Jean-Baptiste Dubos’s main work ‘Les Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture’ published in 1719 and widely read throughout that period. Indeed, it was to become influential on the philosophy of David Hume as can be seen in his earlier essays and especially in the seminal ‘On the Standard of Taste’. Dubos was a colleague of Pierre Bayle, with whom he shared a similar sceptical philosophical outlook, but it is mainly Dubos contribution to the debate between the ancients and the moderns that was of interest to Hume.
At this time there was an avocation for a total rejection of the methods of the ancients, which Bacon and Descartes most strongly cites as being unfounded, that is, based on their own reason rather than by observation for their claims and that their failure to amass any significant data left their general laws as simply a matter of speculation. However, much of Hume’s motivations led him to pull in opposite directions. In some regards he was aligned with the ancients and in others, a reluctance to appeal merely to authority, this led him to advance the case for the moderns. In Dubos this moderation was to be found also.
One of the greatest of which is man’s need to remain occupied, that is, to dismiss the occurrence of ennui - the gripping boredom that renders all activities worthless. However, Dubos is reluctant to describe art as a creation whose (sole) outcome is the removal of ennui; instead he considers that most useful discoveries, whether they are of science or art, might have come about by pure chance. In thus dissuading us from the idea of a view of art as potentially an activity with a sole practical outcome, it seems that Dubos has removed the ‘natural’ origin certain human activities. Indeed, when he then goes on to describe the pleasures that art raises as being artificial (passions artificielles) it occurs that this description might be seen as motivated by his original description of discoveries being made possibly without a constructive hypothesis, by pure chance, so that their apparent weakness is founded is their separation from (pure?) reason. At any rate, Dubos wants to describe the passions raised by art as being weaker in three specific areas; that they are less serious than real passions, that they have no effect upon reason, and are of a much shorter duration. However, despite this they still can have the effect of satisfying our natural need for removing the onset of ennui.
“For Dubos, natural pleasures are always the satisfaction of needs, and the greater the need, the greater the pleasure in its satisfaction.” (Jones, p.95)
Dubos also makes a distinction in our approach and reception to poetry and painting (as might be expected from the work’s title). Works of poetry are mostly only studied in any critical depth by fellow practitioners and academics, all others read poetry merely as an entertainment, that is, for amusement. Therefore, we do not read poetry to receive a ‘lesson’ and if any lessons might be drawn from a poem it is not for the sake of such lessons that poetic works are read. Dubos considers words as ‘arbitrary signs’ which arouse ideas that our imagination can order into affecting pictures. However, in contrast, painting gives us these objects as representations of natural signs in a quicker and more immediate fashion. The mechanical system of creating images that is present in poetry renders poems as more artificial than the more affecting painting.
Jones, Peter (1982). Hume's Sentiments: Their Ciceronian and French Context, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press