Why Kant Was Wrong about Food

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

from the San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn

Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.

Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to break up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.

What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.

Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.

So what does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food? According to Kant, such genuine aesthetic contemplation results in (1) disinterested satisfaction, and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding.

What is “disinterested satisfaction”? Like the pleasure we get from “mouth taste”, disinterested satisfaction also refers to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure upon which we base a judgment. But, according to Kant, genuine aesthetic pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—the object’s usefulness, ability to serve our needs, or prospects for earning a profit are not part of the experience. Instead, we revel in the pure appearance of the object because we have no interest in what it can do for us. In other words, in genuine aesthetic experience the feeling of pleasure and the judgment of beauty do not rest on a desire. Thus, the experience does not depend on a private condition or idiosyncratic preference, according to Kant.

Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate the way the object causes the free play of the imagination and understanding which gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction. Food by contrast, is appreciated because it relieves hunger or entertains guests. Its appreciation is inherently bound up with a practical purpose and is thus not disinterested.

This also means that art and music, unlike food, engage our critical faculties. Because our judgments about art are disinterested, and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are, therefore, justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree with our subjective judgments, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely. Thus, our judgments regarding the beauty of art or music, because they do not rest on desires that are thoroughly private and peculiar to an individual, are capable of being communicated to others, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that the object is beautiful.

Since is it not our desires speaking through our genuine aesthetic judgments but rather our shared cognitive faculties, aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal. The problem for mouth taste is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested, unlike the satisfaction we get from music or painting. Judgments about art are subject to criticism because they aspire to be universal whereas judgments about food are not. If a person fails to like chocolate, they cannot be criticized for that failure; by contrast if they fail to like Rembrandt’s paintings they can be criticized for lack of aesthetic sensitivity.

So what is wrong with this picture? Many critics have pointed to difficulties in understanding how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in the beautiful produce desire?

But there is a deeper problem that I think is fatal to Kant’s view.

The most plausible contemporary account of desire is provided by Timothy Schroeder who develops a view of desire and pleasure that incorporates what contemporary neuroscience has to say on the subject. In the course of analyzing the nature of desire he defines pleasure as follows: “To be pleased is (at least) to represent a net increase in desire satisfaction relative to expectation.” (See Three Faces of Desire, Chap. 3). For my purposes, his key claim is that the pleasure centers of the brain are tied to our motivational states—i.e. desires. In other words, there is no such thing as a pleasure that is not dependent on a desire. Pleasure just is a representation of a change in desire satisfaction. Thus, according the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as a disinterested pleasure. Kantian aesthetics rests on a fiction.

If there is no distinction between pleasures based on desires and pleasures not based on desires then at least part of the basis for Kant’s distinction between pleasures we get from food and wine vs. pleasures we receive from intellectual contemplation evaporates.

Of course, it may be the case that the second dimension of Kant’s theory—contemplation based on the “free play of understanding and imagination” might give us some reason to maintain Kant’s view of the inferiority of mouth taste as an object of genuine aesthetic appreciation. But what is this “play of understanding and imagination” and does that apply to food and wine?

According to Kant, through experience the mind naturally builds up a collection of schemata—templates for various kinds of objects—that help us recognize a dog as a dog or a table as a table. When we encounter an object, it is the imagination that selects and structures sensory data so that it matches these templates according to what is the best fit. New experiences of dogs and tables can thus be easily assimilated to our conceptual scheme.

But we are not born with all the templates we need for understanding reality—we have to create new ones when new objects are encountered. So the imagination also has the ability to sort through sensory experience and invent new templates. When doing so, the imagination cannot simply apply the old templates since they don’t fit the new experience very well. But it can still make use of them if they are sufficiently close to the new experience. This is what Kant means by the “free play” of the imagination and understanding. The imagination is searching for a concept to fit the new experience but to find a match it has to shape the sensory data to fit existing concepts as best it can, while also shaping existing concepts so they match the new sensory data. In this exercise of the imagination, we may succeed or fail. There may not be a concept or schema adequate to the new experience. It may elude our understanding if the object is sufficiently alien to our conceptual framework

This free play of the imagination and understanding is implicated in our aesthetic judgments, according to Kant. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, rather than a mere sensuously enjoyable experience like basking in the sun or sipping wine, the imagination experiments with possible ways of restructuring the object. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, especially when that restructuring makes sense to us, when the understanding and the imagination harmonize despite the fact that the imagination is not being thoroughly directed by the fixed templates that normally govern our concepts. We see that the work has an order and unity to it without clearly deciding on a single judgment of what it is or what it does. There is no concept adequate to the experience, but that indeterminacy is itself pleasurable. This is when we judge an object beautiful. It is intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.

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.

I doubt that this account of aesthetic pleasure accounts for all genuine aesthetic judgments—it seems too remote from the sensuous experiences we typically associate with the appreciation of art and especially music. But it captures perhaps some of our aesthetic judgments. The question is whether the appreciation of food and wine ever takes this form.

And I think it clearly does. 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 molecular gastronomy aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes aim to 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. But even more traditional cooking if it is sufficiently creative and innovative can produce this experience of indeterminate searching for understanding that is nevertheless enjoyable. And wine tasting produces similar experiences. As the very literate wine importer Terry Theise writes:

I can scarcely recall a great wine that didn’t in some sense amaze me, that didn’t make my palate feel as if it were whipsawed between things that hardly ever travel together. My shorthand term for that experience is paradox; again, this component is in the hands of the angels and doesn’t appear susceptible to human contrivance, but when it is found it conveys a lovely sense of wonder: How can these things coexist in a single wine? And not only coexist, but spur each other on; power with grace, depth with brilliance. . . . (Theise, Reading Between the Wines, 34)

That is a lovely description of the play of understanding and imagination. Thus, 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.

For more ruminations on the Philosophy of Food and Wine visit Edible Arts.