Contemplation and Desire: The Case of Food and Wine

wine and beautyAs I noted in a post last month, one of the main arguments against taking the aesthetics of food and wine seriously is that “mouth taste” doesn’t provoke contemplation in the way that the visual arts, literature, or music provokes contemplation. This argument was made by 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant and it still receives support from some philosophers today.  As I pointed out in that post, connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.

So what does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food or wine? According to Kant, such genuine aesthetic contemplation results in (1) disinterested satisfaction, and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding.

What is “disinterested satisfaction”? According to Kant, genuine aesthetic pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—the object’s usefulness, ability to serve our needs, or prospects for earning a profit are not part of the experience. Instead, when contemplating works of fine art, we revel in the pure appearance of the object because we have no interest in what it can do for us. In other words, in genuine aesthetic experience the feeling of pleasure and the judgment of beauty do not rest on a desire. Thus, the experience does not depend on a private, subjective condition or idiosyncratic preference, according to Kant.

Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate the way the object causes the free play of the imagination and understanding which gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction. Food or wine by contrast, is appreciated because it relieves hunger, thirst, entertains guests, or in the case of wine gives you a buzz. The appreciation of food and wine is inherently bound up with a practical purpose and is thus not disinterested.

This also means that art and music, unlike food, engage our critical faculties. Because our judgments about art are disinterested, and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are, therefore, justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree with our subjective judgments, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely. Thus, our judgments regarding the beauty of art or music, because they do not rest on desires that are thoroughly private and peculiar to an individual, are capable of being communicated to others, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that an object is beautiful.

Since is it not our desires speaking through our genuine aesthetic judgments but rather our shared cognitive faculties, aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal. The problem for mouth taste is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested, unlike the satisfaction we get from music or painting. Judgments about art are subject to criticism because they aspire to be universal whereas judgments about food are not. If a person fails to like chocolate, they cannot be criticized for that failure; by contrast if they fail to like Rembrandt’s paintings they can be criticized for lack of aesthetic sensitivity.

So what is wrong with this picture? It’s difficult to understand how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in the beautiful produce desire? Pleasure is obviously something one wants. I doubt there is such a thing as a pleasure that is not connected to our motivational states, especially desires.

Thus, Kant’s theory of aesthetic appreciation rests on a fiction. If there is no distinction between pleasures based on desires and pleasures not based on desires then at least part of the basis for Kant’s distinction between pleasures we get from food and wine vs. pleasures we receive from intellectual contemplation evaporates.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.