A few weeks ago I posed the question what is good taste, without making much progress on the topic.
It can’t be merely a sense for what is appropriate given contemporary social conventions because people who are alleged to have good taste, artists and critics for example, often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.
But one of the most popular philosophical theories of taste—the causal theory suggested by David Hume in the 18th Century—also seems inadequate. Hume thought of good taste as the ability, acquired through practice, to detect the features of a painting, piece of music, or wine that cause us to feel pleasure. But no list of features will adequately explain aesthetic judgments. To use winetasting as an example, a wine’s quality involves concepts such as structure, balance, complexity, and intensity which produce even more abstract qualities such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. But no list of facts about an object, regardless of how subtle or difficult to discern, will fully explain why we experience a wine as balanced or delicious.
Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It’s not like picking out oak flavors. It’s a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?
I think Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, gets us closer to an answer. When I judge something to be beautiful, I do so because I like it. But what about it do I like? For Kant, the pleasure I get from a genuinely beautiful object does not lie in the fact I find it agreeable. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.
Interpreting Kant is a rather perilous journey but I think he has in mind something like this.
A beautiful object is striving to represent an order or unity that cannot be fully articulated. There are no words or aesthetic principles that can fully describe it. Contra Hume, we can’t simply point to a set of features that cause pleasure because that will not capture what is unique about a particular work. So we can’t understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or tax returns that have determinate, repeatable features. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. Yet there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can’t mean anything we want it to mean. We have to search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object while never quite succeeding. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, when the work has an order and unity to it that we sense but can’t describe.
Of course, some objects won’t repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we’ve come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. But according to Kant, an object is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. The object has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it. Beautiful objects inspire us to dream up new principles because no principle is adequate to grasp it.
Taste is therefore our ability to determine whether an object is worth reflecting on, whether it will repay our attention and produce endless fascination. A person of good taste discovers new patterns to explore, finds unexpected avenues of meaning, and responds with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something.
So what do we discern when we identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? Perhaps these are clues to the presence of some new, unexplored facet of the wine that encourages exploration. But there is something that doesn’t seem right about this. Don’t we revel in the deliciousness or elegance without worrying about where it is taking us. Kant’s view seems too intellectual, too bound up with understanding to account for our fascination with the sensuous surface of things, the pure enjoyment of appearances.
So I fear we are not quite there in our pursuit of good taste.
Maybe if I open another bottle the answer will become clear.