Romantic Gastronomies

Tastes and Pleasures

Carolyn Korsmeyer, University at Buffalo (SUNY)

  1. At the advent of the nineteenth century Grimod de la Reynière confidently declared, "It is widely held to be true that all of the arts are interconnected, that they overlap, and that they are mutually beneficial . . . Chemistry, painting, sculpture, architecture, geometry, physics, pyrotechnics, all are more or less closely allied with the great art of fine dining" (qtd. in Gigante, Gusto 8). Great culinary accomplishment, he recognized, entails that the sense of taste is correspondingly capable of the development of "an extreme delicacy of the palate, which allows the appreciation, in tasting, of a full range of flavors" far beyond the register of basic sensation (6). Such sentiments were to be repeated and embroidered many times in the rich literature on gastronomy that blossomed in the ensuing decades (Weiss 1-15).

  2. The proliferation of gastronomic literature came on the heels of a similar expansion of theoretical interest in what would seem to be a parallel subject: theories of "aesthetic" taste. For the previous century was so full of philosophical writing on taste, as well as on beauty, the sublime, and what came to be known as "aesthetic" experience, that the entire eighteenth century has been termed the "century of taste" (Dickie). As Denise Gigante puts it, "Modern gastronomy developed as an expansion of the eighteenth-century discourse of aesthetic taste, as a cultural field opening onto the material pleasures of appetite." (Gigante, Gusto xix) A number of gastronomic writers took their cues directly from philosophic texts, perhaps particularly from David Hume’s famous essay "Of the Standard of Taste" of 1757, allusion to which is apparent in Grimod’s comments about delicacy of palate. Launcelot Sturgeon mentions Hume prefatory to his own description of the sensibility of an epicure: "a delicate susceptibility in the organs of degustation, which enables him to appreciate the true relish of each ingredient in the most compound ragoût" (qtd. in Gigante, Gusto 83; see also Gigante, Taste 270-71). And an anonymous writer in an 1858 issue of Harper’s magazine eagerly quotes philosopher Dugald Stewart’s comparison between cookery and the fine arts: "Sweet may be said to be intrinsically pleasing, and bitter to be relatively pleasing; while both are, in many cases, equally essential to those effects which, in the art of cookery, correspond to that composite beauty which it is the object of the poet and the painter to create" (qtd. in Gigante, Gusto 249). Given the central role of the concept of taste in both philosophy and gastronomy, writers on food and eating rather naturally merged their interests with philosophical theories.

  3. However, this was a one-way endeavor, rarely reciprocated by the philosophers who systematized the discipline that would come to be called "aesthetics." Despite the efforts of gastronomic writers, the two discourses never converge—even at the points where they first seem to join. Had the Harper’s writer read more carefully, he would have noticed that in Stewart’s own opinion the gustatory and artistic comparisons remain merely metaphoric. Stewart insists on the "exclusive restriction (among our different external senses) of the term Beauty to the objects of Sight and Hearing," referring to the

    intimate association, which . . . is formed between the Eye and the Ear, as the great inlets of our acquired knowledge; as the only media by which different Minds can communicate together; and as the organs by which we receive from the material world the two classes of pleasures, which, while they surpass all the rest in variety and in duration,—are the most completely removed from the grossness of animal indulgence, and the most nearly allied to the enjoyments of the intellect. (Stewart 304-5)
  4. This is a typical sentiment, for the vast majority of philosophers writing about aesthetic taste dismiss or even disparage the literal sense of taste, its objects, and its pleasures, developing the concept of the aesthetic in explicit contrast to bodily taste sensation. Kant’s famous distinction between the sense pleasure of eating and the aesthetic pleasure of beauty merely reiterates in his own idiom what was essentially a philosophical commonplace. As Lord Kames put it some years earlier, "The fine arts are contrived to give pleasure to the eye and the ear, disregarding the inferior senses" (Kames 6-7). Even years after gastronomy had produced volumes, the same opinion continues to be repeated. At the end of the nineteenth century George Santayana asserts:

    The pleasures we call physical and regard as low ... are those which call our attention to some part of our own body, and which make no object so conspicuous to us as the organ in which they arise. There is here, then, a very marked distinction between physical and aesthetic pleasure; the organs of the latter must be transparent, they must not intercept our attention, but carry it directly to some external object. The greater dignity and range of aesthetic pleasure is thus made very intelligible. (Santayana 24)

    In a mid-twentieth-century book described as "the work that was to set the tone of clarity and hard thinking for the discipline" of aesthetics (Kivy ix), Monroe Beardsley dispenses with the claims of cuisine to be an art form in a mere two paragraphs, noting dismissively that: "We are told by Fanny Farmer that ‘cooking may be as much a means of self-expression as any of the arts,’ but that only goes to show that there is more to art than self-expression" (Beardsley 98-99). In later works, while the difference between aesthetic pleasure in art and sensuous enjoyment of food continues to be reiterated from time to time (e.g. Scruton 1979: ch. 4), as a rule the distinction is simply presumed by the complete omission of the latter subject in most discussions of aesthetics.

  5. To be sure, there are many points of similarity between the literatures on gustatory and on aesthetic taste. Perhaps the most important is that both gastronomers and philosophers endorse a hedonic foundation for the defining values of their arts. Aesthetics developed its modern iterations with the rejection of objectivist analyses of beauty and the adoption of empiricist theories of properties—according to which value-terms such as "beauty" refer to an "idea" constituted by the pleasure of the percipient, rather than to an external, objective quality. So too do gastronomers extol well-prepared foods for the refined pleasures they afford and the delicacy of palate they demand. Yet even as gastronomers advance their case for both the aesthetic and artistic standing of cuisine, philosophers continue to exclude taste from the aesthetic senses and cuisine from the arts. This essay explores the persistent division between the two sorts of taste and the pleasures they afford. There are actually three topics mingled here: the nature of the sense of taste and its alleged limits; the status of taste enjoyment to qualify as aesthetic pleasure; and the claims of cuisine to be considered an art form. I shall focus only on the first two.

    The sense of taste

  6. Let me review very briefly some familiar territory about the appropriation of taste as the governing metaphor—even model—for aesthetic discrimination. There is some inevitable shift of terminology in part of this discussion, for "taste" is the label for a set of receptors of the tongue and mouth, and as such it can be distinguished from smell and touch. But outside the laboratory taste almost never functions alone, and gastronomers usually use "taste" to refer to the multi-sensory experience of the flavor and texture of food and drink. I trust that context will make clear which meanings are intended.

  7. Taste (narrow sense) and its cousin smell have always ranked low in the hierarchy of the senses established since classical antiquity. This assessment involves a set of charges that one finds in the philosophical literature from Plato to the present, and that may be found in scientific studies as well. Taste is often considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to determine whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion; otherwise, it is not terribly significant (Gleitman 116). Because of their crucial role in protecting the organism, both of the chemical senses are designated as relatively "primitive" sense modalities (McLaughlin and Margolskee 538). With these perspectives, scientific approaches underwrite traditional assumptions about the built-in limits of the sense of taste.

  8. Philosophically, taste is viewed as an impoverished sense on epistemic, moral, and aesthetic grounds. Taste does not furnish significant information about the external world; it delivers only bodily pleasures; and hence it offers temptations that without strict control can lead to gluttony and intemperance. The sense modality with which taste contrasts most dramatically is vision, which along with hearing cooperates with reason to develop knowledge of the world. Though touch is granted some cognitive standing coordinate with vision, smell and taste compete for last place in a hierarchical ordering that puts the distance or "intellectual" senses of sight and hearing above the proximal or "bodily" senses of touch, smell, and taste. In modern times, the distinction between "aesthetic" and "nonaesthetic" senses supplements this rank ordering.

  9. The kind of pleasure furnished by taste demonstrates both its moral danger and its aesthetic limits. Experiences of the bodily senses are sensations; that is, they register phenomenally as effects on the perceiver’s body. In contrast, the distance senses provide perceptions, which have no phenomenal "feel" but in their typical exercise are wholly directed outward towards their objects. (There are exceptions; extreme stimuli such as high volume or piercing light cause physical discomfort.) Enjoyment from the bodily senses is correspondingly physical and sensuous, and paradigmatic examples of those pleasures invariably refer to eating and to sex. Because the pleasures of vision and hearing normally do not arouse bodily sensations, they do not invite the kind of self-indulgence in pleasure that taste does. Aristotle is one of many who warned that the bodily senses provide appetitive pleasures that are pursued by brutes as well as humans, and he advised careful moderation in their exercise. That sensory pleasures require control is a common observation, of course, and one duly recognized by gastronomers. "Men who stuff themselves and grow tipsy know neither how to eat nor how to drink," reads one of Brillat-Savarin’s opening aphorisms (Brillat-Savarin 2). But moderation addresses only excesses of bodily pleasure; it does not provide a rebuttal to the charge that the pleasure to be had from eating or drinking is simply the wrong type to be aesthetic.

  10. All of these concerns are summed up in the common classification of taste as a "subjective" sense, meaning that it directs attention largely inward to the state of our own bodies, to our mouth and tongue and what is going on as food slides into our interiors. Therefore, taste experiences furnish the paradigm of private experiences that are relative to individuals. "One man’s meat is another man’s poison," as the saying goes; and De gustibus non est disputandum: "There is no disputing about taste." Actually, we dispute about taste all the time, but philosophy is not alone in finding taste sensations idiosyncratic and private, as these commonly quoted adages attest.

  11. But of course there is another side to the philosophical story, for taste also provides the guiding metaphor used to describe the ability to discern beauty in nature and art. Given the poor reputation of the gustatory sense, one might be surprised to see it pressed into such delicate service. But several features of the sense of taste dispose it for this usage. A backdrop to the acceptance of the metaphor of taste is a deeply-rooted controversy that heated up in the eighteenth-century: philosophers were divided between those who believed that reason remains the chief mental faculty to apprehend value, and those who reinterpreted the operation of the mind and attributed evaluative function to a capacity they variously termed "sensibility," "sentiment," or "inner sense." On the whole, and especially with regard to aesthetic matters, the latter side prevailed. Therefore, to identify a sense as the metaphor for the mechanism of value apprehension suited the waning allegiance to reason as the guiding evaluative faculty.

  12. Taste requires intimate, first-hand acquaintance with its objects. One cannot judge the taste of food from second-hand reports, and the same may be said of an object of beauty. Furthermore, taste is a sense that nearly always has a value valence—that is, one either likes or dislikes what is tasted. (This feature continues to be part of scientific studies of taste, which is the one sense about which researchers consistently inquire about pleasure reactions.) Because modern philosophy widely associates beauty with pleasure—indeed according to the most influential theories, such as the empiricism of Hume and Kant’s analysis of feeling, beauty is actually identical with a certain type of pleasure—the likes and dislikes that eating typically occasions are parallel to the pleasure-displeasure responses that characterize aesthetic evaluations.1 Perhaps most paradoxically, given the dismissal of this sense for its tendency to direct attention only inward toward the body, taste was selected also for its extreme sensitivity to the qualities of its objects. Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art. Hume posits a "great resemblance between mental and bodily taste" in his famous retelling of a story of a wine-tasting contest from Don Quixote: According to this tale, two kinsmen of Sancho Panza possessed amazingly "delicate" taste. To test their pretensions, their fellow villagers had them assess the contents of a hogshead of wine. Very good, said one, except for a slight taste of metal; excellent, agreed the other, save for that faint whiff of leather. Everyone else laughed, for they tasted only wine; but later when the hogshead was emptied, at the bottom was found a dropped key attached to a leather thong—proof of the greater delicacy and accuracy of the taste of Sancho’s kinsmen (Hume 141-2).

  13. One might expect that the widespread adoption of the taste metaphor to speak of beauty and art would repair the traditional dismissal of the literal, gustatory sense. However, many theorists were insistent—far more insistent than Hume—that "taste" is only a metaphor. From one point of view, philosophical stubbornness on this point might be regarded simply as unwonted conservatism, but there is far more to the story than disciplinary prejudice. Because of the radical identity thesis of beauty and pleasure, philosophers carefully stipulated the parameters of aesthetic pleasure in order to illuminate how this venerable value could preserve its importance yet lose its objectivity. That is, the subjectivity of taste suited the sense as a metaphor for aesthetic judgments—which are also subjective, as any pleasure is by definition; but the idea that there is "no argument" about taste in the absence of standards is an unacceptable extension of the similarity of the two sorts of taste. In the course of debates over the standards that could be ascertained for aesthetic subjectivity, philosophers revisited and considerably revised traditional analyses of the nature of pleasure itself—long regarded as the signal that a desire or interest has been satisfied. Hence the birth of the celebrated criterion of "disinterestedness" for aesthetic enjoyment.2

  14. However urgent that agenda, even a defender of the philosophical mainstream has to admit that the nature of gustatory taste has been distorted in the contrast that it supposedly provides to aesthetic taste. Several questions need to be addressed to determine the legitimacy of gastronomy’s case for the aesthetic standing of gustatory taste. How does the sense of taste really operate? Is its alleged "subjectivity" any more private or indisputable than the experiences furnished by other senses? And what kind of enjoyment does it—or can it—furnish to the attentive percipient? One need look for answers no further than one of the foundational texts of romantic gastronomy: Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste of 1826, which Patricia Parkhurst Ferguson has called "perhaps the exemplary text" of this period’s culinary writing (Ferguson 31).

    Brillat-Savarin: pleasure and the sense of taste

  15. Just how much Brillat-Savarin was aware of either the unsavory reputation of taste in the history of philosophy or the uses of "taste" in the growing traditions of aesthetics I do not know. It seems likely he was familiar with some of the current popular treatments of taste, such as those written by his favorite, Voltaire. Regardless of his acquaintance with predecessor literature, Brillat’s book is an intriguing reflection based on wide experience from the point of view of a self-made "doctor, chemist, physiologist, and scholar," and in his eclectic ruminations he addresses many familiar issues concerning the bodily senses (Brillat-Savarin 18).

  16. Brillat’s focus on pleasure also steers his remarks to the chief zone of contention between aesthetics and gastronomy. Indeed, his book might have been titled "The Physiology of Pleasure," so central is that concept in his study. Pleasure, he contends, serves as a gauge indicating that the entire human machine is functioning according to plan. Pleasure is a signal that bodily indulgence has been proportionate and well-executed, just as was intended by nature and nature’s Creator, "who, having ordered us to eat in order to live, invites us to do so with appetite, encourages us with flavor, and rewards us with pleasure" (151). In his view, the association of taste and sexual pleasures indicates how the senses work towards the preservation of the individual and the continuation of the species, for he classes sexual desire as a sixth sense (30). (He enthuses about this association frequently, as with his encomium to the aphrodisiac truffle.) Against over-indulgence, he sensibly recommends his own brand of Aristotelian moderation (though he may have preached this more than practiced it) (MacDonogh). "It is in the nature of things that what is excessive does not last long" he observes (2, 307-8). The motive for moderation is probably more hedonistic than moral, because gorging reduces taste pleasure; but the directive economically serves both ends. Gluttonous indulgence carries its own punishment, indicated by Brillat’s piteous descriptions of those who must spend most of the day engaged in strenuous digestion.

  17. Brillat distinguishes three referents for the term "taste": the sense organ, the sensation aroused, and the properties of sapid, or tastable, substances (33). Although smell and taste have been designated "chemical" senses for some centuries, the precise way that chemical action produces different tastes is only now being discovered. Therefore it would not be reasonable to expect any early insights about chemical interactions from Brillat, who does not go much beyond the ancient observation that substances need to be soluble in order to be tasted. However, some of his other comments are remarkably prescient of contemporary taste research.

  18. Consider for instance his study of the tongue. The tongue is the chief organ of taste, and many have surmised that the little bumps on its surface are somehow responsible for sensations. Current physiology distinguishes four types of papillae on the tongue, three of which contain taste buds in humans. Those that contain the most taste buds are the fungiform papillae, so called because when magnified they look like little mushrooms. These are the larger of the two types of papillae that appear to the naked eye as tiny dots on the tongue’s surface. Brillat (who uses "buds" and "papillae" interchangeably) observes:

    Now the study of anatomy teaches us that all tongues are not equally endowed with these taste buds, so that some may possess even three times as many of them as others. This circumstance explains why, of two diners seated at the same feast, one is delightfully affected by it, while the other seems almost to force himself to eat: the latter has a tongue but thinly provided with papillae, which proves that the empire of taste may also have its blind and deaf subjects. (35)
  19. In this surmise Brillat is correct. Taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk distinguishes what she calls "supertasters" from "nontasters," referring to people who are especially sensitive to certain bitter chemicals as well as to a large range of taste qualities. Supertasters are endowed with far more fungiform papillae than nontasters, she reports, as one can discover by simple experiment: Paint your tongue with blue food coloring, shine a flashlight on it, and look in a mirror. The fungiform papillae appear rosy, and a supertaster’s tongue is virtually tiled in hot pink. Lots of blue spots indicate the less sensitive nontaster (Bartoshuk).

  20. Discovery of a physical reason why taste sensations can differ provides causal grounding for one aspect of the alleged relativity of taste preferences. Physical reasons for this sort of variation are hardly unique to taste, however, as Brillat notes with his comparison to variant hearing capacities (28). His analysis of the organ of taste furnishes the beginnings of an implicit rejoinder to one of the most complicated claims about the subjectivity of taste: that it is an inward-directed sense the experience of which is essentially private, and therefore about which there is no disputing. Taste is not just inwardly-directed. It registers the flavor-properties of objects just as touch informs us that a surface is rough or hearing that a sound is high-pitched; moreover, there are perceptual norms for taste sensitivity. Taste does register the properties of objects by means of sensation "of" or "in" the body, but attention is directed towards the tasted object as much as towards the site of sensation.

  21. Brillat’s study of taste also neatly analyzes the interaction of taste and smell, addressing certain detractors who would denigrate this sense because it is supposedly sensitive to just four qualities: sour, bitter, sweet, and salty, the rest of the taste spectrum being supplied by smell. Of course, anyone with a bad cold could tell you the same thing. But when gastronomers refer to taste they are not limiting themselves to the contribution of the tongue alone anyway, and Brillat is especially eloquent about the combination of senses that contribute to the full tasting experience. With typically vivid imagery he declares: "I am tempted to believe that smell and taste form a single sense, of which the mouth is the laboratory and the nose is the chimney" (38). He also points out that a good deal of what, strictly speaking, belongs to smell actually takes place in the mouth. For not only do vapors waft into the nose when foods approach our lips, as the chewed bites pass to the back of the throat they interact with the retronasal passages where nose and mouth connect. And after we swallow and exhale there is yet more savoring at the stage of taste he designates "reflective" (39). What is more, the vocabulary to describe arousal of the chemical senses is particularly deficient, he believes. The number of tastes is "infinite," varying with the unique properties of each substance taken into the mouth; and taste experience is further modified in combination with other foods (36-7). All the more reason to cultivate the discerning capacities of this subtle sense so that experience can be acknowledged in the absence of labels—an aspect of cultivated gustatory taste that conforms squarely with the sought-after delicacy of aesthetic taste.

  22. The analysis of the physical workings of the organ of taste is only the beginning of Brillat’s study of how this sense operates. He is equally attuned to the situational factors that make some people better tasters than others. The pleasures of eating are relatively basic, indicating the satisfaction of appetite when the organism is functioning properly; but this is little more than the human variety of an animal need — although Brillat also insists that the anatomy of humans endows them with superior taste sensitivity (43-5). Of more interest and considerably wider scope are the pleasures of the table, which are independent of need or appetite (Brillat-Savarin 188; Gigante 7-8). Education of this sense to make it a discerning instrument is a long-term project. Brillat suggests that it can be interrupted both for individuals, when the physical make-up of the tongue is deficient or when scarcity imposes limits, and for entire cultures when fine eating is not a social norm. He pictures the barbarians who destroyed the legendary customs of the Roman table as having "snarling mouths and leathery gullets, insensible to the subtleties of refined cookery" (307).

  23. Brillat’s investigation of the physiology of the tasting apparatus is as fully developed as it could have been in his time, and indeed it stands up well to its contemporary scientific supplement. His surmises about the taste properties of various foods are a bit indeterminate. On the one hand, he repeats fairly frequently the adage that about taste there is no disputing, by which he seems mainly to have meant that there are no rules governing whether one should prefer one type of food over another. "Every man reacts differently to a thing: his fleeting sensations cannot be expressed in any known symbols, and there is no scale for determining whether a cod, a sole, or a turbot is better than a salmon trout" (91). On the other hand, his discussion of cooking techniques observes that foods have distinctive properties that behave in regular ways in their preparation and in the sensations they predictably arouse. He is absolutely clear, for example, that a well-aged partridge is better than a freshly-killed bird. Evidently, then, about some sorts of tastes there is not only disputation but also definitive resolution.

  24. Where Brillat is at his most eloquent, however, concerns that most elusive feature of taste: the felt quality of the experience. He analyzes three stages of tasting: "Direct" sensation refers to the first impression that food makes when it enters the mouth. Chewing begins, releasing more flavors, and as the food slides down the throat olfaction contributes further to "complete" taste. After swallowing, the taster exhales and the final stage of taste commences, that which he calls "reflective": "the opinion which one’s spirit forms from the impressions which have been transmitted to it by the mouth" (39). This final phase of taste sets the stage for the integration of subjective sensation into social rumination, for what can be reflected upon is also the subject of conversation, debate, and judgment. (Following this line of thought, other gastronomers advanced communal standards for culinary judgments with the foundation of gastronomic "juries" whose opinions stood as shared norms for gustatory taste) (Gigante, Gusto xxvi).3

  25. But even without words, common experience can be discerned. Brillat frequently reports that he knows from their beatific expressions that others have shared his taste pleasures. Taste is thereby an eminently social sense, an observation that implicitly further discredits its alleged privacy and indisputability. That food must enter our interiors in order to register is an undeniably "subjective" feature of taste, but not one that entails relativity. Both flavor and consequent enjoyment are the culmination of shared eating experience, rhapsodically described in this report from a "gastronomical test" Brillat conducted on dinner guests:

    All conversation ceased as if hearts were too full to go on; all attention was riveted on the skill of the carvers; and when the serving platters had been passed, I saw spread out in succession on every face the fire of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and then the perfect peace of satisfaction (184).
  26. There can be little doubt that the pleasure shared by these diners was a common experience. Now the hard question remains: does Brillat’s study help to accredit the sense of taste and its objects as equal participants in the discourse of aesthetics? Or to put the question more specifically: does it serve to revise the traditional concept of aesthetic pleasure to include gustatory enjoyment?

    Pleasure — concluding thoughts

  27. This question is easier to raise than to answer. Pleasure is an obscure phenomenon that — despite all the attention it received in eighteenth-century discourse — was only partially theorized in the philosophical tradition within which romantic gastronomy arose. Locke called pleasure a "simple idea," by which he meant it could not be analyzed into components. Even if that be the case, however, pleasure is not at all simple in any other sense of the word, as all the stipulations that have been advanced qualifying different types of pleasures indicate (Herwitz). Once it endorsed a hedonic analysis of value, modern aesthetics concentrated on regularizing aesthetic pleasure, showing how it is "disputable" and, despite its singularity, manifests standards even in the absence of rules or principles. The contrasts between aesthetic and gustatory taste that are traditionally enlisted to illustrate this particular issue are at least partially unsound, for acute analyses such as Brillat-Savarin’s demonstrate that whatever differences may obtain between the two kinds of taste, it is not that the one is purely subjective and relative and the other amenable to intersubjective discussion and agreement. Variations in sensitivity to taste qualities have both physiological and social explanations, as is the case with the other senses as well; moreover, the discourse of gastronomy itself indicates that shared judgments and normative standards are not out of the question. Granted, the scope of this sense is limited; taste does not provide as much information about the "external world" as does either vision or hearing. On the other hand, vision and hearing are quite dumb about flavor qualities, so unless one wants to subtract them from the experience of objects altogether there is no reason to doubt a cognitive dimension to taste. What is more, taste is educable and refinable, and its use as the model for aesthetic sensitivity is fully warranted. Brillat-Savarin — and a host of other gastronomers — convincingly demonstrates that attentive savoring ought to qualify as a type of aesthetic discernment. Can we extrapolate further and erase the traditional distinction between sensory and aesthetic pleasures?

  28. There is quite a lot at stake in revising the concept of pleasure, central as it is not only to aesthetic theories but also to theories of value in general. This essay has addressed the topic only as it appears in a historically restricted range of philosophies, and these final few paragraphs indicate some further paths of inquiry that remain to be pursued. The concept of disinterestedness was intended to free aesthetic pleasure from bodily sensation, to clear the way for enjoyment that is not self-directed and therefore relative to individuals, and to remove the obstacles for shared standards of taste. The latter two objectives obtain for both aesthetic and gustatory taste, reducing the contrast between the two. But there is no way to sever gustatory from physical pleasure; although one can certainly add reflection to eating and reduce its ties to appetite, one cannot uproot the pleasure of eating from sensation altogether. And indeed why would one want to? However, combining the sensory prominence of gustatory experience with a hedonic measure of value cannot but sustain one important element of the intractable distinction between gustatory and aesthetic value. Romantic gastronomy proceeds to make its case almost entirely on hedonic grounds. But there are good reasons not to identify aesthetic value with pleasure, unless that concept is clearly distinguished from the pleasures of sensation (Levinson). Gastronomy thus faces a dilemma: either relinquish its apparently strongest similarity with aesthetic experience (refined and discerning pleasure), or embrace it only to discover that aesthetic theories disavow the pleasure criterion.

  29. I believe this rather old-fashioned problem persists to this day, despite the fact that with the passage of time the philosophical agenda that sustained the exclusion of gustatory from aesthetic taste have altered and weakened. There is now considerably more theoretical interest in bodily aspects of human subjectivity than in the past, and it might seem as if the final barriers to merging gastronomic and aesthetic projects have withered away. But far more investigation of sensation, perception, imagination, and what is meant by "pleasure" and its connection with aesthetic value is required before that conclusion can be ventured with confidence. Therefore, I do not believe that we are positioned to answer this final question without undertaking a thorough reassessment of the concept of aesthetic pleasure and the theoretical frameworks within which this discussion has taken place.

  30. As traditional philosophical approaches are reevaluated, so as well should be the empiricist revolution that yielded the hedonic foundation for the concept of the aesthetic in the first place. The key point of contention, I believe, lies not with the fact that there needs to be a strict division between bodily and aesthetic experience. Insistence on that distinction not only renders aesthetic experience cold-hearted and dull, but it also fails to accommodate certain paradigmatic aesthetic affects, including the important role of emotions and their somatic register in the apprehension of art (Robinson; Shusterman). The deeper difficulty lies with the original identification of beauty with pleasure, later generalized as aesthetic value, and with the subsequent merging of artistic with aesthetic value under the umbrella of fine art. Attention to romantic gastronomy suggests a first step in this revaluation, since it demonstrates that the fundamental contrast used to articulate the concept of aesthetic taste cannot be as clearly maintained as it seemed when pleasure was first taken to be the root concept of aesthetic value.

For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, I thank Ann Colley, Regina Grol, and Dabney Townsend.


1I omit from this discussion the empiricist distinctions among primary, secondary, and tertiary qualities. While a detailed treatment of the senses would require tackling this subject, few if any aesthetic properties count as primary. Thus these distinctions will not distinguish gustatory from aesthetic taste.

2Disinterestedness originates equally as a concept in theories of moral evaluation.

3This approach to locating standards for gustatory taste is fairly congruent with empiricist perspectives, though it cannot address Kant’s theory, for which any sense pleasure lacks the grounds for the universality and necessity that he ascribes to judgments of aesthetic taste. What is more, certain of the more frivolous elaborations of gastronomic standards, such as Kitchener’s insistence that particular dinner hours and styles of invitation be encoded in principles of taste, weaken rather than strengthen the formulation of standards for gustatory taste.

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