Kant, Imagination, and Molecular Gastronomy: Why Kant Was Wrong Part 2

slow poached egg
Slow-poached egg, chorizo, pickled beets, and dried black olives from WD-50

One reason for denying that food and wine are proper objects of aesthetic attention comes from the German philosopher Kant who argued that food and wine provoke in us only an immediate hedonic response—I like it, or I don’t like it. We don’t contemplate, we just enjoy or not. By contrast, when appreciating genuine aesthetic objects, like works of art, we do more than that–we contemplate them, approach them from an impartial point of view, and they engage our imagination and understanding. The enjoyment comes not only from the sensuous engagement with the object but from the interplay of understanding and imagination.

So according to Kant, the pleasure we get from a work of art is fundamentally different from the pleasure we get from basking in the sun, enjoying a cold beer on a hot day, or setting down to a fine meal. These latter pleasures are based purely on desire satisfaction. But art is enjoyed because, in appreciating art, we are forced to engage in an interpretive project that disrupts our settled way of conceiving the world and requires that we experience reality differently. In artistic appreciation, we take pleasure in the play of our imagination and understanding.

I’ve argued in a previous blog post that Kant was mistaken in claiming we cannot contemplate food and wine and wrong that there is a disinterested point of view from which we properly experience works of art. But what is this “play of understanding and imagination” and does that apply to food and wine?

According to Kant, through experience the mind naturally builds up a collection of schemata—templates for various kinds of objects—that help us recognize a dog as a dog or table as a table. When we encounter an object, it is the imagination that selects and structures sensory data so that it matches these templates according to what is the best fit. New experiences of dogs and tables can thus be easily assimilated to our conceptual scheme.

But we are not born with all the templates we need for understanding reality—we have to create new ones when new objects are encountered that are vastly different from our templates. So the imagination also has the ability to sort through sensory experience and invent new templates. When doing so, it can’t simply apply the old templates since they don’t fit the new experience very well. But it can still make use of them if they are close enough to the new experience to be useful. This is what Kant means by the “free play” of the imagination and understanding. The imagination is searching for a concept to fit the new experience but to find a match it has to shape the sensory data to fit existing concepts as best it can, while also shaping existing concepts so they match the new sensory data.

In this exercise of the imagination, we may succeed or fail. There may not be a concept or schema adequate to the new experience. It may elude our understanding.

This is how we are able to make genuine aesthetic judgments.

In a genuine aesthetic judgment, rather than a mere sensuously enjoyable experience like basking in the sun, the imagination experiments with possible ways of restructuring the object. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, especially when that restructuring makes sense to us, when the understanding and the imagination harmonize despite the fact that the imagination is not being thoroughly directed by the fixed templates that normally govern our concepts. We see that the work has an order and unity to it without clearly deciding on a single judgment of what it is or what it does. There is no concept adequate to the experience but that indeterminacy is itself pleasurable. This is when we judge an object beautiful. It is intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.

Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object, as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object.

I doubt that this account of aesthetic pleasure accounts for all genuine aesthetic judgments—it seems too remote from the sensuous experiences we typically associate with the appreciation of art. But it captures perhaps some of our aesthetic judgments. The question is whether the appreciation of food and wine ever takes this form.

And I think it clearly does. This kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensual experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely what molecular gastronomy aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise,  and deconstructive gestures of their dishes aim to provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate.

Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework just as Kant suggested.

Thus, Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as genuinely aesthetic but wrong in his judgment that food could not be the object of such an experience.

One wonders what the old professor, who never ventured more than 10 miles from his home in Königsberg, had on his plate for dinner.



  1. However, Kant had at least enough appreciation for a good dinner to set down elaborate rules for the perfect dinner party: In “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View” he specifies the ideal number of guests: No fewer than three, and no more than nine; moderate use of wine will help the conversation flow; what is said at the table in confidence should stay at the table; the conversation should start with talking about the news, then a discussion should follow, and the dinner should end with jokes. (Somehow I have a hard time picturing Kant telling jokes…) Among the other rules: no dinner music, and no extended silences. The end result should be a good time, with cheerful respect for each participant’s varied viewpoints. However, the quality of the meal/wine truly doesn’t seem to have been part of his scheme. In other words, an excellent wine or a superb entre would be used merely as a means to an end, the end being a good time in good company. Could that qualify as being disrespectful toward good wine/good food? Joking aside, can a superb food experience be of intrinsic value? (Thanks for a great talk at the Philosophy Forum!)

  2. “Could that qualify as being disrespectful toward good wine/good food?”

    In a word, yes. Odd for someone as concerned with respect as Kant was.

    And I think a food experience can have intrinsic value. The instrumental value of food, including the sort Kant mentions, can be quickly and easily satisfied. I doubt that our preoccupation with flavor and the lengths even homecooks go to extract flavor is best explained by any instrumental value.

    Thanks for the comment Nina, and I enjoyed the Forum.

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