The objective of this dissertation is to bring gustatory taste and food into philosophical discussions of art. A big part of human life, taste and food, are just beginning to get the philosophical attention they merit. I join authors such as Carolyn Korsmeyer, whose work has been deeply influential, in an effort to deepen our aesthetic understanding and artistic relevance of literal taste and food.
Chapter One identifies the intimate relationship of taste to the body as the fundamental problem that prevented previous traditions from considering taste and food philosophically. I examine the assumptions and conclusions of traditional authors of aesthetics such as Plato, Aristotle, Hutcheson, Hume, and Kant, in an attempt to uncover why, and on what grounds, taste has been ousted from philosophical discussions of aesthetic capability. I do this by closely examining their work and its foundations. Throughout the first two Sections I highlight the importance of bodily experience as an argument against the grounds on which the ancients devalued the sense of taste. In the third Section I attempt to establish taste as having aesthetic capabilities, including the ability to be disinterested, and then go on to describe an aesthetic use of taste.
Chapter Two questions the artistic status of food. Using comparisons of food to other arts as working grounds, the unique nature of food emerges, making the question of whether or not food is an art a challenge to answer. I examine aspects such as the role of food in culture, as well as the sensual perception of food, noting similarities and differences. It becomes clear that being able to label food as an art by the standards set by the other arts is not the most fruitful goal. While many aesthetic qualities of food are shared by other arts, many are particular to food. Continuing to use comparisons as an informative method, the focus is shifted to the philosophical importance of taste and food. In the last Section of this chapter, Nietzsche draws our attention to the process of food preparation and some of the ways food and taste cultivate a strong intellect and virtuous character. Ultimately, I conclude that besides being an area of extreme interest, a study of taste and food has a lot to offer the philosophical discipline of aesthetics.
Chapter One: The Taste Debate – Is It Or Is It Not An Aesthetic Sense?
Sections One and Two will examine an initial claim of ancient philosophers that sets the groundwork for future philosophical thought. I will explain why these ideas, though possessing their own merit, have been destructive toward the goal of considering taste as an aesthetic sense. We begin with Plato, whose attitude toward taste and the bodily senses is dismissive, and then move on to Aristotle’s more temperate account of taste. Both theories incorporate foundational elements that will persist through aesthetic and moral philosophical thought, so it is important to understand why their treatment of taste is unfair or incomplete.
In Section Three we will consider the sense of taste in the light of three of the most influential aesthetic philosophers: Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. Their theories of the human beauty-perceiving faculty will allow us to determine that the sense of taste does indeed contribute to the perception of the beautiful as much as any of our five external senses. Hutcheson’s ideas set up a useful paradigm regarding the aesthetic faculty, and provide other points of interest to consider in relation to taste. The main argument against taste as an aesthetic sense is implicit in Kant’s important distinction between the merely agreeable and the beautiful. Hume’s theory is most sympathetic to the idea of taste as an aesthetic sense and goes a long way to support it. By going back to these 18th century ideas, I hope to clarify how the sense of taste fits, albeit uniquely, within traditional theories of aesthetics.
1: Ancient Misconceptions
“If a tulip could talk, and told you: ‘My vegetation and I are two beings, though obviously joined together’, would you not ridicule the tulip?”
Following Carolyn Korsmeyer’s historical approach, I begin with Plato and Aristotle’s account of the senses where taste is placed low on the hierarchy. In her book, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, she points to Plato and Aristotle’s attitude as the “origin of the conceptual framework that distort[s] our understanding” of taste. To do this she examines the Timaeus, a dialog in which the ways “living bodies interact with things outside themselves”, and thus, the senses are considered. To understand how the hierarchy of the senses was established, we must first consider the perspective from which it developed.
Though not exclusive to this dialogue, the idea of humans being composed of two parts, the immortal rational soul, and the mortal body including parts of the soul that die with it (passions and appetite), is elaborated. The immortal substance made from the immortal creator of the universe was divided up according to the number of stars and each was assigned to a star.
Now, when they should be implanted in bodies…it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions…If they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed…and did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired…[until by a] victory of reason over the irrational [he would be] returned to the form of his first and better state.
The bodily life, then, is described as a test that immortal souls must pass through, and the sensations, some of the greatest dangers. It is through the temptation of the senses that one acquires an evil that condemns them to living mortal human lives, rather than the better immortal life of a star. This way of thinking brings to mind many of the principles of Christianity, including original sin; to be embodied at all, and certainly a second or third time, is a sort of punishment, meaning that you have done something wrong. Those that pass through embodiment righteously, as masters of their mortal faculties, return to their immortal existence, free from the toils of being human. We see that already built into the foundational beliefs of Platonic philosophy is the idea that the senses are an obstacle for the immortal being, the rational soul.
As Korsmeyer puts it: “[t]he philosophic life for Plato requires that the body be transcended as much as possible during life, so that the intellect may ascend to the apprehension of the ideal world of permanence, where truth may be glimpsed”. On one hand, the senses distract bodily transcendence by seducing us through sensation. On the other hand, the senses act a medium through which an embodied soul can try to
apprehend knowledge and wisdom. The senses are, after all, the way in which humans experience the world around them. Based on the necessity of human sensuousness and the dangers it poses, a hierarchy is established.
Sight and hearing are supposed by Plato to be the most useful senses to the intellect and also not very threatening as far as temptation goes. He attributes the origin of all rational inquiry among men, the whole of philosophy, to the powers of sight and hearing. Through sight and speech man surveys and names objects of his world, thus powers of organizational thought, including conception of time are attributed to these senses.
God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them…that we…partak[e]…of the natural truth of reason….The same may be affirmed of speech and hearing. They have been given by the gods to the same end and for a like reason.
None of the senses are free from error, however sight and hearing were considered to “be sensory aids in the development of wisdom, while the proximal, bodily senses tempt one to detours of pleasure that impede progress toward knowledge.” It seems that the bodily senses are condemned because of the great deal of temptation associated with them. Touch, smell and taste may be easily associated with appetitive temptation. Taste and smell tempt one to overindulge in eating; “it does, after all, provide much of the enjoyment of eating, and such enjoyment is a temptation to indulgence and gluttony”. This is just as the pleasures of touch tempt one inappropriately or to overindulge in sexual appetites. However, sight and hearing are equally if not more threatening at times to the apprehension of truth when we consider the gravity of visual or auditory illusions. Despite this, touch and taste were regarded as more dangerous, but precisely why?
Because Plato sees true philosophical wisdom as disembodied, the knowledge transmitted through these bodily senses is considered inferior. The more intertwined with the body, the less immortal and perfect. Sight and hearing were seen as more intellectual senses because of the apparent distance between bodily organ of perception and the thing perceived. For example, one sees and hears things that are distant from the eyes and ears, whereas one tastes only in the mouth and feels only with their skin. As Korsmeyer puts it: “[t]his distance fosters the impression of that separation of mind from body and the potential freedom of mind to explore worlds of intellect and diviner regions where bodies cannot travel”. Because of this, the bodily senses were thought to aid the intellect much less significantly, and acknowledged almost exclusively as a negative aspect of human life.
My argument is not that taste contributes to human understanding and knowledge as much as sight; this is an issue separate from the present focus. My point is rather that taste, as a bodily sense, does indeed contribute to human understanding and knowledge. I would like to agree with Carolyn Korsmeyer in suggesting that the archetype of separating body and soul, with connotations of unrighteous and righteous respectively, distorts our ability to rightly consider the sense of taste. This dualistic bias condemns the bodily senses, convincing one that they are of little interest or importance beyond understanding and moderating the evils they entice. By dropping Plato’s dismissive belief that the body is a mere encumbrance on the soul, we get one step closer to the inclusion of taste among the aesthetic senses.
2: A Temperate Ode To Pleasure
“For pleasure seems, more than anything else, to have an intimate connection with our nature” (book x ne).
Aristotle offers a more temperate critique, acknowledging the value of the bodily senses, including the pleasures they afford. While more rounded, his hierarchical classification of the senses still prioritizes sight and hearing over taste, olfactory, and touch for similar reasons. He recognizes the fact that bodily senses deliver important information, though notes that the pleasure and the focus of one’s own body can often be a disadvantageous distraction. The issue of proximity between the object perceived and sense of perception remains a key determinant in the intellectual value of the senses for Aristotle. For our purposes, Aristotle’s account can be seen as a more inclusive (of pleasure) account of the senses, but that ultimately reinforces the priorities already established by Plato. The information received from the bodily senses is thought to be comparatively subjective because the body is necessarily altered in the sensing process.
Aristotle takes deliberate time and attention to consider the issue of human pleasure as it relates to the mind, and the body, the latter being our focus here. He argues that bodily pleasures are a natural and integral part of a virtuous life: “[M]en always take some delight in meat, and drink, and the gratification of the sexual appetite…I call those things naturally pleasant that stimulate the activity of a healthy system.” Within his discussion of pleasure, Aristotle addresses a key aspect which I believe is still lacking in our culture today. There are many widespread religious and cultural norms that condemn natural pleasures and otherwise neglect the body. The arguments against pleasure that Aristotle addresses are still apparent today, and his analysis and response to this issue remains sound and compelling. He proffers temperance—a balance of pleasures governed by reason rather than desire.
…those things which, being pleasant, at the same time conducive to health and good condition, [the virtuous man] will desire moderately and in the right manner, and other pleasant things also, provided they are not injurious, or incompatible with what is noble, or beyond his means…
This allows for the enjoyment of aspects of human life that are naturally pleasing and conducive to healthy living, in moderation. The intellect is to reign supreme and act as the judicious hand of temperance, making allowances for pleasure without letting it govern action.
Aristotle’s view is a much more palatable attitude toward the sensory enjoyment of food, as opposed to being constantly wary of the delightful things that pass your lips. Indeed, he acknowledges the ridiculousness of trying to deny such a basic aspect of human life: “[A] being to whom nothing was pleasing, and who found no difference between one thing and another, would be very far removed from being a man.” In effect, Aristotle acknowledges that to be human means to relish in the pleasures of taste and touch.
Aristotle’s acknowledgment of pleasure is an important step to take if we are to consider the bodily senses philosophically. The idea that a synthesis of mind and body is more conducive to a harmonious way of life, rather than a contempt and denial of the body, is present in Western intellectual tradition, yet at times seems unacknowledged. In his meditations on nature, Thoureau urges us to honor our lives by acknowledging what we have: “Let me say to you and to myself in one breath, Cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.” The tree is our body, and the pleasures, the fruits.
We should not feel guilty about having bodies, or enjoying the pleasures they offer. It is our responsibility to acknowledge and honor our human senses, using them as tools for knowledge and enjoyment. And, it is similarly our responsibility not to be seduced by them to the point of neglecting any other aspect of life. Only by embracing all that is involved in bodily life, pleasures and pain alike, can we assert our virtuous capability of temperance. Echoing Aristotle, I assert that it is equally unrighteous not to enjoy that which is naturally enjoyable to us as humans as it is to overindulge in the pleasures embodied life offers.
While Aristotle’s account of the senses may repair an extreme separation of body and soul, his conclusions still perpetuate a neglect of the bodily senses based on their comparatively absent contribution to intellectual development. He is ambiguous about certain aspects of taste and touch, such as their capacities in other species of animals. At first he contends that because taste and touch are the most common among all beasts, they are thought of to be the most base, attached “not to our human, but to our animal nature.” But, then “again, the fact that all animals and men pursue pleasure is some indication that it is in some way the highest good.” What for him warrants prioritizing sight and hearing over the bodily senses is the amount and way each contribute to intellectual development. As summarized by Korsmeyer:
First of all, the quality of information received from vision is superior to that received from the other senses insofar as more of the ‘form’—the defining qualities—of an entire object is available to sight than to hearing, smell, taste, or touch….The distance between object and percipient…puts the observer at a remove from the object, [thus] a survey of that object in its entirety is more readily made…As with Plato, acknowledging the role of the physical body requires consideration of moral implications for the contact between organ and object of perception, and the alteration of both body and mind that may ensue.
The hierarchy the ancients established is intuitively sound to us. We can imagine a group of people each born without one of the five senses, or imagine ourselves without each in turn, and speculate which sense is most intertwined with our intellect. Most of us will conclude similarly with Plato and Aristotle that sight and hearing are the primary senses that cultivate the intellect. The person born without their sense of taste will not be as wise or knowledgeable as the person who has a refined sense of taste, but the main injury to his existence is a lack of pleasure, rather than wisdom. Taste is certainly concerned with pleasure a great deal, but it is also capable of appealing to ones higher senses. The key error of the ancients, and taken up by future philosophical traditions, is the conclusion that because taste is naturally a more subjective and less intellectual sense, it has little to offer the realm of aesthetics.
3.A. Hutcheson & Kant: Aesthetic Taste
Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was one of the earliest modern contributors to philosophies of Taste. I will be using some of the main ideas that appear in his 1726 publication, An Initial Theory Of Taste: From An Inquiry Into The Original Of Our Ideas Of Beauty And Virtue. While reflecting on the external senses he observes that we do not have a willful authority over our perceptions:
Objects do not please us, according as we incline they should. The presence of some Objects necessarily pleases us, and the presence of others as necessarily displeases us….By the very frame of our nature the one is made the occasion of Delight, the other of Dissatisfaction.
He extends this reactive response to the way we perceive metaphysical ‘objects,’ or ideas. Just as a feeling, such as a soft touch, may produce pleasure or pain in someone automatically, certain ideas, such as death or springtime, are met with the same automatic responses. What develops from this observation is the idea of two internal senses: our aesthetic sense, which perceives beauty, and our moral sense, which perceives ethicality. These internal senses operate similarly to our external senses; when stimulated, they react immediately, free from direct influence of one’s will.
Distinguishing internal sensibilities that perceive ideas of beauty is not meant to imply that beauty may not accompany experiences of our external senses. A key aspect of this is the “convenience of distinguishing [experiences involving the perception of beauty] from other Sensations of Seeing and Hearing, which Men may have without Perception of Beauty.” It is to be understood that, according to Hutcheson, external sense experiences may or may not involve the internal aesthetic sense and apprehension of beauty.
Kant would not agree with this. Kant’s aesthetic theories are in part a response to and critique of what precedes him, especially as presented through Hume’s work. From Hutcheson through Hume, and including Kant, there are a couple of agreed upon ideas. Firstly, there is the notion that beauty exists in the perception of the subject, rather than existing as an aspect of the objects in consideration. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” Secondly, the imagination is the tool of Taste; something is found to be beautiful not because our logic so indicates, but because of a sentiment. All three philosophers have their own stipulations of disinterestedness. The differences, however, are significant. Hutcheson claims that in true perceptions of beauty we do not consider any “Advantage or Detriment the Use of such Objects might tend; Nor would the most accurate knowledge of these things vary either the Pleasure or Pain of the Perception.” Hume’s disinterestedness is built into his conditions for judging, which we will consider in the second part of this Section. Kant’s idea of disinterestedness is the most severe.
To help clarify the concept of disinterestedness, we can turn to a section from Voltaire’s entry on Beauty from his Philosophical Dictionary:
I once went with a philosopher to see a tragedy. ‘How beautiful it is!’ said he. ‘What do you find beautiful in it?’ I asked him. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘because the author has attained his goal.’ The next day he took some medicine that did him some good. ‘It has attained its goal,’ I told him; ‘what a beautiful medicine!’ He realized that one cannot say that a medicine is beautiful, and that before you can apply to anything the word beauty it must have aroused admiration and pleasure in you. He agreed that the tragedy has inspired these two feelings in him, and that this was the to kalon, the beautiful.
Voltaire’s anecdote illustrates an important aspect of beauty. We see that the beautiful is unconcerned with need or practical usage. This resonates with Hutcheson’s claim that any interest associated with an object does not influence ones aesthetic judgment of it. Kant says: “…when the question is if a thing is beautiful, we do not want to know whether anything depends or can depend on the existence of the thing.” Simply put, the usefulness of an object has nothing to do with the excitement of the aesthetic sense and apprehension of beauty. On this ground alone, we can see how taste is cast in an unfavorable light. It is most often the case that taste is intertwined with an object of use: food for sustenance. Gustatory taste is also used to distinguish edible and non-edible or poisonous things, clearly a very useful aspect of the sense. Even when one eats for pleasure alone, rather than out of hunger, there is a practical element at play: one is eating for the purpose of pleasure, and when this goal is achieved, it is no more beautiful than the medicine fulfilling its purpose. When something fulfills its purpose or achieves what it ought to, it is considered good, not beautiful.
Voltaire identifies the inspiration of admiration and pleasure as the stipulations of exciting beauty. Both Hutcheson and Kant would find this a bit too reductive. Hutcheson’s stipulations are more specific; he indicates that:
The Figures which excite in us the Ideas of Beauty, seem to be those in which there is Uniformity amidst Variety. There are many Conceptions of Objects which are agreeable upon other accounts, such as Grandeur, Novelty, Sanctity, and some others….But what we call Beautiful…to speak in Mathematical Style, seems to be in a compound Ratio of Uniformity and Variety: so that where Uniformity of Body is equal, the Beauty is as the Variety; and where the Variety is equal, the Beauty is as Uniformity.
He goes so far to draw clear necessary and sufficient conditions, claiming that in the presence of beauty, there will always be a coherent and meaningful ratio of uniformity and variety. Kant, once again, presents the most severe conditions for true beauty to be present. In addition to the beautiful not being good or useful, it is also distinct from the merely pleasurable or agreeable.
Kant says that the pleasant rests entirely upon sensation, whereas the beautiful involves the metaphysical response of Taste, which he considers a form of conception perceived by the imagination. Recall Hutcheson’s remarks when discussing the internal aesthetic sense, where he says that this internal sensibility responsible for perceiving beauty may or may not accompany external sensations (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch). For Kant, however, to be totally disinterested means to be separate from sensual pleasure. Whereas Hutcheson remarks that interest simply will not affect ones true Taste, Kant asserts that sensual pleasures are foreign to the experience of the beautiful. For him, while experience may begin with external sensation, it must transcend the subjective pleasure or pain associated with it and appeal to the higher faculty of imagination to be considered aesthetic.
One of Kant’s goals is to explain the paradox elaborated by Hume of the subjectivity and objectivity of aesthetic judgments. On one hand, all matters of Taste are subjective; on the other, there seem to be some judgments so widely agreed upon they beg to be deemed objective. Kant’s solution to this is to elevate the beautiful to an objective status by claiming its total disinterestedness. He considers beauty to be present in the “concept (however indefinite)” that exists in the imagination as one beholds an object. This conception is what he tries to elevate to universality:
For since it does not rest on any inclination of the subject (nor upon any other premeditated interest), but since he who judges feels himself quite free as regards the satisfaction which he attaches to the object, he cannot find the ground of this satisfaction in any private conditions connected with his own subject; and hence it must be regarded as grounded on what he can presuppose in every other man.
The conception is necessarily the seat of beauty, because since it is metaphysical, it can be attributed to a common aspect of humanity, opposed to bodies, which are highly subjective. An echo of Plato, Kant is wary of the corrupting factor involved with bodily sensation. Gustatory taste is written off once again because of the proximity of its experience; it interacts with ones body, drawing attention to it, and therefore making the entire experience subjective.
Kant tries to separate experiences of bodily pleasure form the aesthetic experience in order to make it objective, but doing so does not make it objective. There is more subjectivity involved in taste than the other senses, but eliminating it still does not achieve universal status for beauty. Separating sensuous enjoyment from aesthetic experiences is somewhat of an impossibility. Can one separate the pleasure that their ears transmit, the pleasure of listening to a piece of music, from the feeling and apprehension of its beauty? Absolutely not. Nor would Kant dispute this. His argument was against the specifically physical pleasures involved in taste, but to truly keep sensuous pleasure separate from aesthetic judgment would require us to condemn all external senses. It is unfair of him to claim that the pleasures of the tongue are incompatible with aesthetic judgment, while the pleasures of the ear are not.
Even by dismissing the overt subjectivity that physicality exhibits, his claim of universal objectivity is not justified. It is easier to label someone defective in terms of their sense of sight and hearing rather than their sense of taste. There is a proper way to see, and hear, and we know that one functions properly if they hear the same pitches and see the same colors that we all do. There is no proper composition of the mouth, nor do we call someone defective if they taste bitter more strongly than we do, or are more sensitive to sweet.
This greater degree of variation in taste sensation is what encourages Kant to dismiss the bodily senses from the realm of the aesthetic. However, that which excites ones aesthetic sensibility remains subjective. We see the same colors, and hear the same pitches, but still do not agree on what combination or presentation of them is beautiful.
We see this as the case when the exact same sensory phenomena are experienced, yet different values are attached to it. For instance, if two people hear the same piece of music at the same concert, one may be pleased, while the other is disappointed. Another way of looking at this is that people may have different sensory experiences in response to the same object. This is the case with taste, since there is greater variation among the mouths of individual human beings.
Anatomy tells us that not all tongues are equally outfitted, there being three times as many papillae on some tongues as on others. This circumstance explains why, of two guests, sitting at the same banquet, one is delighted, while the other seems to eat out of obligation; the latter has a tongue but slightly furnished with papillae. Thus the empire of taste may also have its blind and deaf subjects.
It is the differentiation of values associated with auditory or visual experiences that are most anomalous, where the variation in sensual experience remains a mystery.
There is a good reason why Taste was named after taste: in order to point out the subjective variation of sensation. The pleasure involved in taste need not be any more corrosive to an aesthetic judgment than the pleasures involved in hearing or seeing. Kant’s observations and concerns about the relative subjectivity of taste are valid; gustatory taste is not as easily employed aesthetically as sight or hearing. A particular context must be satisfied if taste is to perceive the beautiful rather than the mere agreeable or pleasurable. And, to examine this context, we turn to Hume.
3.B. Hume: Aesthetic taste
Hume’s essay, Of The Standard Of Taste, demonstrates an authoritative understanding of how beauty may be legitimately judged, despite the subjectivity of sensuality. In addition to supplying conditions under which particular people may be thought of as representatives of an objective decision, he shows the similarities between our gustatory and aesthetic senses. We begin with his observation of an “extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity” involved in judgments of both taste and Taste.
On one hand, he recognizes the subjectivity of sentiment: “According to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter.” Analogously, the internal aesthetic sense is a metaphorical mouth with which we taste beauty, and according to the disposition of one’s internal sense of Taste, the same object may be both beautiful, or lacking in beauty. Simply put, “to each his own.’ However, there seems to be some element of objectivity or widespread if not universal agreement. We can see this clearly when unjust comparisons are made. For example, if one were to assert that the organ works of Pachelbel were equal to those of Bach, it would be similar to asserting, as Hume would say, that a “pond were as extensive as the ocean.”
Certainly one could make any claim by adding the qualifier “to me” at the end of it, but as Kant points out, doing so renders the judgment wholly subjective. In nature, it is harder to make objective claims concerning beauty; if one wished to assert that sunflowers are more beautiful than tulips, they would have to qualify it with “to me.” With respect to created works of art, we have less reservation about asserting that something is beautiful, not only on a personal level, but to sufficient numbers of people that it achieves an objective status.
Hume recognizes “the difference…[which] is very wide between judgment and sentiment.” Sentiment references the subjective feelings an object occasions, and judgment references the formal properties of an object that inspired those feelings. While beauty exists within the subjective beholder, it is the response to the form or presentation of objects that inspires the feeling of beauty. The formal properties of an object must be the element that accounts for the universal perception of beauty and preference of some things rather than others, and it is this element that we must focus on.
Hutcheson identifies the ratio of variety amid uniformity as the condition of objects that inspires beauty. Whether or not it is such a specific requirement, there is general agreement that “the judging of an object through [T]aste is a judgment about the harmony or discord” of it. By examining the particular balance of elements that induces beauty we can gain insight into the objectivity of aesthetic judgments.
The theory that the balance and harmony of objects is what inspires an objective beauty is more sympathetic to the fact that many widely agreed upon beautiful things are still encountered by those who do not perceive beauty from them. When one does not find beauty in a great work such as LVB’s 9th, we conclude that they simply do not appreciate its beauty, not that it does not exist universally. Beauty is inspired by the form of a work, and those who do not intuitively find it, would have to admit to the exquisite harmony and balance apparent once pointed out to them. Whether or not the balance and harmony appealed to their sense of Taste is still a subjective matter; the presence of such formal properties that generally inspire beauty for a large percent of humanity is what can be objectively determined. When discussing this objective element of beauty, it is not enough for a one to say, I find it beautiful or not, they must understand what the feeling of beauty is in response to and be able to articulate it. This is how just criticism, on a level not purely subjective, is possible.
What Hume does is describe the conditions of who can best assess the harmonious aspects of works of art. Hume employs a democratic system by which judges who meet certain criteria may render authoritative judgment. Those who meet his standards are able to determine when circumstances indicate that there is beauty present, whether or not it is acknowledged or appreciated unanimously.
Hume uses the analogy of taste to Taste more seriously than many others in the aesthetic tradition. For this reason, our current project of relating his standards of just judgment to the sense of taste in particular is made easier. But, before we examine these conditions, we must establish that we are capable of perceiving harmony of the sort that inspires beauty through our sense of taste; in other words, that our sense of Taste can be excited through our sense of taste.
We have said that what inspires beauty is the formal properties in objects; if there is a harmonious combination that excites pleasure and admiration in us, it resonates with our sense of Taste and we perceive beauty. What we find beautiful in music is the artful stacking and sequencing of pitches. Likewise, what we find beautiful with our sense of taste is the artful combination of flavors. How do we know it is beauty rather than mere pleasure? We know because the pleasure and admiration is in response to the combination of flavors, the elegance of which we perceive with our imagination and understanding. As Kant indicates, “[T]he judgment of [T]aste is just as much an aesthetic judgment as it is a judgment of the understanding; but they are both in combination.” When one experiences beauty through taste, there is a sense of appreciation and awe on an artistic level.
Just as hearing and seeing are not themselves always toward aesthetic ends, neither is taste. While it is through these senses that we function day to day, they also allow us to experience beauty and sublimity. Like our other external senses, our biological ability to taste is not itself an artistic process, but through sensations of taste, we do indeed have aesthetic experiences.
It may be harder to maintain the appropriate frame of mind needed in order to experience beauty when taste is the sense appealing to ones Taste, rather than sight or hearing. This is because of the functionality and pleasure that are so commonly intertwined with the objects of taste: food. When one is ravenously hungry, they concentrate on the swallowing and ingesting of food, rather the subtleties of flavor that linger in the mouth. This places a unique condition on the subject wanting to use their taste aesthetically; in order to ensure the appropriate level of disinterestedness, they cannot be in want of food. There is no natural analogous aspect to hearing or sight. Perhaps a similar situation would be that someone who had previously been denied their functional sense of sight, by blindfold or some other means, would be unfit to judge a work of visual art immediately after the blindfold was removed.
The pleasures of taste, without precluding the possibility of aesthetic experience, are very likely to inhibit or overshadow it. Whereas one with a refined sense of pitch in the presence of great music is very likely to encounter beauty, a refined palate plus fine food does not equal an aesthetic experience; it is often the case that gourmets enjoy fine dining not as an artistic experience, which involves temperance and a focused intellect, but as hedonists, gorging on delight. The temptation to overindulge the pleasures of taste is greater than the temptation associated with sight and hearing; one does not gorge on music or painting, though they can be distractions harmful to the intellect.
Purely sensual pleasure is no more than sensation; pleasure accompanied by admiration of form is a combination of sensation and the faculty of understanding. Many of the experiences involving taste are functional and merely pleasurable. Despite these significant aspects that may inhibit an aesthetic use of the sense, taste is able to function aesthetically toward the end of judging and apprehending universal beauty. The fact that there is so much art present in modern culture appealing to taste should indicate this.
Additionally, one of the ways Hume indicates the presence of true beauty is in its durability: “[W]hile the world endures…beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite…maintain their authority over the minds of men.” Combinations of flavors such as sugar and cocoa, sweet and sour, smoke and meat have all persisted throughout human culture in endless variation. These combinations are not merely functional or pleasurable, but have earned high esteem among men and thus endured. This indicates that taste does indeed perceive harmonious combinations that are “naturally fitted to excite” the aesthetic sense and produce beauty.
By showing that taste can indeed be disinterested, and need not be confined to apprehending the merely good, useful, or pleasurable, the grounds on which taste has been precluded form the aesthetic realm are sufficiently challenged. We are free to examine the context under which one is able to apprehend universal beauty through taste and render just judgment on the objects it considers. Hume puts forth the following standards:
Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of [T]aste and beauty.
While the analogy of taste is an ongoing theme, and sometimes supplies an exact correlation between a principle of aesthetic Taste, we must still examine each of these conditions carefully as it relates to taste.
First and foremost, the candidate, who is to attain a character worthy of judging, must not have any imperfection affecting their sense organ. Conveniently, Hume here uses the example of a man in a fever being unable to discern flavors properly. This rule also eliminates those whose sense of smell is impeded by an illness, or anyone whose internal mouth suffers from burns, sores, or other obstructive ailments. A healthy state of the organs of perception ensures strong sense, and is necessary.
Next is the stipulation of delicacy, “which is requisite to make [one] sensible of every beauty and every blemish, in any composition.” Hume describes how elements that naturally inspire beauty may be mixed up among other elements, and even present in a smaller degree of the other elements and for this reason go undetected. “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy.” This virtue is particularly important to avoid gluttony, since the sensual pleasures of taste can often overshadow subtle flavors which elevate the entire composition to a level worthy of being deemed beautiful. Generally, one must slow down, rolling the food around in their mouth for longer or more deliberately than is the case in functional eating.
Equally important, if one is to discern fine elements and minute distinctions, is experience and practice. “When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused.” The same is true of the palate, at first a new sensation is perceived mainly as pleasurable or painful. With experience, ones palate becomes refined and develops an acute sense of differentiation between and identification of flavors. A topic that the requirement of experience and practice brings up is economic diversity. More than particular ingredients themselves, rare ingredients are fashionable among those who prepare food to be enjoyed artistically. This seems to exclude those of middle or lower classes or lesser economic means from this opportunity. This is not so; one of the greatest things about taste is that everyone can practice. We all eat every day, even if you have only 5 ingredients, new combinations and proportions afford varied sensations and are studies in taste. If one is serious about cultivating their palate, it behooves one to experience all that is available so as to have a wider scope of familiarity, for one can only judge what they know.
A just judge must possess the ability to make comparisons. This is somewhat of a result of delicacy and experience, allowing one to rank certain things in accordance with others. An aspect of judging is deciding what is exquisite to the highest degree. As Hume points out, even something of mediocre quality, be it a stew or a ballad, may not be totally lacking in beauty. According to Hume, it is a sign of great Taste if one is able to condemn that which palls in comparison with a greater, more beautiful object of its kind. In the context of judging food, this is sound, for it is often the case that judges are presented with two or more dishes. It is not enough for them to say whether or not they are beautiful and why, but they must rank them, and reasonably pronounce one more beautiful than the next. One must first be able to detect beauty before they hope to gain the ability to compare the beauty of similar objects.
Finally, Hume’s version of disinterestedness, is the condition of being free from all prejudice. In terms of taste, this does include the aforementioned possibility of hunger, which makes one inclined to enjoy, even inappropriately so, any food. As Hume puts it, the judge must “allow nothing into his consideration, but the very object which is submitted to his examination.” All other factors must not enter into his judgment or else he runs the risk of contaminating his judgment of the object in question. For taste, this means not considering price or the means by which the food has come to you, nor who prepared it. How it was prepared generally should also be unconsidered, though this sometimes is meant to heighten the aesthetic experience. Ingredients themselves may present potential prejudice; for instance, if the object is sweetbreads, the idea of eating brains may contaminate one’s judgment about the taste of it. In order to apprehend beauty through one’s sense of taste, one must be disinterested, or free from prejudice, experiencing only the formal elements of the object under consideration and not the surrounding circumstances. In order to participate in the aspect of judging that involves ranking, that is, judging the relative beauty of the same kinds of objects, there are broader prejudices one must guard against.
The major bias encountered in terms of taste has to do with geographical location and culture. This again recalls the issue of economic leisure. If one does not have the means to experience flavors that are foreign to their land or culture, they will not be in a position to judge their relative beauty. Much of the food submitted for adjudication has worldly influence, combining flavors that are exotic to one another in hopes of achieving a unique beauty. If one is to judge this type of food, they must be free of cultural bias. This means that one’s preference of a dish cannot rely on flavor troupes of other cultures, but must be rooted in the way flavors, independent of their traditional contexts, interact with the other flavors and ones sensibilities. This is a hard feat, as are achieving the other states of disinterestedness.
In summary, Hume reinforces the importance and rarity of these qualities:
Thus, though the principles of [T]aste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty….When the critic has no delicacy, he judges without any distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object: The finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded. Where he is not aided by practice, his verdict is attended with confusion and hesitation. Where no comparison has been employed, the most frivolous beauties, such as rather merit the name of defects, are the object of his admiration. Where he lies under the influence of prejudice, all his natural sentiments are perverted. Where good sense is wanting, he is not qualified to discern the beauties of design and reasoning, which are the highest and most excellent.
Hume’s meditations are most sympathetic to the sense of taste while maintaining a serious and thoughtful approach to human aesthetic sensibilities. His essay shows us not only how taste is similar to Taste, but that taste may be refined and employed for aesthetic use, even to the degree of judgment that our other senses are. His theory involves the use of qualified judges, which is exactly what we see in our culture today, and especially those of taste, attempt to meet his criteria. This essay, in addition to being extremely intuitive, is invaluable to the project of considering the aesthetic capabilities of taste.