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The elusive qualia of taste -- metaphysics and aesthetics in food comparisons

  • b

One of my favorite restaurants is Fleur de Sel and I've written some glowing detailed descriptions of my meals there and posted them to the Manhattan board. (See link below.) And, though many people agree, I got one or two replies like "I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department." Now such a difference of views fascinates me because it brings up fascinating problems of metaphysics and aesthetics. Specifically, how do we compare qualia (sense-perceptions)? How do we know what another person tastes? And is there a way to objectively rank and value them, or is the best we can hope for "I like that meal!" "Well, I HATE it!"

Let's dispose of the simplest and the hardest scenarios first. Simplest: we had different meals. My critic went on a bad day and was served bad food. Had I tasted it, I would have agreed with her judgment. This is possible, but uninteresting. Hardest: My critic (or perhaps I, for all you know) is what philosophers call a zombie, an entity that does not experience consciousness, sense-perception or qualia but is otherwise identical to me. This is interesting, but there's really no way to tell.

But there are so many other possibilities. One is that our qualia, our perceptions, are different. My experience of taste is as different from hers as sight is different from sound. Or one of us is taste-impaired, similar to the way a stuffed nose impairs taste. How to tell? An assumption, and a suggestion. The assumption is that humans with roughly similar minds have roughly similar perceptions. We can disregard all radical hypotheses (e.g. totally differing qualia) unless warranted by strong evidence. Suggestion: dialogue. I think some, but not all, of these differences can be resolved (or at least diagnosed) by dialogue. "Can you taste the three different flavors? "" Hey, I taste seven!" (And it might be interesting to classify the possible differences according to whether or not they can be ameliorated by dialogue.)

Of course, our taste experiences are not just raw perception. Even before they rise to the level of consciousness, the brain classifies them, stresses some notes, suppresses others. The more this higher-level brainwork is involved, the more there is a possibliity of education. The wine connoisseur, for example, is not so much born as made, by long study. If I explain to someone the reasons I like a dish, the flavors I taste, the care taken in preparation, they might appreciate it as I did.

And if they don't? Are there any objective standards? If A says "I like the veal confit with chanterelles at Fleur de Sel!" and B says "I LIKE SPAGHETTI WITH CHEEZ WHIZ!!!" -- is there a way to objectively judge the two dishes? I think there is. I think objective standards are possible, in terms of complexity, psychological resonance, harmony, daring, elegance. Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it.
Brian S

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

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  1. Huh?

    "Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it."

    So you're saying that the human race--as a species--is evolving towards preferring veal confit over spaghetti with Cheez Whiz?

    Um....

    4 Replies
    1. re: Rico Pan

      No, I just meant that maybe there is some absolute standard and we can deduce it by seeing how people mature. Kinda like J.S. Mill's attempts to rank pleasures. By the way, I STILL really like spaghetti with cheez whiz...

      1. re: Brian S

        ...and even though I make an awfully good mac'n'cheese, and am picky about the versions in restaurants, I STILL like a big plate of Kraft Dinner once in a while. The straight-noodle kind with the radioactive powdered cheese...

      2. re: Rico Pan

        "They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it."

        So you're saying that the human race--as a species--is evolving towards preferring veal confit over spaghetti with Cheez Whiz?"

        Or perhaps it's in the other direction, assuming that the human progresses toward the divine. See below:

        Link: http://www.venganza.org/

        1. re: jbw

          that's fantastic! right on.

      3. Objectivity in taste judgment requires an ability to recognize and divorce that judgment from the influences of cravings. Warm bread and good butter will be ambrosial to a starving man or Atkins penitent. As will spring water after a desert ordeal, or cheesy macs when comfort food beacons. To judge objectively, one must be free of hunger, nostalgia, and other distractions. There is magic in food and taste, but disconnecting it from need and romance is difficult.

        1. >> And, though many people agree, I got one or two replies like "I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department." Now such a difference of views fascinates me because it brings up fascinating problems of metaphysics and aesthetics.>>

          That type of difference of opinion does not need to be that complicated or puzzling. If I said a restaurant's cuisine was "mundane," I would mean everyday, run-of-the-mill. Nothing that unusual or inventive on the menu; nothing fabulous in terms of ingredients or the way they were prepared. This would not be a terribly negative judgment unless the restaurant was claiming to do something really fabulous or groundbreaking or cost so much that I would expect that.

          Judging a restaurant in comparison with its peers in that area and at that price point I think it's a fairly straightforward type of judgment for an individual to make, although people may disagree with each other.

          1. I like the maturity theory. You must drink a ton of poor, average and good wine to ever fully appreciate a bottle of Petrus.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Shoeman

              I agree. And when I said..."Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well." ... this might be literally true. Cuisine has evolved from caveman to Rome to Middle Ages to Louis XIV... though the dishes served at Roman and medieval aristocrats' tables are far more sophisticated than most people imagine. I've lived in the New Guinea highlands and what people there love most is big slabs of pig cooked on hot stones and served bloody rare. (It was delicious, actually.)

              1. re: Brian S

                WHAT! Can you please repost in English.

                Your brilliance is lost on me.

                1. re: Shoeman

                  Sorry. Maybe a child's taste develops as he grows up, going from greasy glop to sophisticated French sauces, in the same way the taste of the human race developed from cavemen chowing down on hunks of meat to Louis XIV dining on sophisticated French sauces.

            2. I'm not weighing in on the merits of the post, but on the merits of your writing. Excellent and bracing. Thank you

              1 Reply