Philosophy of Gustatory Taste: Ch1 Ancient Misconceptions


    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

    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.

Philosophy of Gustatory Taste: Ch2 Food, Art, & The Senses

Chapter Two: Food, Art, & Philosophy


    The question that necessarily accompanies a consideration of the aesthetic sense of taste is whether or not food is an art.  In order to answer this question, we must ask ourselves how food compares to other activities and experiences that we consider artistic.  As with all of the arts compared with one another, there are similarities and differences.  The similarities have tempted few brave souls to claim artistic status for food, while the significant differences, making food so unique among the arts, has been used to cast out food from the realm of art, and in some cases to support a lack of aesthetic capability of taste.  In the first Section I will point out ways that food is similar to art in human culture, highlighting that some of the most important features are shared by both, namely, the ability to distinguish, experience, and integrate varying cultures. 

    Many who reach similar conclusions about important shared features remain apprehensive about denominating food an art, including Korsmeyer.  Despite the fact that she is one of the forerunners of incorporating taste and food among philosophical interest, she states directly that she does not think food should be labeled an art.  Important reasons lurk behind this claim of hers.  A standard accepted idea of what art is, does not accommodate food as well as music or theatre, perhaps because the ideals that the philosophy of art was constructed upon embodied assumptions to contradict this.  Korsmeyer’s worry is that by concentrating primarily on how an aspect of food conforms to our concept of art, we neglect a lot of what is philosophically important and interesting about the world of food.  To force the rich, and largely philosophically unexplored world of food into the category of art, would be detrimental to a thorough treatment of food.     Rather than answering the question of whether or not food is an art, she sees more value in examining the relation between them, to better understand what food is, “in it’s own right.”  This is exactly right.  I agree with her that labels are not the point of interest within this study.  However, beginning with questions of comparisons to other art forms is a great way to gain perspective.  In the second Section I will suggest that the interconnectedness of the senses dealing with taste is an asset rather than a shortcoming, as well as offer wine tasting as a practice that appeals exclusively to taste.  We will see how the sensual experience of food differs from that of other arts, ultimately indicating a gap between an aesthetic use of taste and artistic food.

    If our currently accepted definitions of art do not accommodate food comfortably, this should not deter us from investigating food philosophically.  Through the combined efforts of food and taste advocates, and the inescapable social role that food and taste play in modern culture, philosophical investigation is invited whether or not one concludes “art”. As Korsmeyer reminds us: “[A]rts do not arise out of philosophical insistence.”  With that said, we must still recognize the practical problem at hand.  Food is making its entrance into the ballroom of philosophy through the door that all of the other arts came through.  Food is different than the other arts, therefore does not fit through their door.  To paraphrase an idea of Einstein’s, we cannot solve today’s problems with the same level of mind that created them.  In other words, rather than refusing admittance, we need to build a new frame.  Conceptions of men constantly change shape, and indeed, one of the goals of philosophy is to strive for a more sophisticated understanding of human life.  Not only does food require an expanded and more sophisticated approach to thinking about art, but it also helps us to break down old barriers and establish a more inclusive frame of mind. 

    No longer discussing or searching for an essentialist definition of works of art, we must examine the entire artistic experience, including the energy that flows between artist and artwork, which is important not only for the study of food, but for aesthetics as a discipline.  Considering the art of food preparation allows us to get beyond a focus on the elusive ‘work of art’ and consider the whole picture.  Culinary arts in particular are a good example of the richness and importance of artistic process.  In the final Section of this chapter, we will continue to make comparisons in order to deepen our understanding of the food and taste artistry, and will see some of the ways in which the process of food preparation can contribute to and further a philosophical understanding of art.





1: Food and Art In Culture


    We all need to eat, every day.  Food is a big part of all of our lives.  As humans, we are artistically inclined, and food has become more than a mere necessity of life.  The role of food in human culture is vast and deep, and likewise, the culture that has sprung up around food is a growing infatuation of humans.  One could have easily written an entire multi-volume series about food and culture, though I hope the few interrelations I point to will help clarify how food relates to art. 

    One of the greatest similarities between food and art is the ability to inform us about other cultures, diachronically and synchronically.  When we wish to understand better a culture foreign to us, whether in the past or a distant part of our world, two of the things we turn to are the art and food featured in that particular society.  One of the reasons we are so fascinated with museums and their contents is because it gives us a glimpse into the lives of those existing before us and far away from us.  Likewise, by examining what people eat, we gain insight into their way of life.  In fact, much of what is featured in museums are artifacts that have to do with food preparation, presentation, and consuming.  What people eat has so much to do with the rhythms of cultures, traditions, and the way societies are built.  By looking at the art and food of a culture we get an idea of what is sacred to them, the world around them and the way they interact with it.  

    A perfect example of this is the importance of corn to the Mayans, heavily featured in their art and their food.  In the Popul Vuh, the mythological text of the Mayans that contains their creation myth, corn plays a huge role.  In addition to being crafted from cornmeal, the lives of the hero twins are represented by corn stalks in their mother’s garden when they go to play a sacred ballgame with the gods.  As long as the corn stalk was alive in the ground, their mother knew they were alive. Similarly, fruits from trees along with squashes were used to symbolize heads, an important part of humans. 

Thus, corn, and other natural foods, were symbolic of life for them.  Their life depended on corn, it was the basis of their diet and absolutely necessary to their survival as a culture.  Their art reflects this; in the sacred art of their culture there is corn imagery, and trees bearing fruit meant to symbolize the heads of those who won life for humankind, as a focal point.  

    We can use the information gleaned from artworks and diets of cultures to make distinctions.  These days, people can use ingredients from all different parts of the world, but people have been eating long before modern technology allowed for massive international trade.  The foods and flavors of places rely on what natural ingredients are available to them.  Some things, like cane sugar and black pepper, have been traded among civilizations for so long that they have become staples even in foreign cuisines.  However, certain observable combinations and ‘flavor principles’, as termed by Elizabeth Rozin, are clearly at play among the varied human societies. This is part of her list of observable flavor principles:


Soy sauce—rice wine—gingerroot (China)

+ miso and/or garlic and/or sesame (Peking, China)

+ sweet—sour—hot (Szechuan, China)

+ black bean—garlic (Canton, China)… 


Curry (India)

Cumin—ginger—garlic + variations (Northern India)

Mustard seed—coconut—tamarind—chili + variations (Southern India)…


Olive oil—lemon—oregano (Greece)…


Sour orange—garlic—achiote (Yucatan, Mexico)


    These flavor principles are what allow us to make cultural distinctions based on taste.  If we are presented with a list of countries: China, Italy, Mexico, Greece; and an equal number of dishes: Tamale with salsa, Spinach pie, Fettuccini, Pork and cabbage dumplings, we would easily be able to match up the items from both sets.  Flavor principles are what give food its meaning. 

    We are able to differentiate these flavor principles because they are meaningful exemplifications of cultures.  To an Englishman, eggs, beans, and toast means breakfast, but for many Latin Americans, an arepa, a corn-flour bun, filled with cheese, meat, and chilies means breakfast, which to an American means lunch or late-night snack.  Traditions and flavor principles embody aspects of, as well as signify their cultures, just as a portrait embodies properties of and signifies it’s subject. 

    Just as different cultures use particular ingredients, techniques, and tools in their cuisine, so do different schools of art.  There are principles of cubism which distinguish it from surrealism, just as there are principles of jazz that distinguish it from classical music.  Like art, food has its different schools that require the study and practice of particular things, and elements that are apparent in the art work that allow us to distinguish and classify them.  There is, however, a major difference. 

    The principles that determine the categories of cuisines rely heavily on geographical location, whereas the elements of visual and auditory arts are determined more conceptually.  This is not to say that one must be in China to cook in the Chinese way, but rather one must use tools, methods, and ingredients specific to China to some degree and in some combination.  The governing principles of Surrealism, for example, are determined by a more metaphysical concept of the unreal, which is available to someone regardless of their location.

    Because of the physical limitations of the chef, they are more limited in what they can represent with taste than what the painter can represent with visual experience.  

Flavor principles bear resemblance to architecture in the heavy reliance on physical materials.  Still, an architect with imagination and only wood can represent the structures of many different cultures visually, while the chef with only soy sauce is limited in what they can represent with taste.  This aspect of food is unlike the other arts.  Imagination gives more freedom to artists than it does to chefs. If the artist has only a paint-brush and one color of paint, he can represent infinite things of many different kinds. If the chef has but one cooking vessel and even two ingredients and an active imagination, he still is only able to represent one or very few flavor principles.  The contrast is most severe when food is compared with visual art, and perhaps less so when compared with music.

    Just as certain flavors are particular to certain areas of the world, so are musical scales.  The specificity of flavors is more complex than food, with smaller regions having certain flavors that define their cuisine, though, just as a gourmet could match a dish with its country with relative ease, so a musician could match the music of India, China, and Germany given listening samples of each.  It is interesting to notice a parallel between the style of cuisine and music of Indian culture compared to European; just as they use many more spices and flavors in dishes, they also use many more musical tones, what to European ears are microtones.  This means that where we would have 5 more or less equidistant tones, Indian music would have 8 or 9, not necessarily equally spaced tones. African music, for example, may be easily distinguished by its comparatively heavy reliance on rhythmic patterns, just as Mexican food may be distinguished by its comparatively heavy reliance on corn.  When we see that music as well as food has defining features associated with specific geographical locations, this feature of food does not stand out quite so much. 

    Both art and food have cultural meaning and significance.  Both can signify and reference the culture they are products of. The fact that there are observable properties of food that allow us to differentiate and categorize, creates another similarity between food and art: through both, we can experience and integrate diverse cultures. 

    Through eating the meals of another country, we experience a significant aspect of it, one that has emotive and intellectual implications.  Perhaps more important is the way in which we integrate cultures through taste.  When two cultures come together there are always considerable advancements and expansions of artistry.  For example, when the musical traditions of Africans combined with American language and instruments, the results were the building blocks of blues and jazz.  Similarly, when the Spanish and South American cultures began to integrate, new taste sensations were born.  Perhaps the most important culinary advancement was the birth of chocolate as we know it.  The Spanish took the chocolate from South America and brought it back to Europe where it was mixed with sugar, giving it an entirely new dimension, one much appreciated by many humans. This aspect that food has in common with art is a very significant one.  Art and food are media through which people connect, and through mutual contribution exercise the most admirable human quality, that of innovative creation. 

    Despite the fact that philosophical attention to food has been unfair in its brevity, food remains an important part of human culture.  I have tried to highlight some of the most important points at which food functions artistically in human lives, such as cultural integration.  While the representational capacity of taste is severely limited in comparison with that of the other arts, food exemplifies culture.  It is true that the categorization relies on geographical location also in a way that is limiting, because the others arts have categories both specific to geography but also that transcend it.  However, the fact that food is so symbolic of cultures allows us to experience and integrate various cultures, which is one of the most admired qualities of art. 


2: Sensual Experience of Food and Art


    Kant recognizes that taste is heavily intertwined with our other external senses, though chooses it as a point to criticize, saying of taste that it cannot “lead by itself to the cognition of the object without the help of one of the other senses.”  I suggest that this is not so much of a shortcoming of the sense of taste, but rather a unique and praiseworthy aspect of it.  It is not that taste uses the other senses as a crutch because of its own deficiency, it is simply that taste may be so readily enhanced by the other senses. 

    Taste is unique among the senses because of the way it interacts with all of the other ones.  Smell and touch, the two other bodily senses, are inextricably linked to it.  Smell contributes significantly to the apprehension of flavors, which is the main function of taste, and because taste occurs in the mouth, there is necessarily an element of touch involved.  Smell and touch are not only linked to taste, but have to do with the value of the experience, since a pleasant odor can enhance the taste sensation that follows it, just as textures are used to bring out different aspects of flavor.  But, it is not only the bodily senses that have camaraderie with taste, both hearing and sight play a part as well.  Whether or not they truly alter the taste experience is debatable, but certainly they alter the experience of eating, which necessarily accompanies taste.  The sounds of a sizzling plate of onions and meat can be just as alluring as the smell, and there are even foods that capitalize on the sounds of food to enhance the entire experience, such as the snap-crackle-pop of Rice Krispies.  The visual component of food is one that has really gained popularity among humans.  There is nothing so fascinating to us as representations, except perhaps for edible representations.  Cakes and vegetable and fruit garnishes are perhaps the most familiar example of this decorative art.  Though the visual importance of food need not manifest itself so ornately, it is simply the notion that the visual presentation of food is important.

    This is an interesting aspect of food.  Music we hear, paintings we see, but food, we hear, see, smell, touch, and taste.  Food appeals to all of our senses to create one complete aesthetic experience.  Amazing as this is, decorative food arts, such as garnishing and elaborate cakes and even ice sculptures are relatively minor in terms of artistic depth.  Garnishes are much like musical ornaments, an art in themselves, but meant to accompany greater works.  The audible and visual aspects of food that may enhance the experience of it do just that: enhance.  So, what is the content that is being enhanced?  It is the food itself, comprised of flavors experienced by taste.  Because food is eaten, it is the sense of taste that it must seek to appeal to most directly, if food is to be comparable with the other arts.  

    We generally associate an aesthetic use of a sense with the particular art form that appeals to it; for example, when we hear music, we employ our hearing sense aesthetically, just as when we see a painting, we employ our sight sense aesthetically. When we eat food, do we employ our taste sense aesthetically?  We have seen that taste can perceive aesthetically, on a level beyond subjective pleasure, but is this the case, or even possible every time we eat?  When we examine some examples of artistic food, as well as examples of taste functioning aesthetically, we see that there is not the same continuity between aesthetic taste and artistic food as there is with the other senses and the art they perceive. 

    We must proceed with caution, being very clear about which sense, or which combination of senses food appeals to and in what context.  We recall that taste is used symbolically, for example, apples and honey are eaten at the Jewish New Year to symbolize forthcoming sweetness, and salted water and bitter herbs are used in a different ceremony to remember the tears and hardships endured by ancestors.  Even though taste is used symbolically in these examples, it is not an artistic use of food.  When taste itself is used symbolically, the food is not artistic; the salted water that references the tears of ancestors is not a work of art, nor is the honey that encodes a sweet new year.  Ironically, when food is used artistically, it is not usually directed at taste.  Food is often presented artistically, both by representation and abstract use of color and arrangement in harmonious ways.  However, this artistry is not via taste.  A decorative use of food, then, such as a duck-shaped radish garnish, or a cake that resembles a temple, appeals to an aesthetic use of sight, not the taste.  While this type of art happens to be made of food and is capable of appealing to our sense of taste, its artistic status is of visual origin. 

    Does food ever appeal artistically to an aesthetic use of taste?  The answer is yes. Food that combines flavors and textures in a harmonious way, that inspires pleasure and admiration, is meant as art to be beheld by taste.  In this way, food is similar to the other arts, achieving its status based on the harmony of its taste and flavors, just as painting may achieve its status based on the harmony of its shapes and colors.  Where it diverges once again, is in the fact that artistic food is appreciated with aesthetic taste only under highly specialized circumstances and contexts. 

    Sight and hearing do not always perceive aesthetically, but when they come into contact with art objects, that capacity of the senses is activated without much effort.  For example, if one goes to a museum or a concert, there is very little preparation required beyond a functioning sense of sight and hearing.  While one may need practice and experience in order to judge particular types of art, as Hume suggests, they only need to see and hear to be able to appreciate it aesthetically.  Even though taste can function aesthetically, it requires much more effort.  If one were attending a tasting, it would behoove them not to go on a full stomach.  It is also very often the case that one’s sense of taste must be refined in order to aesthetically appreciate food, as well as judge it. 

    Because of this, judging almost always accompanies formalized artistic taste experiences such as food critiques, and food contests which have become a very popular form of modern entertainment. That said, even in the scoring of a contest or in writing the remarks in a review place, there is a significant value on aspects appealing to the other senses.  For example, in the popular television show, Iron Chef, the contestants are awarded points for taste, presentation, and originality.  Other contests feature categories such as theme, which may be expressed through taste and/or presentation.  The way food looks and is presented is no doubt a big part of the artistry of food, attesting to the weak ability of taste to perceive an art form of its own. 

    There are other opportunities to experience artistic food with one’s taste that do not necessarily involve judging.  In fact, anyone with a refined palate and the intention to approach food artistically can achieve this.  Fine dining often carries connotations of financial expense and refined atmosphere, but these are just traditions that accompany artistic food in Western culture.  Even surrounded by well-dressed waiters and fine linens, all of which comes with a high price, one may enjoy their food, yet lack a heightened experience involving imagination.  One could have the same type of experience at the most expensive restaurant in London as in a side-of-the-road shack in Jamaica, be it one of untamed gluttony or one of refined artistic appreciation.  Again, the fact that people often seek a particular service and atmosphere to accompany their fine food shows that the taste experience alone is incomplete for most.  But, in an aesthetic experience of flavor properties of food objects themselves, the surrounding environment is incidental, as long as it does not interfere with ones taste, such as eating where a rancid smell pervades.  Even though one may seemingly have an artistic taste experience at whim, given they have access to a reasonable food source, it remains a comparatively limited artistic experience.  The harmonies of flavor are more difficult than those of sound and vision, and while experience and familiarity with painting and music may significantly enhance ones artistic experience, it is a requirement for taste.  Without a refined palate, many things go unnoticed and the complexities that elevate food to an aesthetic level are missed, resulting in a merely pleasurable experience. 

    In this way, tasting resembles a sport.  One must first be sufficiently endowed physiologically with a well-functioning palate.  Whereas this is enough for eyes and ears to appreciate art, one must cultivate their palate by deliberate training, exposing it to a range of flavors and textures and combinations.  A benefit of this aspect of our taste-sensing organ is that ones palate is predisposed to mature with age.  This is not the case with everyone, but for many if not most, and the pleasures that one experiences through the palate is often a great comfort as one ages.  It is almost as if the ability to eat artistically is a reward of growing old.

    Based on all of this, food apprehended by taste seems to be an art of minor importance, almost always sharing the stage with the visually artistic aspects of food.  Either highly contrived contexts such as contests or reviews/critiques, or very specific circumstances such as physiological state and refinement limit the ability to experience art with taste.  However, I would like to suggest at least one sphere that appeals to an aesthetic taste appreciation: wine. 

    Wine tasting does not escape these limitations, as it is absolutely necessary for ones palate to be refined in tasting wine.  Because one must be sensitive to the balance of variables such as acidity, sweetness, bouquets, etc., the experience of wine tasting calls upon an aesthetically refined sense of taste.  Once a palate is educated, it senses aesthetically, making an artistic experience possible every time one encounters wine.  Once one has worked to acquire the appropriate level of sense organ refinement, it remains in place.  Just as eyes will respond automatically when beholding Picasso, or ears beholding Beethoven, once refined, a palate responds automatically to a Chateaneuf-du-Pape, or Amarone.  Wine tasting, then, stands out as an aesthetic experience appealing exclusively to taste.  Our other senses perceive wine, which may enhance our experience, but the beauty of wine is directed at taste.  This is valuable in demonstrating the aesthetic and artistic capabilities of taste.  However, even the refined aesthetic enjoyment of wine does not compare to the emotional and intellectual depth of other fine arts such as painting and music. 

    Based on our comparisons of how objects of food and art are sensually experienced, we can see that if food is to be considered an art, it must be carefully qualified because of its unique sensual properties.  Whereas most arts appeal aesthetically to the sense they most directly affect, it is more often the case that food is experienced aesthetically through the other senses, particularly vision.  When food is symbolic, and the aesthetic use of taste is invoked, the food itself is not meant as an art object, as is the case with culturally significant foods such as the previously mentioned bitter herbs.  The opportunity for artistic food to be complimented by aesthetic taste is limited, and even when this is achieved, with wine for example, the artistic experience lacks depth compared with the other fine arts.  The strongest way food is an art is as a decorative art, appealing to the visual sense.  This is a frustrating conclusion to arrive at, because it does not seem to do the world of food justice in terms of its complexity and intrigue.  It is not satisfying to label artistic tasting a minor art, it is too much of a simplification.  We have just begun to scratch the surface of comparisons that will further our understanding.  The complexity of the artistry surrounding food and taste do not conform to the standards set by the other arts, and we must keep in mind that it is not of utmost importance to label food an art by these standards, but rather build a new standard based on the artistry of food. 


3: Artistic Process and The Philosophical Importance of Cooking


Philosophical understanding constantly seeks to evolve and further itself.  This is achieved with open-mindedness, allowing ones thoughts to expand and take new shape.  Aesthetics in particular has an interesting history, splitting into different schools that sought to define art.  Perhaps one of the most accommodating and open-minded views on aesthetics is Wittgenstein’s notion of Family Resemblance.  This idea uses comparisons to establish similarities between different arts, much like one could discern similar physical traits of siblings.  This method is in opposition to what many other branches of aesthetics attempt, which is to define necessary and sufficient conditions of what constitutes a work of art.  One of the most limiting aspects of the latter approach is the neglect of the rest of the art world.  The world of art is full of philosophical relevance, extending far beyond supposed parameters of the elusive work of art.  

    Nietzsche’s philosophical views on art are also more inclusive than many traditional schools, recognizing the importance and relevance of art beyond final products.  His philosophy is a great example, in both style and content, of encouraging ideas that expand beyond what is traditional.  Through many of his comments it is clear that there are many aspects of art to consider, one of which is the process.  Beginning with some of his insights, we will examine the process of food preparation, still using comparisons to other arts when helpful, which will allow us to see in what ways a consideration of food fits in with and expands aesthetic ideas. 

    Nietzsche calls attention to the “deceptions that dispose the soul of the viewer or listener to believe in the sudden emergence of perfection” to highlight the importance and focus placed on final works of art.  Certainly, products are an important aspect of the artistic world; however, as we will see, the virtuosity that aestheticism and artistry offer are perhaps not to be found in the work itself.  Another observation of his is the vanity often involved in admiring great works:


Because we think well of ourselves, but in no way expect that we ever make the sketch to a painting by Raphael or a scene like one in a play by Shakespeare, we convince ourselves that the ability to do so is quite excessively wonderful, a quite uncommon accident, or, if we still have a religious sensibility, a grace from above. Thus our vanity, our self-love, furthers the worship of genius…


This recalls the idea of divine inspiration that the ancients attributed artistic process to, particularly the poetic arts.  Short of psychotic-divine rapture, which has lost favor among more modern philosophers, the fact of the matter is that practice makes perfect.  There are occasionally those naturally gifted, but if they are to go far, they also invest much time and energy into practicing.  For example, both Beethoven and Charlie Parker were naturally gifted, both also devoted most of their time and energy to music.  Even those who are not so graced with natural ability can train themselves with hard work, which is the case with most artists these days, and is the reason there are so many.  There are many self-taught musicians who have trained themselves to make and perform music from studying scores and listening to music.  This is also the case for many chefs, or people who cook.  Just as one can hear, and potentially learn, music from the score and listening to music, so can one learn to taste, and cook, from reading recipes and from eating food.  In light of this comparison, we see how it is possible to learn music and food in much the same way, through recipes which are similar to musical scores. 

    Food, because it is such a big part of human daily life, gives us so many opportunities to practice preparing food.  Being able to practice so much allows anyone who wants to, to succeed.  With many arts, the vanity that Nietzsche pointes out is a big part of the admiration; if I (the subject viewing the art) could have done it, I am not as impressed with the artwork.  

This is not the case with food; let us continue comparing the chef to the musician for insight. The musician can always go further with their practicing even after they can play through all keys in multiple ranges, they can strive to go faster and smoother etc.  The technical mastery of cooking is at some point established, and a chef constantly strives for innovation, being creative with ingredients, rather than furthering technical abilities.  Secondly, the musician goes to a concert and looks for, or notices, when the performer does something he himself cannot do, most of which is technical, such as a very high pitch or very fast phrase.  The chef dines out and looks for, or notices, something that they themselves did not do, but could in the future.  Lastly, the musician who can play as well as the one he sees in concert, does not enjoy the performance as much as if he couldn’t do it just as well.  The chef enjoys a good meal whether or not they could do it, or even if they could exceed it.  One can think of cuisine as a very human art, one that everyone is allowed to practice and master and enjoy.  What is ironic is that because food is such a necessary part of human life, the very reason Plato and Kant rejected it, it can be enjoyed even if a sense of miracle-ness is not about it, whereas the other arts are the ones more likely to be judged based on ones own sense of ability and vanity, clearly not a disinterested approach.

    To reminisce among the ancients a bit more, we will turn now to the ways in which food preparation in particular encourages a cultivation of virtue and temperance.   In the process of creating any work of art, one exercises their aesthetic sense, making fine distinctions and using subtle proportions.  As Nietzsche notes: “[A]ll great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging.”   What makes food preparation different from painting or composing, for example, is the temptation associated with the pleasures of flavor.  How can one resist putting in as many chocolate chips as possible when they love chocolate?  The answer is, only with a strong intellect governing the emotions and sensual desires.  This behavior can be seen among children, who will use only one color crayon to color in an elaborate scene because they are partial to that color.  Once matured, however, they are able to use their favorite color in more creative and expressive ways, giving it a more important feature when supported by a background of other colors.  It is similar with the art of cookery: one quickly learns that too much chocolate will ruin even the most chocolaty dessert.  This process teaches one to use their intellect to preside over sensual desires, and serves as excellent practice for this process of maturity.  Cooks themselves are often more temperate eaters than those who have a love only of eating, and not cooking as well.  By using the aesthetic sense to keep desires in check, we refine our passionate appetites and cultivate intellectual strength.

    To conclude, I will point out one last aspect that cooking bears to other artistic processes, and that is its therapeutic value.  This is an area of extreme interest and philosophical relevance, and perhaps through examining food preparation as well as other artistic processes, we can expand our aesthetic agendas.  Nietzsche acknowledges not only that there is value in the process, but that it is at times more valuable than the product.  For those who delight in creating, regardless of if or how their products are received, there is for them “more pleasure in creating than other men have in all other kinds of activity.” 

    Cooking is a form of release, as are the practices of many arts. It is a way of directing the energetic focus onto outside objects in a productive way, giving your self the opportunity for expression or to expend surplus energy.  By filtering erratic energy one may quench other more violent tendencies.  The process of creation may be applied as a form therapy to calm the passions, functioning as an alternative to extreme actions which produce similar feelings.  Cooking in particular is a great way to dissolve internal stress, projecting that energy onto objects of incredible beauty and freshness, resulting in a satisfying product. 

    One of the most valuable aspects of the arts is the correcting and soothing effect it has on humans.  Something about the harmonies of form resonates with our soul, coaxing it into a state of acceptance and transcendence of earthly plight.  Perhaps Plato puts it best, when describing how musical harmonies resonate with the human soul:


And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself…on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.  





    After getting to know the perspective of the ancients, it is easy to see why they strayed from a serious study of taste and food.  To them, taste’s relationship with the body was too close for comfort, and they were unable to see it as something of comparative value with the other senses.  While it may be more of a challenge to use ones sense of taste aesthetically, its closeness to the body does not totally inhibit aesthetic capability as the ancients hypothesized.  In fact, when we fast forward and examine the argument against an aesthetic use of taste made by Kant, we see that taste can function disinterestedly, and apprehend great beauty both with the body and imagination.  Gustatory taste need not always be an entirely subjective experience; it is capable to being refined and perceiving objective qualities of external objects, and as Hume shows, such information can even be used to judge objects of food.  

    The question then arises about the artistry of food.  We saw that the only food that comfortably qualifies as art by standards set by other arts is food that appeals to senses other than taste.  Decorative and representational uses of food are artistic, but appeal to our sense of sight, not our taste.  The fact that food relies on other senses to convey its artistry suggests that food as art that appeals to taste is a minor or weak art.  However, by following the lead of more modern philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, we are encouraged not to judge the philosophical importance of art by its products alone.  The process of food preparation, cookery, is a fascinating practice, bearing more resemblance to the process of other arts than ways in which food is experienced.  A brief examination of the artistic process of cooking is enough to show the depth of philosophical relevance.  Cooking turns out to be not only a unique form of virtuous cultivation of the intellect, but also contributes to philosophical expansion.  Because food is so unique among the arts, yet has essential qualities in common, it forces us to redefine the way we think about art, specifically encouraging interest in the process rather than product.  This has been just an introduction, something to whet the palate, so to speak, meant to inspire many new thoughts and avenues of interest, so that the philosophical investigations of taste and food may fruitfully continue.