Food and the Imagination: Why Kant was Wrong Part 1

imagination Among philosophers who think about aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.

Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to destroy the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day.

What were his arguments? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous  preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not just to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.

As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts (here, here, and here) we have the capacity to contemplate food and wine beyond an immediate hedonic response–Kant was wrong about that. Food and wine can be thoughtfully savored and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.

So what does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food? According to Kant, such genuine aesthetic contemplation results in (1) disinterested satisfaction, and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding.

What is “disinterested satisfaction”? Like the pleasure we get from “mouth taste”, disinterested satisfaction also refers to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure upon which we base a judgment. But such pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—whether that be an interest in having our senses gratified or in some practical interest like an interest in profiting from the object. In other words, in genuine aesthetic experience the feeling of pleasure and the judgment of beauty do not rest on a desire.Thus, the experience does not depend on a private condition or idiosyncratic preference, according to Kant.

Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate the way the object causes the free play of the imagination and understanding which gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction.

Because our judgment is disinterested, and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are, therefore, justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely.  Thus, our judgment of beauty, because it does not rest on something thoroughly private and peculiar to an individual, is capable of being communicated to others, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that the object is beautiful.

Since is it not our desires speaking through our genuine aesthetic judgments but rather our shared cognitive faculties, aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal. The problem for mouth taste is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested, unlike the satisfaction we get from music or painting.

So what is wrong with this picture? Many critics have pointed to difficulties in understanding how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in the beautiful produce desire?

But there is a deeper problem that I think is fatal to Kant’s view.

The most plausible contemporary account of desire is provided by Timothy Schroeder who develops a view of desire and pleasure that incorporates what contemporary neuroscience has to say on the subject. In the course of analyzing the nature of desire he defines pleasure as follows: “To be pleased is (at least) to represent a net increase in desire satisfaction relative to expectation.” (See Three Faces of Desire, Chap. 3)

In other words, there is no such thing as a pleasure that is not dependent on a desire. Pleasure just is a representation of a change in desire satisfaction. Thus, according the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as a disinterested pleasure. Kantian aesthetics rests on a fiction.

If there is no distinction between pleasures based on desires and pleasures not based on desires then at least part of the basis for Kant’s distinction between pleasures we get from food and wine vs. pleasures we receive from intellectual contemplation evaporates.

Of course, it may be the case that the second dimension of Kant’s theory—contemplation based on the “free play of understanding and imagination” might give us some reason to maintain Kant’s view of the inferiority of mouth taste as an object of genuine aesthetic appreciation.

But this is enough Kant for now. I will take up the free play of understanding and imagination in a future post.


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