What Is Good Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_582 Mar. 31 09.07I suspect most people would say “good taste” is an ability to discern what other people in your social group (or the social group you aspire to) find attractive. Since most people cannot say much about why they like something, it seems as though good taste is just the ability to identify a shared preference, nothing more.

But looked at from the perspective of artists, musicians, designers, architects, chefs and winemakers, etc. this answer is inadequate. It doesn't explain why creative people, even when they achieve some success, strive to do better. If people find pleasure in what you do and good taste is nothing more than an ability to identify what other people in your social group enjoy, then there is little point in artists trying to get better, since the idea of “better” doesn't refer to any standard aside from “what people like”. So it seems like there must be more to good taste than that.

Furthermore, good taste cannot merely be a matter of having a sense of prevailing social conventions because artists and critics often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.

But philosophers have struggled to say more about what good taste is. David Hume, the 18th Century British philosopher, argued that good taste involves “delicacy of sentiment” by which he meant the ability to detect what makes something pleasing or not. In his famous example of the two wine critics, one argued that a wine is good but for a taste of leather he detected; the other argued that the wine is good but for a slight taste of metal. Both were proven right when the container was emptied and a key with a leather thong attached was found at the bottom.

Thus, Hume seemed to think that good taste was roughly what excellent blind tasters have—the ability, acquired through practice and comparison, to taste subtle components of a wine that most non-experts would miss and pass summary judgment on them. The same could be said of the ability to detect subtle, good-making features of a painting or piece of music. The virtue of such analytic tasting of wines is that the detection of discreet components can at least in theory be verified by science and thus aspires to a degree of objectivity. Flavor notes such as “apricot” or “vanilla” are explained by detectable chemical compounds in the wine. The causal theory lends itself to this kind of test of acuity since causal properties can often be independently verified.

Hume's model of taste contains some insight. Someone practiced at discerning elements that ordinary perceivers would miss is an indicator that she has good taste. But I don't think this model is quite right.

Good taste involves evaluating quality, and the quality of a painting, piece of music, or wine is seldom a function of the components of the work taken individually. A wine taster can identify a whole bowl of various fruit aromas wafting from a wine, pronounce the acidity to be bracing and the tannins fine-grained but firm and still have said little about wine quality. Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations. No single component can account for them; it is a matter of how the components are related. In wine, even a prominent feature like acidity is not merely a function of Ph; perceived acidity differs substantially from objective measures of acidity and is influenced by the prominence of other components such as sugar and tannin levels. None of these relational properties seem amenable to scientific analysis. I doubt that gas chromatography can identify elegance; a wine's balance cannot be appreciated by measuring PH and sugar levels.

Identifying these aesthetic features involves a holistic judgment, not an analytic one. The wine as a whole must be evaluated just as evaluating painting or music involves judgments about the work as a whole. But although these holistic features in a wine are a product of fruit, acidity, and tannic structure no list of wine components will add up to a wine being balanced, elegant or delicious. Another British philosopher, from the 20th Century, Frank Sibley, argued that this is a general feature of aesthetic judgments. There are no rules that get us from facts about the object, regardless of how subtle, to these holistic aesthetic judgments.

Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It's not like picking out oak flavors. It's a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?

I think Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, gets us closer to an answer. When I judge something to be beautiful, I do so because I like it. But what about it do I like? For Kant, the pleasure I get from a genuinely beautiful object does not lie in the fact I find it agreeable or pretty. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation of a particular kind. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.

Interpreting Kant is a rather perilous journey but I think he has in mind something like this.
A beautiful object exhibits an order or unity that cannot be fully described. Neither words nor aesthetic principles are sufficient. There are no rules, he argues, that govern our use of the term “beauty” and, in any case, feelings of pleasure will be an unreliable guide to when we are in the presence of beauty. He apparently thinks that each object exhibits beauty in a different way so we can't simply point to a set of features that generally cause us to judge something beautiful. We can't understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or chairs that have determinate, repeatable properties. Yet, in great works of art there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can't mean anything we want it to mean. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. We have to imaginatively search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object, although we are doomed to fail because, given the indeterminacy of beauty, there is always more to be said. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable—an intellectual fascination with trying discover all the dimensions that a work has to give. Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object.

Of course, some objects won't repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we've come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. But according to Kant, an object is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. The object has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it because no particular principle is ever adequate. Beautiful objects are intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.

Thus, taste, on Kant's view must refer to our ability to determine whether an object is worth reflecting on, whether it will repay our attention and produce endless fascination. A person of good taste discovers new patterns to explore, finds unexpected avenues of meaning, and responds with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something.

Kant, of course, would never have assented to using his theory to understand the enjoyment of wine or food. “Mouth taste” he argued is a matter of immediately liking or not liking something and does not provoke contemplation as the appreciation of fine art does. But on this point, I think Kant was wrong.

For example, this kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensual experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely what Modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate.
Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework just as Kant suggested.

Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as genuinely aesthetic but wrong in his judgment that food could not be the object of such an experience. One wonders what the old professor, who never ventured more than 10 miles from his home in Königsberg, had on his plate for dinner.

But what about wine? Wine too is mysterious and a provocation to further exploration, but it fascinates differently from the mysteries of Modernist cuisine. Its capacity for evolution in the bottle and in the glass and the volatile esters that leap from its surface mean that each bottle promises new and different perceptions, and each sip can reveal hidden layers of flavors and fleeting aromas. Great wines have the ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets. These experiences are almost always the result of paradox—power combined with finesse, elegance with carnality, surface sheen and depth.

When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the everyday. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music as well—a moment of ecstasy.

It is not at all clear that Kant's free play of the understanding and imagination quite captures the sheer sensuality of these experiences, whether the object be wine, music, or a work of visual art. It is more like receptively opening up to sensation rather than an intellectual search for a principle. In the end, Kant's view seems too intellectual, too bound up with understanding to account for our fascination with the sensuous surface of things, the pure enjoyment of appearances.

So I fear we are not quite there in our pursuit of good taste.

Maybe if I open another bottle the answer will become clear.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.