The logic of the idea of beauty is peculiar. Identifying beauty is not like recognizing the stop sign is red or the wine is full bodied. It’s not an ordinary property that we simply and reliably perceive, and there is no straightforward way of demonstrating “this Pinot Noir is beautiful” to someone who disagrees. No gathering of evidence will suffice.
Neither is a claim to beauty a report about whether one prefers or likes an object. To call a Puligny Montrachet beautiful is not equivalent to saying “I like Puligny Montrachet”, which would be an unremarkable claim and entirely subjective. In calling an object beautiful we are doing something more than expressing a preference. We are inviting others to see what we see (or taste what we taste) with the expectation that they might also share the experience. Claims about beauty seem to occupy a logical space perched tenuously between objectivity and subjectivity. To say something is beautiful invites a demand for evidence and argument that simply would not be demanded of a claim such as “I like Chardonnay”. Yet as noted there seems no way of demonstrating such a claim by gathering empirical evidence. There is therefore plenty of room for a skeptic to doubt there is such logical space.
Thus the skeptic about beauty might well argue we don’t need the term to describe our experience. Talking about how much pleasure we get from an experience suffices in most contexts to communicate something about that experience. “I really enjoyed this sensual Pinot Noir” conveys our judgment of the wine without inviting argument or the expectation that others should enjoy it as well. What does the idea of beauty add?
Thus, to justify invoking the concept of beauty to convey something important about the aesthetic experience of wine, we need to identify the need it fulfills, especially because the claim seems to be making demands on others.
Of course, we would rightly think someone was crass or nuts if they claim to care nothing for beauty. On what grounds would someone legitimately claim to be indifferent about it? Yet, it’s a peculiarity of beauty that we are supposed to care deeply about it but no one can say quite what it is. We can point to examples of beauty but when forced to say what all the examples have in common we come up empty. I suspect this is why some people are skeptical about the whole idea. That we are just talking about the ordinary pleasure we take in the appearance of something with no need to make some further claim. One gets the impression that the art world has come to this conclusion. After the disruptions of 20th Century art, it seems most people in the art world are disillusioned by the concept of beauty. For much of the art world it’s a fusty old term genuflecting toward conventions we no longer take seriously”, something false or inflated that reflective people no longer believe in. Such a view need not reject aesthetic pleasure but merely reject the idea that there is some special property over and above pleasure in appearance that we call beautiful.
However, there is reason to think that beauty is not just about pleasure. When I’m enjoying a glass of wine with dinner, no one can coherently question whether I’m having a pleasurable or painful experience. This is not something I can be mistaken about. I could not say that a wine gave me great pleasure but it turns out I was mistaken about it. That wasn’t pleasure at all.
But such a claim is not absurd with regard to beauty. I does make sense to say “I thought that was beautiful but upon further scrutiny I think I was wrong.” This suggests that there is something more than just perception that beauty captures. Beauty is something that investigation or thought can discover or reject.
Thus, it seems the skeptic is wrong that beauty is just an expression of subjective preference. But we still have to uncover what the idea of beauty can add to a discussion about wine quality.
The stories we have told about beauty through the ages give us some clues about what the idea might add to our concept of wine quality.
More about that in a subsequent post.