculty
acquired through recurrent experiences, of grasping the
true and the good, with whatever renders it beauti-
ful, and of being instantly and vividly affected (faculté
acquise par des expériences réitérées, à saisir le vrai
et le bon, avec la circonstance qui le rend beau, et d'en
être promptement et vivement touché;
Belaval, 1950).
Vauvenargues (1746) and D'Alembert (Encyclopédie,
1757) seem to subordinate taste to reasoning
(Vauvenargues, 1746; Baeumler, 1923; Encyclopédie,
1757; von Stein, 1886). For Voltaire too taste comes
close to reasoning, and may be corrected by reasoning;
really good taste is universal, in spite of national and
other differences of taste in general (Encyclopédie,
1757; Wellek, 1955). One of Voltaire's most famous
critical works is entitled Le Temple du goût (1733).
A later supporter of rationalism in taste is Pierre
Mingard (Felice, 1773; see also: Duclos, 1805). But
Montesquieu revives, at least partially, the irra-
tionalism of Dubos, for whom taste is independent of
reasoning; it is the faculty enabling one to apply to
individual cases the rules of art, and to establish excep-
tions to them (Encyclopédie, 1757; von Stein, 1886).


In Britain, taste as “inclination” is used by Caxton
in 1477 (Caxton, 1893); it appears later (1502) with
the meaning of “intuitive judgment” (Atkynson, 1893),
and in the seventeenth century this is connected with
beauty, e.g., by Milton and Congreve (Milton, 1671;
Congreve, 1694). Norris, in 1691, mentions a “moral
tast” [sic]. But a theory is not developed until the
eighteenth century, when it centers on aesthetics much
more in Britain than in France. The irrationalist view
appears with Shaftesbury. Taste as a sense for beauty
is closely connected with common sense and with
moral sense, which reveal themselves through internal
sensations. Taste is the internal sense of a harmonic
order perceived in certain objects and belonging to
them and to the perceiving mind as well; it is inborn,
but it needs refining; it depends on the character of
a nation, but, stripped of accidental influences, it is
universal (Formigari, 1962; Morpurgo, 1962b). For
Addison, “... the Taste is not to conform to the [rules
of] Art, but the Art to the Taste”; taste is universal
if it is duly educated (admiration for the classics), but
in some degree it is innate if present at all (Addison,
The Spectator, No. 29, 1711; No. 409, 1712). Hutcheson
(1725) proceeds on the same line as Shaftesbury, stres-
sing the universality of taste, and the fact that the taste
for beauty is independent of considerations of utility
(von Stein, 1886; Tonelli, 1955a); and Webb insists on
the universality of taste (Tonelli, 1955a). The connec-
tions between beauty and utility, and even that be-
tween beauty and morality, taken for granted in French
aesthetics, are no longer taken for granted in Britain
after Hutcheson questions the first, and Gerard (see
below) the second.

Hume declares in his essay “On the Standard of
Taste” (1757) that beauty does not belong to things
in themselves: taste expresses the reaction of the mind
to things. Nevertheless taste, judging about beauty and
about virtue as well, is universal, due to the uniformity
of human nature, in spite of accidental differences
(Wellek, 1955; Tonelli, 1955a). Hume's aesthetic sub-
jectivism marks a turning point in British aesthetics.
For Burke (1759), taste is a composite of different
powers; it is universal, and independent of utility
(Tonelli, 1955a; Formigari, 1962; Morpurgo, 1962c).
Gerard (1759) carefully distinguishes taste from moral
sense, but if beauty is independent of virtue, it is not
independent of utility. Taste seems to be universal
(Tonelli, 1955a). For him, as well as for other authors,
taste is not a simple power: judgment is one of its


components (Green, 1934). Hume (1762) considers taste
universal, although this universality is restricted to a
few connoisseurs; taste is not independent of consid-
erations of utility (Tonelli, 1955a; Wellek, 1955). Al-
though Dr. Johnson makes concessions to relativism in
taste, he asserts after all the presence of universal
common sense (Wellek, 1955). The only significant
supporter of absolute relativism in taste is Joseph
Priestley (1777), who applies to this subject the aes-
thetic principles elaborated by Mandeville and Hartley
(Tonelli, 1955b). During the late eighteenth century,
interest in the problem of taste is less intense in Britain:
much attention is given to the theory of sublimity, and
usually theories of the sublime are not referred to


In the seventeenth century in Germany Geschmack
(“taste”) is used occasionally in the modern sense
(Harsdörffer, 1651), but as late as 1687 Christian
Thomasius prefers the term bon goût for a quality he
requires of gentlemen. Aesthetic interest in the subject
is not yet aroused: Leibniz, in 1712, is satisfied with
a short personal interpretation of Shaftesbury's doc-
trine (Leibniz, 1887). Only with Bodmer (1727) taste
becomes a basic subject in aesthetics, but it is conceived
as a purely intellectual judgment which generates a
subsequent feeling (von Stein, 1886). Gottsched (1730),
referring to Leibniz, defines good taste as a correct
judgment of the senses on beauty (i.e., sensitive per-
fection) which is known clearly but not distinctly; this
judgment is confirmed by reason, applying the rational
rules of perfection (Gottsched, 1751; Tonelli, 1955a).
Similar ideas are expounded in 1734 by J. U. König
(Tonelli, 1955a; Baeumler, 1923), by A. G. Baumgarten
in Metaphysica (Baumgarten, 1739) and by G. F. Meier
(Tonelli, 1955a; Baeumler, 1923). Lessing about 1758
still sponsors a rationalist view (Tonelli, 1955a); the
same is true for what R. Mengs calls “the best taste”
(Mengs, 1762). Th. Abbt in 1762 considers taste as re-
quired not only for appreciating art but also for science
(Abbt, 1780). But Crusius' “moral taste” is conceived
as an individually variable capacity to enjoy goodness
and beauty (Crusius, 1744)—and even philosophy, ac-
cording to G. H. Schramm, a pupil of Crusius
(Schramm, 1772). With Moses Mendelssohn, the
rationalist view is questioned: taste is independent of
intellect, and it is considered as relative; it is related
also to the sublime, and in this respect it seems to be
universal (Braitmaier, 1888; Tonelli, 1855a).

For Kant in 1764, taste is independent of intellect
and of considerations of utility, and it is different from
the moral sense; it is related to the sublime also. Kant
develops an extensive national typology of taste
(Tonelli, 1955a). For Riedel (1767) taste is irrational
and almost completely relative (Tonelli, 1955a). After
1768, Kant develops in a very original way his notion
of taste in the framework of his new philosophy. Taste
is considered as universal, but a posteriori and subjec-
tive, as a sensible judgment on the form of intuition
(Tonelli, 1955a). Sulzer's position is eclectic (1771):
taste is a special power, distinct from reason and
moral feeling, and nevertheless it is the internal feeling
for truth and goodness; beauty, perceived by taste, is
neither perfection nor goodness, but the highest beauty
is connected with both. Taste is universal, and its judg-
ment can be rationally tested (Sulzer, 1792). In 1755,
Herder was awarded a prize in a competition an-
nounced by the Berlin Academy on the “causes of the
corruption of taste.” For Herder, on Hamann's sugges-
tion (Grappin, 1952), taste is a product of genius, as
it corresponds to the orderly use of the genius's powers;
it acts through reason and judgment, but it is not the
same as virtue (Ursachen des gesunknen Geschmacks
... [1775], sec. 1).


Th. Abbt, Vermischte Werke (Berlin and Stettin, 1780), IV,
46. J. Addison, The Spectator, No. 29 (1711); No. 409 (1712).
L. Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532), Canto XXXV, 26. W.
Atkynson, Th. à Kempis: a full devout and gostely treatyse,
Early English Text Society (1893), Book I, Ch. XXII, 171.
A. Baeumler, Kants Kritik der Urteilskraft. Ihre Geschichte
und Systematik
(Halle, 1923); reprinted as Das Irra-
tionalitätsproblem in der Aesthetik und Logik des 18.
Jahrhunderts bis zur Kritik der Urteilskraft
1967): Crousaz, pp. 43-49; Dubos, pp. 49-51; Muratori, pp.
51-53; Batteux, Voltaire, d'Alembert, pp. 74-75; König, p.
82; Meier, pp. 90f. A. G. Baumgarten, Metaphysica (Halle,
1739), sections 607-08. Y. Belaval, L'esthétique sans paradoxe
de Diderot
(Paris, 1950), pp. 75-80. E. B. O. Borgerhoff, The
Freedom of French Classicism
(Princeton, 1950), p. 14. K.
Borinski, Baltasar Gracián und die Hofliteratur in Deutsch-
(Halle, 1894), pp. 40-43. F. Braitmaier, Geschichte der
poetischen Theorie und Kritik von den Diskursen der Maler
bis auf Lessing
(Frauenfeld, 1888), II, 192f. D. Bouhours,
La manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages de l'esprit
(Paris, 1687), p. 382. M. Buonarroti, Le rime (Florence,
1863), pp. 27, 253. F. Cartaud de la Vilate, Essay critique
et philosophique sur le goust
(Paris, 1736). [W.] Caxton's
Historie of Jason,
Early English Text Society (1912), p. 72.
B. Cellini, I trattati dell'oreficeria e della scultura (Florence,
1857), p. 41. W. Congreve, The Double Dealer (1694), I,
2. B. Croce, Estètica come scienza dell'espressione e lin-
guistica generale
(Bari, 1946a), “Storia,” Ch. III; idem, Storia
della età barocca in Italia
(Bari, 1946b), Ch. V: Zuccolo,
p. 167. C. A. Crusius, Anweisung, vernünftig zu leben
(Leipzig, 1744), sec. 108f. Mme Anne Lefèvre Dacier,
Préface to her translation of Aristophanes' Plutus and Les
(Paris, 1684). L. Dolce, Diàlogo della pittura (Venice,


1557). C. Pinot-Duclos, Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1806), Vol.
X, Considérations sur le goût. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire
raisonné des arts, des sciences et des métiers,
Vol. VII (Paris,
1757), art. “Goût” by Voltaire, Montesquieu, d'Alembert.
C. Ettorri, Il buon gusto ne' componimenti rettorici (Bologna,
1696). B. J. Feijóo y Montenegro, Teatro crítico universal
(Madrid, 1727-30), Vol. VI, Disc. XI. F. B. de Felice,
L'Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire universel raisonné des
connaissances humaines,
Vol. XXII (Yverdon, 1773), art.
“Goût” by Mingard and d'Alembert. L. Formigari, L'estètica
del gusto nel Settecento inglese
(Florence, 1962): Shaftes-
bury, pp. 28, 31f., 33f., 53f., 62f.; Burke, p. 81. F. Gallaway,
Reason, Rule and Revolt in English Classicism (New York,
1940). B. Gracián, El Criticon, Part I, Crisis III, in Obras
ed. del Hoyo (Madrid, 1960), p. 533a. J. C.
Gottsched, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst... (1730;
Leipzig, 1751; reprint Darmstadt, 1962), pp. 123f. P.
Grappin, La théorie du génie dans le préclassicisme allemand
(Paris, 1952), p. 217. G. Graziani, Cromuele (Bologna, 1671),
Preface. C. C. Green, The Neo-Classic Theory of Tragedy
in England during the XVIII Century
(Cambridge, Mass.,
1934), pp. 738, 760f. G. P. Harsdörffer, Die Fortpflanzung
der Hochlöblich Fruchtbringenden Gesellschaft, mit einer
Rede von dem Geschmack vermehret
(Nürnberg, 1651).
J. G. Herder, Ursachen des gesunknen Geschmacks bei den
verschiednen Völkern, da er geblüht
(Berlin, 1775), Sec. I.
E. N. Hooker, “The Discussion of Taste, from 1750 to 1770,
and the New Trends in Literary Criticism,” PMLA, 49
(1934). H. Klein, There is no Disputing about Taste. Unters.
zum englischen Geschmacksbegreiff im 18. Jhdt.
1967). J. de La Bruyère, Les Caractères..., eds. Servois
and Rébelliaux (Paris, 1923), “Des jugements.” J. de La
Fontaine, Fables (1668), Book V, 1. F. de Marcillac de La
Rochefoucauld, Maximes et autres oeuvres morales (1655),
ed. Borrot (Paris, 1949), p. 131: Réflexions diverses, X,
“Du goût.” G. W. Leibniz, Die philosophischen Schriften,
ed. C. I. Gerhardt (Berlin, 1887), III, 430f. Leone Ebreo,
Dialoghi d'Amore, ed. Gebhardt (Heidelberg, London, 1929),
p. 133. N. Malebranche, Recherche de la vérité (1674), in
Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1958f.), I, 149; idem, Méditations
(1683), ibid., X, 43. G. M. Mazzucchelli, Gli
scrittori d'Italia
(Brescia, 1753-63), Vol. II, Part IV, p. 2389.
G. McKenzie, Critical Responsiveness. A Study of the Psy-
chological Current in Later XVIII Century Criticism

(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949), Ch. IV. R. Mengs,
Gedankeen über die Schönheit und den Geschmak in der
(Zurich, 1762), Ch. II. A. Gombaud de Méré,
Oeuvres complètes, ed. Boudhors (Paris, 1930), II, 127-29;
see also pp. 38f. J. Milton, Paradise Regained (1671), Book
IV, line 347. Molière, Les précieuses ridicules (1659), Scene
X; idem, La critique de l'école des femmes (1663), Scene
VII; idem, La Gloire du Dôme du Val-de-Grâce (1669), line
360. G. Morpurgo Tagliabue, Il concetto di gusto nell'Italia
del Settecento
(Florence, 1962a); idem, “La nozione di gusto
nel secolo XVIII: Shaftesbury e Addison,” Rivista di Estetica,
8 (1962b); idem, La nozione di gusto nel XVIII secolo: E.
(Milan, 1962c). L. A. Muratori, Delle riflessioni sopra
il buon gusto nelle scienze e nell'arti
(Venice, 1708). J. Norris,
Practical Discourses upon several Divine Subjects, 3 vols.
(London, 1691-93), I, 186. Quellenschriften für Kunst-
New Series III (Vienna, 1890), IX, 291. F. Rinuc-
cini, Ricordi storici dal 1282 al 1460 (Florence, 1840),
“Documenti,” p. 148. C. Rollin, Traité de la manière
d'étudier et d'enseigner les belles-lettres
(Paris, 1726), Vol.
I, Réflexions générales sur le goût. R. G. Saisselin, Taste in
Eighteenth Century France
(Syracuse, N.Y., 1965). G. H.
Schramm, Versuch über den philosophischen Geschmack
(Jena, 1772), pp. 12, 49. H. von Stein, Die Entstehung der
neueren Ästhetik
(Stuttgart, 1886): Saint-Evremond, p. 93;
Rapin, Bouhours, p. 93; Batteux, p. 94; Montesquieu, p. 95;
Hutcheson, pp. 188-90; d'Alembert, p. 287; Bodmer, pp.
286-89. J. G. Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste
(Leipzig, 1792), Vol. II, art. “Geschmack,” with important
bibliography. C. Thomasius, Kleine deutsche Schriften
(Halle, 1701), p. 48; idem, Discurs, welchergestalt man denen
Frantzosen im gemeinen Leben nachahmen solle
(1687). G.
Tonelli, Kant, dall'estetica metafisica all'estetica psicoem-
pirica, Memorie della Accademia delle Scienze di Torino,

Series 3, Vol. 3, Part II (Turin, 1955a): Hutcheson, pp. 111f.;
Hume, pp. 100f., 212; Burke, pp. 111f.; Gerard, pp. 102,
112f.; Gottsched, p. 24; König, p. 31; Meier, p. 32; Lessing,
Mendelssohn, Riedel, p. 212; Kant, pp. 59-63, 111, 113f.,
174-77; idem, “Estetici minori britannici del Settecento,”
in Giornale critico della filosofia italiana, 9 (1955b):
Mandeville, p. 31; Hartley, pp. 37f.; Priestley, pp. 204f. B.
Varchi, Storie Fiorentine (Florence, 1857-58), Book VIII, p.
191. L. de Clapier de Vauvenargues, Introduction à la con-
naissance de l'esprit humain
(Paris, 1746), Book I., n. 12,
“Du goût.” R. Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism:
Vol. I (New Haven, 1955): Voltaire, I, 38-42;
Hume, I, 107; Home, I, 109; Johnson, I, 95.


[See also Beauty; Neo-Classicism;Relativism in Ethics;