Queer Flavors

duck rabbit The question of whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind” is difficult to answer, in part, because even experienced wine tasters disagree about what they are tasting.

I’ve been arguing (here) that this disagreement can be mitigated (although not eliminated) by carefully choosing the proper comparison class for a wine, which involves putting it in the proper category.

This amounts to a claim that at least some flavors are relative, not to the idiosyncratic preferences of individuals, but to pragmatic, intersubjective agreements among experts about what we look for in a wine—the values of a wine tasting community. This is not full-blown objectivity—the idea of “proper category” will sometimes be contested—but its not “chopped liver” either.

Philosopher Barry Smith in a short article in the journal Nature takes a different approach to this question. (Thanks to Jamie Goode for posting this.)

The task [for analytical chemists] is to relate the underlying chemical compounds in a wine to the relatively stable flavours they create, whereas it is the task of psychologists and neuroscientists to chart the complex relationship between flavours and flavour experiences — explaining why the latter can vary as a result of conditions internal and external to the taster. Only by recognizing flavours as intermediaries between the chemical compounds in a wine and our individual reactions to it can we hope to bridge the two.

Smith seems to be claiming that in addition to the objectively-observable chemical constituents of the wine and the private, subjective taste experiences of tasters, there is a third, intermediate object. This intermediate object is a flavor that each taster is trying to identify, yet is independent of our psychological experiences. In this brief article, Smith does not say much about what this “intermediate object is”. But apparently it is neither “in the wine” nor “in the mind”. So where is it, and what is it? This “intermediate object” is a strange sort of thing—“ontologically queer” in the jargon of philosophers.

But Smith’s article did remind me of a common experience that lends some plausibility to his argument.

When tasting with a group of experienced tasters, it is common that there will be many competing descriptions of the flavor profile of a wine. I might think a wine exhibits strong strawberry notes but someone else may say “no, I think that is raspberry”. Upon hearing this competing description I may grant that although I’m tasting strawberry that flavor might very well be interpreted as  raspberry. I can see the point of both descriptions just as I can see the drawing above as a duck or a rabbit. Someone else might plausibly mention red plum. We are unlikely to be having the same experience, but given the similarities between the descriptions, it is likely we are tasting the same thing—we just have slightly different interpretations of it. If someone were to jump in and say, “oh, I think that is lychee”, the best explanation of the latter response would be that she is not sensing the same object at all.

Smith’s invention of a flavor that is independent of both psychological responses (in the mind) and chemical properties (in the wine) is one way of capturing this common experience of competing interpretations of the same object—just as one person might see the above photo as a rabbit, another as a duck, but we can see the point of both descriptions.

Perhaps this “flavor” is a kind of virtual idea that lacks a clear identity but can nevertheless be sensed, and that reaches into the separate experiential histories of individual subjects to provoke differing responses.

It is “ontologically queer” but interestingly so.

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