Taste, Smell, and Cognition

thinking about wine and foodTraditionally, philosophers have sharply distinguished the higher and lower senses and argued that only objects sensed via sight and hearing can be beautiful. We speak of beautiful paintings, sunsets, and symphonies, but not of beautiful tastes, odors, or textures. This is because it was assumed that sight and hearing are more closely linked to cognition than is taste, smell, or touch. The apprehension of beauty requires cognition but taste and smell are mere sensations that require no intellectual act for their apprehension.

The argument for this view was that vision and hearing direct our attention outward to the external world and give us information about what we see or hear. Through vision and hearing we experience objects at a distance from us in a public world to which others have access. By contrast, taste and smell cause us to focus, not on the object, but on our own experiences. With taste and smell we turn inward and subjective (Through touch we apprehend objects, but not at a distance. Touch is too intimate to qualify as objective knowledge on this view).

Furthermore, taste and smell do not demand an act of cognition.We explore our own private worlds with taste and smell, and there is no common object in the world to which the judgments of tasters must conform.

This of course is all rather silly.

Reflective tasters know the flavors and odors they experience are caused by external objects to which other people have access as well. That is why we take an interest in comparing our experiences. And wine and food lovers seldom taste and smell without taking a cognitive interest in the world that is the source of their delight. We want to know the origin of the ingredients, the methods used to create the wine or the dish, and we constantly compare wines, dishes, and styles seeking patterns that explain what we experience.

Recognizing that an aroma profile is typical of a region or a distinctive expression of a varietal involves involves knowledge of wine regions and varietals. Imagining how a  wine might have been different had other vinification methods been used or coming to believe the wine was from a warm vintage are also cognitive responses. The recognition that a wine is brooding or expresses joy, is comforting or tense, requires not only perceptual competence, but imaginative comparisons between properties of the wine and emotional states.

Cognition is essential to anyone who takes taste and smell seriously.

The traditional philosophical view tells us more about the limited culinary lives of philosophers than it does about the status of taste and smell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.