Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy

Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy

Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy

Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy

Synopsis

Taste, perhaps the most intimate of the five senses, has traditionally been considered beneath the concern of philosophy, too bound to the body, too personal and idiosyncratic. Yet, in addition to providing physical pleasure, eating and drinking bear symbolic and aesthetic value in human experience, and they continually inspire writers and artists. Carolyn Korsmeyer explains how taste came to occupy so low a place in the hierarchy of senses and why it is deserving of greater philosophical respect and attention. Korsmeyer begins with the Greek thinkers who classified taste as an inferior, bodily sense; she then traces the parallels between notions of aesthetic and gustatory taste that were explored in the formation of modern aesthetic theories. She presents scientific views of how taste actually works and identifies multiple components of taste experiences. Turning to taste's objects-food and drink-she looks at the different meanings they convey in art and literature as well as in ordinary human life and proposes an approach to the aesthetic value of taste that recognizes the representational and expressive roles of food. Korsmeyer's consideration of art encompasses works that employ food in contexts sacred and profane, that seek to whet the appetite and to keep it at bay; her selection of literary vignettes ranges from narratives of macabre devouring to stories of communities forged by shared eating.

Excerpt

This book is a philosophical investigation of the sense of taste. Usually when a philosopher addresses this subject, discussion moves rapidly to issues of aesthetic discrimination regarding objects of art and to questions about relative preference and standards for artistic judgments. But it is literal taste—that is, the kind that takes place in the mouth—that is the focus of my interest. The literal sense of taste has rarely caught the attention of philosophers except insofar as it provides the metaphor for aesthetic sensitivity. If this sense in its gustatory role is considered at all, it is only briefly, often to be dismissed as unworthy of extended examination. I intend to dispute this presumption and argue on behalf of the experiences availed by the sense of taste and its familiar but little-understood operations.

As with any functioning sense, we exercise taste daily. It affords intense and immediate sensation, and thus it can be pursued for escape, relaxation, and pleasure. This very pleasure, however, is often cause for misgiving. Not only may taste enjoyments be tempting and diverting, but tastes can be indulged, abused, depraved, and even perverted. Philosophers have generally concurred that pursuit of taste for pleasure alone seems an unfit preoccupation for a being whose higher capacities require the efforts of rationality. Moreover, it seems a frivolous pursuit permitted only a leisured few: those who have plenty to eat and to drink. For eating is a physical necessity; its privation brings death. So closely are taste and eating tied to the necessities of existence that taste is frequently cataloged as one of the lower functions of sense perception, operating on a primitive, near instinctual level. Taste is associated with appetite, a basic drive that propels us to eat and drink. Its role in sheer animal existence is one of the factors that has contributed to its standard neglect as a subject of philosophical inquiry.

By long tradition, philosophers have assumed that this sense affords little of theoretical interest. Too closely identified with the body and our animal nature, it seems not to figure in the exploration of rationality or the development of knowledge. Therefore taste is omitted from epistemology's discussions of sense perception, in striking contrast to vision, which receives a great deal of attention for its delivery of information about the world. Most ethical theories assume that taste presents base . . .

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