Why Are Philosophers Skeptical about Taste?

wine tasters 6Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.

But this marginalization of food and wine is a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant at the end of that century broke up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.

What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate purely sensory response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.

This view would come as a surprise to serious wine lovers who spend hours contemplating a 2005 Chateau Margaux carefully delineating each aroma note, analyzing the balance and structural components, connecting them to features of terroir or stylistic choices of the winemaker while comparing it to other vintages and wines in its comparison class.

And of course similar processes can be found in the appreciation of cheese, coffee, and beer, not to mention the flavorists who analyze food preferences for the food industry.

Kant’s assumptions are so soundly refuted by contemporary tasting practices, it’s hard to understand why he is still taken seriously on this matter.

But his view still predominates among people writing on aesthetics.

One might conclude that philosophers are no better at challenging conventional “wisdom” than the proverbial man on the street.


  1. Hi, I’d like to congratulate you on your career and its impact on our students and, more broadly, on the Philosophy curriculum at Mesa. We were fortunate to find you among the many applicants for the position. Of the various decisions I was called upon to make, your hiring was among the best.

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