I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine by Roger Scruton (Continuum) £16.99/$22.95 (hb)
Philosophers of perception often begin their lectures by pointing at a convenient desk or at the white wall at the back of the room and asking their students what they think the precise object of their perception is. In epistemology classes, philosophers move on to the problem of scepticism by confronting their students with the worry that the desk, the wall, and even the whole room, may just be an illusion, the experience being crafted by a malicious demon. What this book argues is that there could be an even more intriguing way into philosophy – by looking at a glass of wine, and sipping it. The philosophical problems that pour out of philosopher Roger Scruton’s guide to wine go noticeably beyond perceptual and epistemological ones – but also, and this is certainly the challenge, succeed in going beyond the fact that wine could be an occasion for philosophy (something the Greeks knew long ago).
There has been a lot of recent philosophical interest in the topic of taste, and especially the taste of wine, first with Questions of Taste, edited by Barry C. Smith, then Blackwell’s collection, Wine and Philosophy. This book offers a very enjoyable extension, from a single – and singular – voice; it also serves a highly valuable function in exploring, in more detail, certain new and under-developed connections between philosophy and wine.
Wine, admits Scruton, is evocative in the sense of favouring associations, and this book has certainly been written to commemorate wonderful bottles. The enthusiast will recognise the great and the good, from Ausone to Romanée Conti, but the novice can just trust Scruton’s descriptions and selections to guide her through a far from dull landscape. Wine is also highly enjoyable, and makes you merry, and this book does its best to be true to its topic in being highly pleasurable.
The last pages, on pairing wine and philosophers, are hilarious – especially when you come to appreciate their good taste and judgement. You wouldn’t open a bottle of champagne when reading Wittgenstein.
Refusing the academic definition of philosophy as the disembodied exercise of an impersonal mind, Scruton shows why it can be defined as the ability to care for the general and the exemplary in one’s individual experience. An autobiographical journey takes us from intimate confessions; the first stolen mouthful, the initial transgression, not of jam, as in Rousseau, but of a Bordeaux; the first offered glass of a village Chassagne-Montrachet, and how the experience is enough to call for the scaling up to a tour of French vineyards; human encounters and tasting experiences; and then round the world, where the personal meets the political.
Scruton’s literary and philosophical references are no less fine than his wine references. While the initial journey reminds us that wine is a question of experience, memory, knowledge, and sharing, it is also connected with themes that would be familiar to Scruton’s readers – the role of knowledge in musical experiences, the sacred nature of sharing in both its erotic and religious forms.
The book is not short of theses, expressed in the form of firm and flamboyant claims, and it’s surprising to see how many connections the author makes with wine. These include: objections against globalisation, conformism, ignorance, the praise of nature, the wisdom of the land, the necessity of individual moderation in the use of pleasure. Thus, the book takes the reader beautifully from the anecdotal and descriptive, to the normative, in a way that requires the reader to give in to some rather big claims. But the novelty of the topic and Scruton’s colourful tone make it an enjoyable surrender.
Wine also brings a full crop of questions to the philosophy of perception (do we taste places, as we may hear sources?) and raises further conceptual issues (is intoxication a natural kind, and does it divide into distinct forms?). Still, one could regret that some of the argument goes missing – and that some of the solutions are offered as the only possible ones, and the only rescue in a world where binge drinking, narrow-mindedness, narcissism and stupidity have become so common. It is as if a position were justified alone by its occupying a certain place in history in the context of a certain culture. Still, in closing the book, you may wonder whether this isn’t another intimate connection between wine and philosophy.
Ophelia Deroy lectures in philosophy of mind at the University of Paris XII, and is an associate member of the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris