Disputing Taste

water lillies“To each his own”. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Platitudes about disagreement over taste are a “dime a dozen”, as numerous as platitudes about cheap stuff. And indeed, disagreements about sensory experiences are often pointless. If I happen to like red roses and you like yellow roses there is not much I can say to convince you you’re wrong. There just isn’t any reason why you should share my preferences.

But in the realm of art appreciation matters are different. If I like Monet’s Water Lilies and you don’t, I can give you reasons why you should like the painting and can, perhaps justifiably, criticize you if you don’t “get it”. I can intelligibly argue that you lack sensitivity toward certain aesthetic properties. Of course, I could be wrong in my criticism. My point is that the very idea of me criticizing your inability to appreciate Monet would not be a head scratcher like my criticism of your preferences for yellow roses would be.

So preferences for works of art seem less subjective than preferences for colors. Conclusions about a work of art seem to prescribe a certain way of looking at the work; conclusions about ordinary sensory experiences don’t. When we make judgments about music, books, or art we think people ought to agree with us and when they don’t we think it is at least worth some effort to persuade them otherwise. In other words, in the realm of art, literature or film I assume my reasons can at least in principle make sense to you if properly laid out and that I can potentially move you from disagreement to agreement with my argument. I take it all of us have had the experience of being persuaded that a film or book we didn’t like was actually better than we thought after hearing someone else’s reasons.

So where does wine (and food) fit? Are our judgments utterly subjective like a preference for the color red or are there reasons for them that can potentially persuade? Obviously, the whole practice of wine evaluation and criticism suggests judgments about wine are more like judgments about art than color preferences. We argue about wine just as we argue about art or books.

The case against the intelligibility of wine criticism is that wine appreciation involves tastes and smells which allegedly are more private than vision or audition because they involve individual differences in biological and psychological makeup. Tastes and aromas are not “in the world” like colors or sounds. But this doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not to the degree that renders all judgments about wine subjective. We can agree that a wine feels tannic or tastes of ripe fruit just as we can agree that a rose is red, although with wine it takes some training to do so. The many objective tasting exams given by various certification agencies show that tastes and smells can be reliably identified and agreed upon by different people over time.

Even some wine preferences are widely shared. Few trained experts would dispute that Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa make great wines and we can point to features that make them great. Of course, at some point, individual idiosyncrasies take over. We don’t agree on which Napa Cabs are the best.  We can expect to get agreement without succeeding; we can give reasons that don’t persuade. But that is true of disagreements in art as well. In both cases the possibility of agreement is intelligible and the methods of persuasion clear even when unsuccessful.

It’s clear from this that the idea that wine appreciation is utterly subjective is false. It is also clear however that the terms “objective” and “subjective” don’t capture the range of options available in explaining our capacity for judgment.

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