What is Good Taste, Revisited

wine tasters 5In the philosophical literature on aesthetics, there are two traditional models of what counts as good taste in art and both can be applied to wine.

Last month, I argued that the causal theory advanced by the British empiricist David Hume is mistaken. Good taste is not about our ability to discern individual aromas or textures that explain one’s  experience of pleasure. To summarize:

Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations. No single component can account for them; it is a matter of how the components are related.

The second traditional theory comes from the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant who, I think, gets closer to an answer to what counts as good taste. Alas, Kant did not think wine was worthy of aesthetic attention so I will take some liberties with his view to correct that mistake.

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 or pretty. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation of a particular kind. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.

I think he has in mind something like this.

A beautiful object, a work of art or glass of wine, exhibits an order or unity that cannot be fully described. Neither words nor aesthetic principles are sufficient. There are no rules, he argues, that govern our use of the term “beauty” and, in any case, feelings of pleasure will be an unreliable guide to when we are in the presence of beauty. He apparently thinks that each object exhibits beauty in a different way so we can’t simply point to a set of features that generally cause us to judge something beautiful. We can’t understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or chairs that have determinate, repeatable properties.

Yet, in great works of art, as well as in great wines, 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. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. We have to imaginatively search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object, although we are doomed to fail because, given the indeterminacy of beauty, there is always more to be said. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable—an intellectual fascination with trying to discover all the dimensions that a work has to give. 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.

Of course, some objects won’t repay that much attention. In fact most wines are not of sufficient quality that we want to reflect on them. 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 because no particular principle is ever adequate. Beautiful objects including beautiful wines are intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.

Thus, taste, on Kant’s view must refer to 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.

As I noted above, Kant would never have assented to using his theory to understand the enjoyment of wine or food. “Mouth taste” he argued is a matter of immediately liking or not liking something and does not provoke contemplation as the appreciation of fine art does. But on this point, I think Kant was wrong.

To explain why, let me briefly switch to food as an example. I will get back to wine shortly. Kant’s idea that, in great art, there is a 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 Modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes 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, and 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.

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 or in his glass at dinner.

But what about wine? Wine too is mysterious and a provocation to further exploration, but it fascinates differently from the mysteries of Modernist cuisine. Its capacity for evolution in the bottle and in the glass and the volatile esters that leap from its surface mean that each bottle promises new and different perceptions, and each sip can reveal hidden layers of flavors and fleeting aromas. Great wines have the ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value or monetary reward. These experiences are almost always the result of paradox—power combined with finesse, elegance with carnality, surface sheen and great depth.

These experiences are available with food and wine as well as art and Kant’s view gives us a better understanding of them. However, It is not clear that Kant’s free play of the understanding and imagination quite captures the sheer sensuality of these experiences, whether the object be wine, music, or a work of visual art. It is more like receptively opening up to sensation rather than an intellectual search for a principle. In the end, 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. But I think he is right that there is a dimension of intellectual exploration to these experience that he captures well.

To find out more about how this sensuous dimension intersects with the intellect, you will have to read Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love, especially Chapter 10.

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