Criticism and Objectivity: A Moral Imperative

wine-ratingQuestions about the objectivity of food or wine appreciation could be easily resolved if a certain picture of how taste works were true. That picture is this: There are chemical compounds in food and wine that stimulate our taste buds which in turn send signals to the brain that enable us to identify the taste. Both the chemical compounds in the food and the sensitivity of the taste buds are objectively measurable and the signals to the brain bypass the areas of the brain devoted to higher-level cognitive functioning. There is salt in the food, then you taste salt—no interpretation or complex judgment is involved.

According to this view, a wine or food expert would be someone who is more skilled than ordinary people at detecting these compounds and reporting their presence. Because these compounds and our taste sensitivities are measurable, we can determine objectively who the experts are and how much expertise they have. Essentially, the difference between an expert and a non-expert would be a physiological difference in taste sensitivity, much like an explanation of color blindness.

But this is not how we experience food or wine. Although something like this picture may be correct with regard to basic tastes—salt, sugar, sour, bitter, and umami—the world of flavor is more complex.  A restaurant review that discussed only the level of basic tastes in the food would be worse than useless. It is not at all obvious that olfactory sensations, which make up the bulk of what we experience as flavor, are direct, non-cognitive responses to compounds in food. And the interactions of various flavors are not reducible to a simple sensation explainable as a physiological difference.

The problem with this model of food appreciation is that it ignores the well-established fact that tastes are cognitively penetrable—that is, our beliefs about what we are eating or drinking and our emotional states influence what we taste. Memories, personal preferences, cultural beliefs, expectations, mood, atmosphere, brand loyalties, labels, price, the cute chef all contribute to our judgments about what is worth eating or drinking.

So where does that leave the possibility of objectivity?  The worry is that all these cultural and personal influences obscure whatever link there is to the object we are tasting making our judgments thoroughly subjective. Of course, many people are willing to concede that taste is thoroughly subjective. But that would entail that we must accept claims such as “Shakespeare is no better than Jersey Shores”,” a plate of overcooked pasta is just as tasty as a finely prepared Tuscan steak”, “Two-Buck Chuck can stand up to that Petrus”, etc. This concession is just lazy and doesn’t explain our experience.

Philosophers have been thinking about this issue for centuries, not only with regard to taste, but with regard to our perceptual sensations in general. One solution is to note that our experience is intelligible only if we assume it is organized around certain fixed categories that can be understood through conceptual analysis. That is not a bad solution with regard to perceptions of time and space, but our taste experience seems too variable and unstable to be explained in terms of fixed categories.

The alternative is to hold that all these personal and cultural influences can be sorted out and set aside by careful reflection and training allowing the real, objective features of the object to shine through. But there is too much disagreement among experts who engage in careful reflection to persuade skeptics.

So what is the solution? There is no bright, shiny solution because there is no reason to think our taste mechanisms have evolved in a way that enables their separation from memory,  individual variation, cultural influence, etc. But what we can do as critics is reduce the signal of these factors in order to focus on what is intrinsic to food or wine.

For instance, most wine critics agree that wines ought to be judged according to their balance, structure, typicity, complexity, power, elegance, etc. Why are these more important than the attractiveness of the label, the social signal sent by owning the bottle, the price, or how the wine makes you feel? The first group of criteria tells you about the wine; the second group does not. The first group of criteria keeps the focus on fermented grape juice; the second loses that focus. Disagreements between critics within those criteria inevitably raise questions about personal preference but that is neither pernicious nor misleading if such disagreements highlight features of the wine we might not have noticed.

Objectivity in this context means something like “respecting the object for its intrinsic features”, a moral imperative rather then an epistemic state. It seems to me, that is what we want out of a critic, whether it is criticism of wine, food, books, or art. It does not involve pure impartiality whatever that would mean, but rather a kind of bounded impartiality that attempts to wall off irrelevant factors while keeping intrinsic factors front and center.

6 comments

  1. While I think I can see the point of the kind of middle ground you’re looking for, I worry that the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction is not the right way to get there.

    On the one hand, I doubt that your putatively uncontroversially relevant features —
    “balance, structure, typicity, complexity, power, elegance” are intrinsic. E.g., surely balance/structure/power/complexity/elegance in a wine is constituted partly in relation to the kinds of sensory endowments we happen to have? For wouldn’t a creature with a sensory endowment like our own but, say, much more sensitive to sugars genuinely disagree with us about the application of these predicates?
    (And surely typicity is even more clearly not intrinsic?)

    And on the other hand: what’s so (morally or aesthetically) bad about non-intrinsic features per se? Agreed, there are lots of non-intrinsic features that we don’t want our critical practice (given whatever interests and aims we have) to revolve around, and your examples about social signals and the like may well fall into this category. But this doesn’t show non-intrinsic features should be excluded from the evaluation; it only shows (what should have been obvious anyway) that not all non-intrinsic features are appropriate evaluative targets (given the evaluative aims we contingently have).

    Indeed, because I agree with you that something like balance IS potentially relevant, and because that feature strikes me as plausibly NOT intrinsic, I would have thought these considerations actually give reason for taking seriously the idea that non-intrinsic properties of a wine SHOULD figure in our evaluation of it. No?

  2. Jonathan,

    I don’t intend the word “intrinsic” to mean non-relational. (I daily curse Moore for packing that assumption into the concept).

    My point is more about critical practice than it is about the metaphysics of properties. If the worry about wine and food criticism is that our beliefs, emotions, etc. cause us to lose touch with objective features of reality, then the antidote is to focus on features of the object and try to keep the subjective factors that might cause us to lose touch with the object to a minimum. Although it is often hard to know how environmental, social, and psychological factors are influencing judgement, we are not utterly helpless in that regard. A good critic is one who tries to understand what biases he/she might have and tries to minimize their influence, while never achieving anything like perfect objectivity. Part of the authority of the critic stems from relative success in this regard.

    In aesthetics there is a rough distinction between features that are “in the work” vs. features that are external to the work. Although formalist criticism makes too much of this distinction and Goodman did a good job of showing the ambiguities therein, the distinction can be effective at articulating the approach of a responsible critic. The aim is to understand the object and to bring viewers, listeners, or tasters to understand the object as well. A review in which one learns more about the work than the critics personal preference is (other things being equal) a good review.

    I suppose, to carry this thought a bit further, my approach to the problem of objectivity is to bring epistemic virtues into the picture.

  3. Dwight:
    Thanks for the clarification. I’m afraid, however, that if you don’t want to appeal to relationality, then I don’t have much of a handle on your distinction between features of the wine/work and features external to the work. (I guess I also don’t know what you mean by ‘intrinsic’. Ah,well.)

    I would have thought that what you learn from the attribution of the (relational) properties on your good-critical-practice list is not just about the object, not just about the critic who applies it, but about the interaction between the two. If that’s allowed for critically kosher attributes, then the question — a question about critical practice, not just about metaphysics of properties — is how to distinguish between such cases and the critically-bad attributes you want to exclude.

    I was thinking that your proposal to respect the intrinsic features rather than the others (or, to recast this in equivalent epistemic virtue terms, the proposal that we should cultivate the epistemic/critical virtue of attending to the intrinsic features rather than the others) was being offered as a principled answer to that question. But maybe that’s not what you had in mind?

    1. This deserves more than a quick comment but what I have in mind is this. “Intrinsic” as I’m using the term has nothing to do with non-relationality. Everything is relational, so that isn’t the issue.

      By “intrinsic” I’m referring to something like “internal properties that enable the fullest expression of something’s nature”. These properties will be in part relational because whether something expresses its nature depends on many external factors. For instance, there are many ways to use carefully- produced fermented grape juice. You can take a bath in it if you want.But that is not the use that best expresses the nature of wine. Neither is using it as a status symbol or vehicle for a pretty label. Why? Because so much of the wine’s potential significance is wasted. When taking a bath in wine or using it as a vehicle for a label the wine “as such” isn’t doing much work–the social context, or psychological pathology, or whatever is the motive does the work. That it is wine “as such” seems irrelevent.

      Now of course using wine as an aesthetic object also requires a social context, a variety of normative assumptions, etc. The significance of any object will depend on human purposes. What I’m suggesting is that a responsible critic or just someone who genuinely appreciates wine will focus on those features that enable wine’s most powerful expression given what wine is and what it can do. There will be disagreement about what constitutes features like balance, typicity, complexity, structure, etc. But I take it all of them are criteria for evaluation because of certain causal powers in the wine that these criteria are useful at identifying. Thus, the critic is maintaining contact with the object.

      None of this is apriori. We could discover tomorrow some wonderful cleansing property that wine has, or society could decide that red stains on skin are lovely, both of which would enhance the significance of wine as a medium for bathing. But that would entail a radical shift in context. And moreover, in those cases, we would still be appreciating wine for its intrinsic properties.

  4. Thanks again for the clarification — I definitely didn’t see that this kind of view was behind your initial remarks about objectivity.

    You allow we could appreciate wine for some quite different of its intrinsic properties, other than those that are expressed by its being balanced, complex, etc. So suppose I appreciate wine’s amazing capacity to demarcate social status. It is great at that — that’s one of the things that wine, as such, does amazingly well. Why isn’t that among the many most powerful expressions of what wine is and what it can do? Ie, why can’t that count as intrinsic, on your view?

    You might say: well, that could count as an intrinsic property relative to some end that I don’t happen to have, so I don’t care. But then I worry that, despite the talk about intrinsic natures and all, at the end of the day you haven’t provided a further/non-question-begging justification for restricting critical attention to balance complexity and typicity (which you happen to care about but someone else does not) rather than capacity to confer social status (which you happen not to care about but someone else does). At that point it starts to sound a bit like a preference for chocolate over vanilla; and it’s always disappointing when that happens in philosophy….

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