Disputing taste

Carolyn Korsmeyer implores us to try a different flavour of thinking

Long dismissed as philosophically inconsequential, the sense of taste is enjoying a sudden appreciation in the discipline. The last several years have witnessed publication of a number of monographs and anthologies on food and drink that, while relatively light-hearted as philosophy goes, nonetheless seriously reassess the tradition that has held in low esteem the “bodily” senses of taste, smell, and touch. The fact that taste operates literally within individual bodies, combined with the familiar variability of preferences for foods, has led this sense to be considered the paradigm of trifling, “subjective” experience. However, reconsideration of the operation of taste and its role in life and culture has prompted new philosophical attention.

The identification of five external senses that provide human beings with information about the world has been around since classical antiquity. So has an explicit hierarchy that ranks those senses according to their importance for the proper function of a human being. At the top of the hierarchy are vision and hearing, because it is those senses that are central to communication and the development of knowledge. Vision is especially adept at gathering large quantities of information about the immediate environment, for the eye can survey vast expanses at a glance. This capacity is aided by the fact that the objects of vision and hearing are distant from the body of the perceiver, affording the opportunity for easy communication about the same objects of perception. In contrast, in its usual operation taste requires intimate contact with its objects, rapidly altering them by chewing and dissolving, and eventually consuming them altogether.

Full taste experiences require conjunction with smell (and typically with touch as well); some researchers group taste and smell together in terms of “mouth-sense”. Both these senses have always ranked low in the hierarchy. This assessment involves a set of charges that one can find in the philosophical literature since Plato, and that may be found in contemporary scientific studies as well. From the latter perspective, taste is usually considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion. Other than this, taste is often regarded by both philosophers and scientists as a relatively rudimentary sense with limited cognitive significance. Its necessary but restricted instrumental value and its dim epistemic capacity sustain the low rank allotted this sense.

Equally abiding moral reasons are apparent once one considers the pleasures that attend sense experience. While pleasures of sight and hearing engage the mind and feed the intellect, supposedly the pleasures of smell, taste, and touch occupy the body, even distracting the subject from intellectual pursuits. Hence the bodily senses represent temptation for self-indulgence – gluttony in the case of taste. The moral perspective provides grounds for what is also a problem with the aesthetic standing of taste, namely a concern about the type of pleasure it affords. Enjoyment of the bodily senses seems (merely) physical and sensuous. Pleasures of the table and those of the bedroom raise similar anxieties, for eating and sex are widely associated activities. To be sure, sometimes that association is extolled rather than condemned, especially in extra-philosophic writing. As a rule, however, the affiliation of eating and sex does not help to raise the status of the sense of taste; rather it confirms its dangers. Aristotle is one of many who warned that taste and touch provide appetitive pleasures that are pursued by brutes as well as humans, and he advised careful moderation in their exercise.

For centuries it was commonly asserted that beauty could only be apprehended by means of the senses of vision and hearing. The Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart linked this putative aesthetic defect of taste to the epistemic aspect of the senses. In his Philosophical Essays (1810) he observed the “intimate association, which … is formed between the Eye and the Ear, as the great inlets of our acquired knowledge; as the only media by which different Minds can communicate together; and as the organs by which we receive from the material world the two classes of pleasures, which, while they surpass all the rest in variety and in duration, are the most completely removed from the grossness of animal indulgence, and the most nearly allied to the enjoyments of the intellect.”

This is a typical sentiment, for the vast majority of philosophers writing about aesthetic taste dismiss or even disparage the literal sense of taste, its objects, and its pleasures, developing the concept of the aesthetic in explicit contrast to bodily taste sensation. Kant’s famous distinction between the sense pleasure of eating and the aesthetic pleasure of beauty merely reiterates what was essentially a philosophical commonplace.

The distance between perceiver and object of perception might be the most important factor in the lower estimate of the importance of the bodily senses of taste and smell. (Touch occupies a kind of bridge position, for by touch one can often confirm the evidence of vision.) Distance prompts attention outward towards the objects of perception. For this reason, Kant classified vision and hearing as “objective” senses, whereas touch, taste, and smell are “subjective” senses that direct attention towards the body of the perceiver. In the act of eating, for example, taste directs attention to sensations occurring in the mouth and on the tongue, and to what is going on as food slides into our interiors. Here our experience, including whether or not we enjoy the sensation, seems especially individual, which gives rise to the common saying, De gustibus non est disputandum: “There is no disputing about taste.” Philosophy is not alone in finding taste sensations idiosyncratic and private, as this commonly quoted adage attests. In fact, taste experiences are held up as the paradigm of private, relative experiences. Philosophers routinely conclude that taste preferences are so individualised that standards are virtually impossible – but also of so little gravity that the absence of standards is of little consequence.

In sum, the sense of taste falls low on the hierarchy of the senses because it seems a poor conduit for knowledge of the external world; it directs attention inward rather than outward; its pleasures are sensuous and bodily, prone to overindulgence that distracts from higher human endeavours; and its objects are at best merely pleasant, not of the highest aesthetic value. Such is the traditional assessment; now let us analyse its justice.

* * * * *

There are multiple uses of the term “taste.” Most obvious in philosophical contexts is the ambiguity between literal taste, the kind that we use everyday when eating and drinking, and the metaphoric use of the term to refer to refined abilities to discern quality in art. A distinction formative to aesthetics, this difference is also summed up in the derogatory expression, “Your taste is all in your mouth,” an insult implying an absence of aesthetic discrimination.

Apart from the metaphoric use in aesthetics, there are several referents for “taste” even for the literal meaning of the term. It may refer to the sense itself and the receptors of the tongue and mouth, to the sensations aroused by eating and drinking, or to the properties possessed by food and drink. Whether referring to the sensory faculty, an experienced sensation, or the properties of objects, taste suffers from charges of “subjectivity.” To an obvious extent it is indeed subjective, for the organs of taste are situated in the mouth of the tasting “subject”, not to mention the fact that tasting usually ends with swallowing. By itself this might not entail the relativity of taste, because it is possible that subjective experiences be uniformly correlated with the same triggering objects. Differences in taste preferences, however, are common, giving rise to disagreements about the quality, delectability, or even edibility of foods. Nonetheless, those disagreements are subject to adjudication.

Despite the formidable tradition that dismisses the sense of taste from philosophical significance, there is no reason to conclude that the relative subjectivity of taste entails either idiosyncratic privacy or the absence of standards for quality. Most obviously, without taste we have no access to an entire domain of properties of objects. No matter how wide the scope of vision or acute the discrimination of hearing, you can’t see or hear flavours. So minimally, taste is the conduit for discovery of flavour properties of objects.

What is more, taste is capable of fine discriminations. Much confusion is bought by the common, pop-science description of taste as sensitive only to four qualities – sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. (Some also include umami – a savoury flavour first recognised by Japanese researchers.) These are categories of flavours, not particular tastes, and certainly with the complement of smell the human ability to discern varieties of flavours is both innately subtle and robustly educable. It is this capacity that underwrites the use of taste as the foundational metaphor for aesthetic discrimination.

Hume made this point long ago in his essay “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), in which the similarities between literal, gustatory taste and aesthetic taste are emphasised. Hume introduced a famous example of a wine-tasting contest to illustrate what he called delicacy of taste – the ability to perceive fine qualities in any object, natural or artistic. And Hume was one of many philosophers who extended taste as the guiding metaphor that designates the ability to discern beauty in nature and art (as well as the term that refers to general social sensitivity).

Given the poor reputation of the gustatory sense, one might be surprised to see it pressed into such delicate service. But several features of the sense of taste dispose it for this usage. Taste requires intimate, first-hand acquaintance with its objects. One cannot judge the taste of food from second-hand reports, and the same may be said of an object of beauty. Furthermore, taste is a sense that nearly always has a value valence – that is, one either likes or dislikes what is tasted. Because modern philosophy widely associates beauty with pleasure, the likes and dislikes that eating typically occasions are parallel to the pleasure-displeasure responses that mark aesthetic evaluations. Perhaps most paradoxically given the dismissal of this sense for its tendency to direct attention only inward toward the body, taste was selected also for its extreme sensitivity to the qualities of its objects. Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art.

The suitability of taste as a root metaphor for aesthetic discernment provides an avenue by which the vague charge of “subjectivity” may be assessed. Tastes are indisputably subjective in that they need to be directly experienced by a perceiving subject, although this feature does not single out this sense in particular. In the case of literal taste, however, this sense of subjectivity appears particularly troublesome because its causal triggers cannot be easily identified externally in the way that visual, audible, and haptic causes can be. (This is changing as more is learned about the chemistry of taste.) What is more, taste happens inside individual mouths; the shared objects of taste are fragmented and dispersed in eating and drinking. The absence of distance comes into play here again: in contrast to the higher senses, the objects of taste are never distant; they are literally inside one.

Nonetheless, taste registers qualities of food and drink that, as a rule, “normal” perceivers are disposed to detect. The fact that the mode of perception is subjective in the sense that it is internal to each perceiver does not entail that taste fails to register objective properties – that is, flavour properties of its objects. And sometimes those objects offer a glimpse of themselves that is memorable – as for example a fine wine. As Barry C Smith puts it in Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, “What is philosophically significant is the way these momentary but lasting experiences can be immediate, transitory, highly personal and yet revelatory of something beyond us: something of whose power and elegance we are made suddenly and lastingly aware.” In other words, the degree to which taste experience is subjective is consistent with the claim that tastes are also of their substances. If there were no objective aspect to tasting, there would be no possibility of developing discriminating taste, which entails that there is something out there to discriminate. This fact situates the sense of taste with both epistemic and aesthetic legitimacy. To return to the three aspects of gustatory taste: the faculty is keenly discerning, the qualities of objects are there to be discerned, and the experience enjoyed (or not) is educated and refinable.

Taste also has a role to play in the adjudication of authenticity of a sort, a matter that is presently under hot dispute as methods of food production are being globally regulated. Defenders of traditional production practices claim, with justice, that taste experiences will change as a result of regulation and marketing – that fruits and vegetables will be increasingly grown for their abilities to withstand shipment, sacrificing more delicate varieties and their flavours; that now-banned wormy cheeses impart a taste experience that will disappear from possibility, and so forth. Quite apart from the practical outcome of these arguments, it is important to note that in these disputes taste is treated as a supremely cognitive sense – precisely the role that it traditionally was denied; for experts can often tell – by means of taste alone – how a product was produced or if flavour has been achieved by chemical surrogates.

The controversies over food production and preparation obviously concern economics, sociology, and history as well as philosophy. But they are also dramatic reminders that food and drink are not merely fuels for the body; they are complex cultural objects, to which taste is uniquely sensitive. Relatedly, flavours are not just objects of simple, bounded sensations. They have meanings and styles insofar as they represent dietary traditions, modes of food preparation, wine and its terroir, and so forth. What is more, the numerous roles of food and drink in rituals, ceremonies, and everyday practices offer multiple examples where the objects of taste exemplify social and cultural meanings, meanings that are at least partly apprehended by means of the tongue. From this direction too, one can see both the cognitive and the aesthetic powers afforded by the sense of taste.

The above relates the sense of taste to matters of epistemology and aesthetics as well as to questions of the metaphysical status of taste properties. In addition to these philosophical connections, there are at least two ethical matters (beyond the concern with self-indulgence) where this sense operates. One is somewhat indirect, though the largest in terms of practical urgency: The central object of taste is food, and food is maldistributed across the globe. Thus any ethical consideration of the objects of taste confronts the problem of world hunger. To be sure, on this point ethicists are less concerned with the sense of taste itself than with the urgent need to feed the starving. But there may be ethical concerns closer to the operation of the sense as well. Against the adage that enjoins disputes about taste, we have already seen aesthetic and epistemic reasons that support the idea that taste qualities are out there in the world to be perceived. But we may ask: Are the pleasures gained thereby ones that should be encouraged or discouraged? Clearly there are aesthetic reasons to expand one’s repertoire of enjoyments, but are there tastes that ought not to be enjoyed, no matter how delicious they might prove to be? Probably the answer is affirmative, for if there are foods that ought not to be eaten – other primates for instance – then one ought not to cultivate a taste for them either. Flavour sensations are rarely pure or isolated; they tie the eater to the object eaten.

In sum, the sense of taste can be defended against nearly all the traits that the hierarchy of the senses would assign it. This conclusion does not attempt to equalise the senses in all their capacities, for each sense is responsive to qualities of the objects proper to it. It is when we re-examine the traditional neglect of those objects, including food and drink, that the importance of taste to the quality of life and culture becomes most evident, and that the philosophical significance of this bodily sense is revealed. Moreover, there is an added bonus, for reflection on the sense of taste and the meanings of its objects deepens the pleasures to be offered by the food and drink we consume each day.

Carolyn Korsmeyer is professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and author of Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, Cornell University Press

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