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Taste, Knowledge, and Discernment: On Sarah Worth’s Taste
In the course of her exposition of the sense of taste, Sarah Worth argues that taste can provide a purely sensuous, aesthetic kind of knowledge that is rooted in bodily sensation, in contrast to the information-gathering provided by the distance senses of vision and hearing. As such, taste experience is also independent of propositional knowledge. I argue that, on the contrary, taste is not only multimodal but its full operation is also dependent on certain ongoing cognitive conditions. Although Worth declares that there is no such thing as an aesthetic obligation, her defense of the importance of taste actually suggests the opposite. If we care about tastes, then perhaps we also ought to care for them and their preservation, indicating that there might be aesthetic obligations after all.
aesthetic obligations; multimodal perception; sensation and cognition; taste
I begin with a whimsical example intended to open questions about the capacities of taste and the scope of its objects.
In her short story, “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste” (1928), Dorothy Sayers presents us with three characters bearing the name of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The time is just prior to World War I; two of these men are spies who, under pretense, have made their way into the company of a wealthy French count, who must identify the true Lord Peter. The count’s strategy is a taste test, for not only is the real Lord Peter a famous sleuth, he is also known to possess “a palate for wine almost unequaled in Europe.” The three are challenged to identify by taste alone the six wines served at each course of a long dinner. Although one of the faux Wimseys lasts almost until the final sip, only the real Lord Peter can identify every wine by type, place, and year of vintage, including the Schloss Johannisberger Riesling that could only have come from the vines grown in the castle vineyard itself.
Of course this is fiction, and tongue-in-cheek fiction at that. Doubtless few believe that anyone can consistently detect such precise aspects of a wine from its mere taste. But is this a matter of incredible improbability or is it actually impossible? Assuming its possibility, what exactly could Lord Peter be singling out as he tastes and, perhaps more importantly, how? And finally, what additional values are implied by the possibility of such unusually discerning taste?
These questions prompt my reflections on the defense of taste that Sarah Worth’s engaging book presents. There is a lot here to think about, but I shall direct my comments to just three topics: the degree to which sensation can be relied upon to deliver knowledge of its object; the distinction between what something tastes like and what it is the taste of, which foregrounds the issue of deception, error, and fraud; and, somewhat indirectly, whether pondering the nature of taste opens the possibility of aesthetic obligations.
2. Sensory knowledge
Worth presumes that any knowledge or appreciation gained from taste requires first-person acquaintance, which is surely true (139-40). While there are philosophers who assert that full aesthetic apprehension of an object can be achieved in the absence of that object, I do not think this makes a lot of sense for most works of standard art, and I certainly agree with her that immediate acquaintance is necessary for gustatory taste. Thus, while a good deal of her discussion reports and describes the sensations that are experienced from various foods, it is also an invitation to readers to become acquainted with those experiences themselves.
Acquaintance can be further analyzed into “generic” and “particular” forms, an insightful distinction that Worth adapts from Frank Sibley. It recognizes the difference between the generic flavors of, say, a peach, and the particular flavor of one peach. I take it that Lord Peter demonstrates this difference, as he recognizes the (generic) flavor of Riesling and also the exact wine made from the grapes grown in the castle’s own vineyard. (Obviously, it is easier to do the first than the second.) I would like to introduce a further distinction: that between the taste of a particular food and the taste that is merely characteristic of its kind. By “merely characteristic,” I mean a taste that is like, that accurately resembles, something that it is not. That is, it produces a signature flavor by means of imitation of the chemistry that produces the flavor in the original. A common example would be imitation vanilla, which tastes like (has the flavor characteristic of) extract of vanilla but is not composed of elements from an actual vanilla bean. It is the imitative potential of flavor that invites not only mistakes but also frauds.
The distinction between like and of is not quite Worth’s generic-particular distinction. It is a variation of Barry Smith’s distinction between tastings (experiences of taste) and tastes (the objective qualities of a food or drink that produce the tastings). The tasting of a peach refers to the sensory experience aroused when the taste properties possessed by a peach are subjectively registered by a taster. These analytical terms overlap, as taste properties have a generic version (peachiness) in addition to a particular one (the exact, specific flavor of this particular peach).
The variation I offer between like and of calls attention to the distinction between the sensation of flavor and the object that produces the flavor and that is correctly believed to do so. It notes that the understanding as well as the senses are engaged in gustatory experience and mandates retention of the subject-object distinction that Worth would like to leave behind (143-45). In some ways, the phenomenon of eating does indeed indicate the blending of subject and object. Her thesis rightly foregrounds the fact that taste occurs when the object mingles literally with the subject, as when we eat and drink, holding substances in our mouths, swallowing them, and exhaling to savor the lingering aftertaste. However, confirming the identity of what we are tasting requires some means other than what it tastes like; so, we still must analytically distinguish between the subjective experience of the swallower and the objective properties of the swallowed.
Honest artificial flavors, that is, those that don’t pretend to be other than a substitute, demonstrate these related differences. Potassium chloride, for instance, delivers a taste like familiar table salt (sodium chloride), but it is the taste of the chemical substitute. (Actually, it is discernibly more bitter than sodium chloride and requires restrained use.) Stevia and other sugar substitutes have flavors characteristic of sugar — but they are not the flavors of sugar. Artificial vanilla is a common and cheaper substitute for real vanilla extract, and so forth. (For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that lots of putative substitutes are really not very successful matches to what they imitate, because some do come pretty close. And the fakes are getting better.)
Why is this important? It raises doubts that sensation can become the sole ground for knowing taste, as Worth sometimes seems to claim. She says, for example, “What we get from taste is a form of knowledge that is deeply aesthetic in nature, since it is completely derived from the senses, and also deeply dependent on experience” (132). I am not sure about the range of “completely,” because the experience that informs taste includes knowledge of the identity of what produces the taste. In fact, Worth acknowledges that appreciation of food is “supplemented by an understanding of source, cooking techniques, flavours, textures, balance, and, most importantly, taste” (121). But, that list extends far beyond what is likely to be registered — and certainly what can be retained — in sensation. Nor can we dispense with the external confirmation, even after our sensory apparatus becomes sophisticated enough to be reliable, for even the experienced expert can be fooled, as wine connoisseur Emile Peynaud details. The question is, then, can understanding of the objects of taste be fully absorbed into the sophisticated sensory responses of the experienced taster? I find this unlikely, though if I am wrong, then Lord Peter’s palate certainly becomes less improbable.
Partly this is because sensations derived from all modes of perception tend to be indeterminate, unless we also have some knowledge of their objects. Belief about the object of sensation focuses what otherwise might remain ambiguous; thus, false beliefs distort sensory input. In Art and Illusion, Ernst Gombrich demonstrates the dependence of vision on concepts by pointing out how artists misrepresent subjects that they poorly understand. He provides drawings of whales whose fins are placed too high on the head, suggesting they were interpreted as ears; and of locusts in a sixteenth-century German woodcut that resemble little galloping insects, their German name (Heupferd or hay horse) having unduly influenced the pen of the artist. A loud bang could be a firecracker or a gunshot; a smell could be a broken gas line or a hardboiled egg; and those wicked, oiled grapes at Halloween really do feel like eyeballs.
My point is that taste experience is both multimodal and subject to the influence of information derived from non-sensory sources. Correctly identifying what we are tasting puts us in a position to savor the flavor of subtle nuances that might otherwise go undetected. Depriving any sense of such focusing information depletes the acuity of experience — one reason why Lord Peter’s precise palate is amusingly improbable.
The taste knowledge that Worth explores in greatest detail is her lovely disquisition about olive oil, which sent me to the kitchen cupboard to see if I could detect the peppery burn at the back of the throat that she extols. (I could.) She presents a convincing case for the bedrock role of acquaintance in detecting genuine extra-virgin olive oil and the greater reliability of the expert taster over the chemist (127-28). However, to learn which of the multitude of oils is really the best extra-virgin crop requires not only repeated tastings but also, at some point, “externally” supplied knowledge of exactly what one tastes. I suppose one could argue that once identification is established, taste alone can absorb the information and carry on, developing knowledge of a wholly sensory sort. I’m not sure how to assess that possibility, because it seems to me that there is a more or less continuous traffic of information among both the sensory and the non-sensory modes with which we engage the world. Naturally, errors can be made, in which case what we presumed we were sensing has to be reassessed.
3. Food fraud
Such presumptions certainly cause difficulties. Like a successful, undetected art forgery, food fraud can distort understanding of the object of taste. As Worth rightly notes about deceptively labeled oil, “… we develop false beliefs about what olive oil tastes like and thus make faulty judgments based on these false beliefs” (127). The vast numbers of forgeries of abstract paintings that were inadvertently sold by New York’s Knoedler Gallery surely multiplied because the earlier authentications so influenced judgments about the later ones. The faux Rothkos were so like genuine Rothkos that the eye alone was powerless to detect the fraud. Although by now Han van Meegeren’s famous forgeries of Vermeer look obviously fake, because so many of his forgeries had first entered the art market as genuine they became self-reinforcing evidence of authenticity the more they accrued. Similarly, the more we become accustomed to additives and flavor enhancers in our food, not to mention deceptive labeling, the more our recognition when the taste of something is wrong will falter. Our expectations for what it should taste like overtake our grasp of what it is a taste of.
I am inclined to stress the distinction between like and of partly because of my interest in historical dishes and the possibility of knowing what peoples of the past experienced when they ate and drank. As we know, the sources of our foods are becoming more standardized and less diverse than they used to be. With the loss of varieties of fruits, vegetables, and other products, our tastes will become similarly standardized, both because we will be eating foods that are cultivated more for shipping than for taste, and because additives intended to amplify diminished flavors will have distorted our beliefs about what something should taste like. Using Worth’s terminology, one suspects that generic flavors will overtake precise, individual flavors because the latter will show less and less variation. Here, we begin to approach the possibility of aesthetic obligations.
4. Aesthetic obligations
Journalist and wine historian Kevin Begos has been on the hunt for ancient wine stock for years, seeking grapes and their means of fermentation from traditional cultures whose vineyards and methods of winemaking have not changed for centuries. He began his search with the realization that “obscure grapes weren’t just quirkily interesting — each had a special flavor profile. Losing one could mean losing certain tastes forever.”
How might this observation nudge philosophers to the view that there are, after all, something like aesthetic obligations? Worth does not think that aesthetic goods ever entail obligations, being too distinct from moral matters. As she puts it: “Taste is an aesthetic property, not a moral one . . . There are no aesthetic obligations . . . Finding pleasure in certain foods, which is the ultimate goal of eating good-tasting foods, provides something quite different from an obligation” (98). However, I think that her defense of the importance of taste actually opens a path where aesthetic and moral matters converge.
I agree with her that one can’t immediately transfer taste pleasures to an obligation to sustain the sources of those pleasures. But, if we grant the general goodness of diversity in nature (goodness both instrumental and intrinsic), and if that diversity is necessary for the preservation of certain taste experiences, and those taste experiences are good in themselves — pleasurable or something more profound — then it seems that one ought to act in ways that acknowledge those goods. Loss of the tastes that Begos seeks is more than a limitation on the rich variety of experiences that wine drinkers might enjoy, although of course it is also that. It also entails the diminution of cultural artifacts from regions where the few remaining old grape stocks still grow: the loss of traditional, even ancient methods of wine making and the shrinkage of our understanding of methods of production in history, not to mention our glimpses of the experiences of those who lived before us. In other words, the loss of tastes is not only a hedonic harm but also historically and transculturally noteworthy, suggesting an absence of care and attention to things that were and still are precious to a dwindling few. This sounds very much like a situation that extends into the realm of ethics.
Once we consider the kinds of activity and practice that surround objects of experiential value, the focus on taste pleasure recedes and expands to include much wider territory involving history and cultural otherness. These elements also inflect taste experience, deepening its meaning and significance. As Yuriko Saito suggests, an aesthetic theory that stresses what we care about in experience insinuates a demand that we also must care for it — that is, take care of it. She extends the already-established ethics of care to include a duty to preserve things of aesthetic value.
Worth suggests we discard the subject-object distinction for taste, which I find conceptually essential. But I would like to jettison, or at least blur, the philosophically intransigent distinctions between aesthetic quality and moral valence, not to mention historical and cultural significance. All of these values converge when the object in question is rare, endangered, or otherwise particularly special. If they come together emphatically enough to become for all intents and purposes unified, or at least inextricably entangled, we might arrive at something like an obligation to protect flavors and the objects that harbor them.
Carolyn Korsmeyer writes in aesthetics and emotion theory. Her philosophy books include Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, and Things: In Touch with the Past. She has recently turned to writing fiction and has published two novels.
Published on October 4, 2023.
Cite this article: Carolyn Korsmeyer, “Taste, Knowledge, and Discernment: On Sarah Worth’s Taste,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Bibulous Business of a Matter of Taste,” in Lord Peter, compiled by James Sandoe, (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 154-167. On 161. Sayers uses the older British term “hock” rather than the currently more familiar “Riesling.”
 Sarah E. Worth, Taste: A Philosophy of Food (London: Reaktion Books, 2021). Page numbers to this book appear in parentheses in the text.
 Barry C. Smith, “Tasting and Liking: Mujltisensory Flavor Perception and Hedonic Evaluation,” in The Taste Culture Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 250-260.
 Emile Peynaud, “Tasting Problems and Errors of Perception,” in The Taste Culture Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 272-278..
 Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 90-93.
 Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 79-80.
 The frauds and errors surrounding Knoedler’s acquisitions and sales are documented in the film, Made You Look, Dir. Barry Avrich (2020).
 Kevin Begos, Tasting the Past (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2019), 9.
 Yuriko Saito, Aesthetics of Care: Practice in Everyday Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2022).