Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kant on tea tasting

A fellow tea blogger suggested that rather than referring to the input of fellow bloggers on how tasting works--in this post, which I thought turned out well--I should have checked with Kant instead.  Immanuel Kant, that is, the 18th century German philosopher (he lived 1724 to 1804).  Strange, right?  Especially if one has studied aesthetics related to the works of Kant, which by chance I have, if only a little.

But I did look into it.  It turns out that what he has to say is not informative, and definitely not helpful, but it could be of interest to some.  It never really completely comes together since review of his philosophy of aesthetics to some extent requires review of much of the rest of his philosophy.  I won't do his thinking justice but I'll wade into it all for just a couple of thousand words worth of review.  Even though he sheds no light on the subject some of the framing issues that come up are interesting, especially if one is into philosophy.

looks like a tea drinker (photo credit)

Starting point:  Kant's most relevant citation (probably)

As chance has it there is a passage relating to wine appreciation in "Critique of the Power of Judgment" that provides a good starting point, so lets let Kant himself have the first word:

Comparison of the Beautiful with the Pleasant and the Good by means of the above characteristic

As regards the Pleasant every one is content that his judgement, which he bases upon private feeling, and by which he says of an object that it pleases him, should be limited merely to his own person

Thus he is quite contented that if he says “Canary wine is pleasant,” another man may correct his expression and remind him that he ought to say “It is pleasant to me.” And this is the case not only as regards the taste of the tongue, the palate, and the throat, but for whatever is pleasant to any one’s eyes and ears... One man likes the tone of wind instruments, another that of strings. To strive here with the design of reproving as incorrect another man’s judgement which is different from our own, as if the judgments were logically opposed, would be folly. As regards the pleasant therefore the fundamental proposition is valid, every one has his own taste (the taste of Sense).

The case is quite different with the Beautiful. It would (on the contrary) be laughable if a man who imagined anything to his own taste, thought to justify himself by saying: “This object (the house we see, the coat that person wears, the concert we hear, the poem submitted to our judgement) is beautiful for me.” For he must not call it beautiful if it merely pleases himself. 

Many things may have for him charm and pleasantness; no one troubles himself at that; but if he gives out anything as beautiful, he supposes in others the same satisfaction — he judges not merely for himself, but for every one, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things.

Note that this is a limited publicly available translation of that work (with a different translation of more of it here), but if someone were really interested they could seek out a full version, complete with a long introduction and Kant's own Preface.  Or the internet being what it is, someone could review all sorts of supplementary summaries.

Beginning to evaluate that

Seems simple enough, doesn't it; he's dividing subjective taste judgments, which only relate to personal preference concerns (how much we happen to like something, which describes all that applies to wine, and presumably tea) from an objective evaluation of what is beautiful, which for him is a completely different thing.  To back up just a bit, our modern concepts of subjective and objective are really grounded in the thinking of people like Kant.  Modern common-sense definitions won't directly apply to what he is saying, because those very concepts have evolved from his work and have changed over time, so the context of language and concepts themselves have changed over time.  And of course he was really writing in an older version of German.

To back up further, I did get a bachelor degree in philosophy, and a master's, after finishing a degree in industrial engineering earlier (all kind of a long story).  The focus was on Buddhism, though, so overlapping a good bit with religion, and well outside the scope of aesthetics.  Kant's works came up in a few classes, only in one dedicated just to reviewing one of his works (Critique of Pure Reason, a read I can't recommend), and aesthetics only in one grad-level class.  So I've been introduced to some related ideas, but barely.  I've studied his ethics in more detail, but metaphysics (in the "Pure Reason" work) is really the basis for everything he's going on about, the starting point, the context the rest sort of relies on.

Given that I'll pass the torch to an online summary that seems to do really well framing that passage out, except that nothing in under ten pages really starts in on the context for the ideas:

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 just 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.

So this goes a little further, but the same divide just comes up, with limited explanation as to why there is this distinction, what framework it is based on.  The author can't really fill in the gaps in all the details, and it's perhaps less clear because he's disagreeing with a perspective that he's therefore not fully describing, but he does go on to explain it:

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....

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.

Because our judgment is 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...  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.

For Kant we just enjoy wine, or foods, or tea, but appreciation for beauty is a more complex cognitive function, one that takes on a different form, and can be universal.  From there this author ends up only dealing with part of the framework of Kant's argument, and starts to reject the distinction between pleasure and appreciation, saying that we can't divide the two as Kant is doing.  Fair enough.

But really that's just part of what Kant was building up, and to fairly reject his ideas one really should try to spell out what they are, which is a bit difficult.  It's already obvious here that Kant is not just separating the experience causally (that pleasure and appreciation are split in two, one said to cause the other, instead of just being parts of a whole) but he's also breaking down mental functions, here into imagination and understanding, both of which are supporting judgement.  But those are really just parts of a more complicated scheme of intellectual components.

It's not so clear that Kant is saying that wine appreciation means less here, that it is less important for taking a different form, but he is definitely describing it as a less complicated activity.  It's perhaps less interesting in terms of the lack of analysis steps, for him, for not involving the same degree of mental faculties, and could not be the same for all people.  That last part works, to a limited extent, but the limits of saying that judgments about wine tastes can't apply in the same way for everyone (and food and tea, presumably) are not so simple or clear.

Citing other modern thinkers that say something else doesn't work well--what that author did next in that work--because the context of what both are saying could easily be quite different.  The real disagreement is likely to lie in both related contexts, differences in how they see aesthetic appreciation working in general, and related mental processing steps, and not as much in their conclusions.  Modern philosophers might well be working with ideas derived from Kant's, in part, but a school of thought or two removed, so with substantial background context changes.  All the same, even if the structure of the reasoning and the cognitive modeling is quite different I suppose to some limited extent it still can make sense to compare conclusions, eg. if wine or tea appreciation related judgments really can be relatively universal or not (the same for everyone).  Even if preferences vary common sense would seem to say some common elements of judgments should be common for everyone, especially among well informed and skilled participants.

How can we drag all this back into the scope of common sense, a framework of how people experience things that we could actually relate to?  We sort of can't.  If you really want to engage Kant's ideas you can't just select a passage about wine tasting, as I did, and expect that to be self-explanatory.  To the extent that you actually can do that Kant is saying that taste preferences are completely subjective, just up to the whims and preferences of an individual.  For Kant things don't get more interesting or objective than that until you look into other subjects, like art, or the beauty found in nature, a sunset or flower or whatever else, because the processing of appreciation is completely different for those.

But we can shuffle around what he said, adjust it, and try to change and extend what he was saying about flowers and art back to wine tasting (or tea), although that would take some deeper review first.  Of course it is a little odd to even attempt to make Kant's thinking work better than Kant himself did.  I'll look into both following, a bit more on context, and possible adjustment, but it's rougher going from here.

Going deeper:  a citation about where Kant was coming from

If I've not already lost you this part will get to be a stretch.  Don't hurt yourself on the unfamiliar terminology; the next citation is only intended to get a general point across.  One can't read something about a priori principles without knowing what those are (something related to starting points, basic ideas, but not quite that), and in a sense all that is beside the point.  I'm just trying to point towards a larger context that grounds the ideas, not to describe it, even though drifting into that a little is the point of this section.  Suffice it to say that much more gets left out about the rest of Kant's thinking than is included.

Let's take a look at an academic summary of this general scope (and again, just give it a scan, there is no fundamental key to human cognition to be unraveled in the passage):

b. The Central Problems of the Critique of Judgment

...The basic, explicit purpose of Kant's Critique of Judgment is to investigate whether the 'power' (also translated as 'faculty' - and we will use the latter here) of judgment provides itself with an priori principle. In earlier work, Kant had pretty much assumed that judgment was simply a name for the combined operation of other, more fundamental, mental faculties. Now, Kant has been led to speculate that the operation of judgment might be organized and directed by a fundamental a priori principle that is unique to it. The third Critique sets out to explore the validity and implications of such a hypothesis.

In the third Critique, Kant's account of judgment begins with the definition of judgment as the subsumption of a particular under a universal (Introduction IV). If, in general, the faculty of understanding is that which supplies concepts (universals), and reason is that which draws inferences (constructs syllogisms, for example), then judgment 'mediates' between the understanding and reason by allowing individual acts of subsumption to occur (cf. e.g. Introduction III). This leads Kant to a further distinction between determinate and reflective judgments (Introduction IV). In the former, the concept is sufficient to determine the particular - meaning that the concept contains sufficient information for the identification of any particular instance of it. In such a case, judgment's work is fairly straightforward (and Kant felt he had dealt adequately with such judgments in the Critique of Pure Reason). 

Thus the latter (where the judgment has to proceed without a concept, sometimes in order to form a new concept) forms the greater philosophical problem here...  are there judgments that neither begin nor end with determinate concepts? This explains why a book about judgment should have so much to say about aesthetics: Kant takes aesthetic judgments to be a particularly interesting form of reflective judgments.

Not much of an explanation, right?  My intention was really to introduce that there is a larger framework of ideas these simple ideas about wine tasting really are based on.  A divide into subjective liking and objective judgement of beauty doesn't work without more reference, and that divide doesn't really address what's going on, for Kant.  Short summaries of what Kant meant by one branch of his thinking positioned against the rest tend to vary, so this is definitely no last word, and it wouldn't be so unusual for philosophers to disagree with even other general summaries of what works were trying to do.

Of course the point was about Kant saying that most of the last set of ideas doesn't even apply to food or beverage tasting anyway.  Related to these ideas, from his wine example, Kant is saying that evaluating a tea--or any food--is not an "aesthetic judgment" which is "an interesting form of reflective judgment."  It's more like someone having a favorite color, or liking a certain type of movie genre, for him just an inclination, so there's no need to go on about mental models and cognitive theories, related to that scope.

seems related, but the terms don't all match; read further in one more source

Back to my own take

It's hard to say how much sense this does or doesn't make without basing that on some other theory of aesthetics, since one would be assumed in anything I would say.  Is judgement of taste all universal, applied correctly in the same way to everyone, so that the most informed people would naturally agree, or subjective, naturally different for different people?  It seems like common sense leans towards the latter now, but really people could go either way.  Or maybe most wouldn't be likely to have thought all this through.

Related to tea tasting, to stick with the theme a little, one would expect that well-informed tea tasters could evaluate lots of things about a tea consistently, even objectively, for example if one is true-to-type, or of a high quality level, and even describe characteristics quite similarly.  Maybe only preference would tend to shift around judgment a little, or some finer points in descriptions, and we'd might naturally assume that experts could easily place the input of their own preference related to other objective factors.  A wine scoring system really depends on this being possible, or any food related judgment in general, if we accept that an expert can have a relatively final, justified and correct opinion.

Regarding a related tangent in philosophy, the general idea that "it's all relative" is appropriately enough called relativism.  It's an attractive perspective.  Philosophers tend to hate it because eventually it makes what they are talking about not make as much sense, since it all sort of breaks down to that at some point, that frameworks of ideas are just vague descriptions and approaches that vary by person.  Or maybe that's just true within analytic philosophy, the branch I studied under last, the main category of approach embraced in the US and England.  People push this line of consideration in unusual directions, examining lots of test cases in minute detail, questioning things like "do we all mean the same thing by "red"?"  Of course that's a light wavelength range, so an easy one, but discussions move on to considering boundary conditions, and color blindness, and make it more complicated.  When preference related cases come up that's a different thing, or ethical judgments, and so on.  

The other main general branch of philosophy is Continental, relatively distinct, more common in other parts of Europe, although to some extent the two would probably mix in some modern thinking.  Terminology differences hold the ideas apart as much as separate approaches or assumptions or methodology, and the scope of problems seen as interesting is different.  Oddly the normal scope of consideration typically doesn't stray to broad general questions like "what is the meaning of life?" so much; too hard to break into a workable problem.  Even Continental philosophy would seem to not work well based on extreme forms of relativism, but since I didn't really study under that general branch much I probably shouldn't even conclude that, maybe that's common enough.

In the graduate aesthetics class I took they were so far along the curve of studying these ideas in certain ways that they really didn't want to get mired in the details of why most schools of thought related to aesthetics didn't really work.  They weren't completely rejecting Kant, but then they didn't want to run through all of the related background either, to cite critical flaws that made throwing out the ideas make sense.  In other types of aesthetics classes, or maybe more prevalent in earlier philosophy of aesthetics, questions like the relationship of beauty in nature and that in art were covered at length, but not so much in that class.

They didn't want to define beauty in that class, or make it objective or subjective.  Since in a sense the context of the class really did imply that it had to be objective to some degree we kept circling back to why that would be.  One option stood out, but it was a bit strange:  by inter-subjective agreement.  Put another way, good art is good because art critics say it is, or beauty is defined by consensus among informed opinions.  It kind of works.  Is good tea good because tea experts say it is (or market demand, or something such)?  Why not, but then that wouldn't have been quite as clear in the class scope.

It that one sentence I've mixed two completely different ideas, introducing common opinion versus expert opinions (the market demand mention).  If art critics are definitively defining beauty then the general public isn't, because most people wouldn't know which trends in fine art are currently in fashion and which aren't, or even the relevant history.  This seems to be paralleled by the divide in clothing in fashion shows and what people actually buy to wear, and so on.  One issue in extending this thinking to tea might be the narrowness in the range of people that love tea that fit in between the category of those drinking it made from tea bags and those that might be considered experts.  But it still can work, potentially; good tea could possibly be defined as what the most informed tea drinkers, the experts, regard as good tea.

Kant's instinct that taste judgment of food or tea is just a gut feeling, an emotional response, is actually close enough to a more relativist approach.  The other part about there being that other separate, objective, higher level appreciation of beauty is the opposite of that.  But it's conceivable that someone could adjust his line of thought a bit and consider how that second set of ideas could apply to the first case, to food tasting, if he'd set it all up a little differently.

Helping Kant make more sense

This is where things get strange, unless that was two sections ago, in which case it just keeps getting worse.  In philosophy classes they had an odd practice of breaking apart what people said and trying to get it to make more sense than it did.  Usually that involved keeping most of the framework, the underlying context the philosopher had set up, and then revising some conclusions or finer points to get it all to work better, to be more consistent.

But why?  Why not.  Philosophy classes weren't about making a lot of sense; a good bit of it was the intellectual equivalent of jogging in place.  Maybe it meant something, or maybe not, but it wasn't supposed to be like running for the purpose of travel.  Sometimes you couldn't keep almost all of the framework and then just adjust conclusions, and you needed to do a bit more touch-up to make it all less absurd, and maybe then you were really "doing philosophy."

seems reasonable (source)

We wouldn't have any luck with that here because there is no way I'm going to adjust Kant's framework of ideas to be workable, or wrap my own mind around them, or to even describe them.  I can't really pin down what Kant was doing with Beauty as a true aesthetic judgment versus expressing Pleasantness as a statement of inclination, in order to try to redefine tea tasting from one category to the other.

The only thing I could do is discuss context a bit further.  Kant did pretty well on his own anyway, to be fair, he just might have been a little clearer, and his work never really was accepted as a final explanation as he'd framed it.

For me it's hard to relate to his separation of beauty (which would seem to apply mostly to art and beauty found in nature) and appreciation of other things like food.  The division of appreciating something because it causes pleasure and it causing pleasure because I appreciate it also doesn't seem to work.  It's not senseless to express a difference, as it seems at first, but it also doesn't really seem to work.  But then I'm not really attached to a framework of objective, independent ideas existing outside of my own perspective either, completely separate from individual perceptions, and Kant really was.

Kant was saying interesting things--not interesting to everyone, but interesting on some level--about how we couldn't directly know the properties of "things in themselves," but that we really could break down our relationship to ideas and mental activities relating to analysis as a set of clearly defined mental functions.  Or relatively clearly; later people argued at length about what he meant by most of it, and it's not so difficult to find opposing interpretations that seem to be talking about different things based on the same narrow set of ideas within the works.  I remember interpreting a finer point for that one aesthetics class, pointing out what I thought he meant, with the main question being why didn't he actually say that, or say something else instead.  It had seemed he just loosely piled a few related concepts together instead of saying whatever he actually meant.  My classmates just looked at me with glazed eyes, although they seemed to have some idea of what I was trying to say.

To me digging deeper into perception and self and frameworks for ideas is not necessarily nonsense.  It's a bit tempting to start into what Buddhism says related to all this, much closer to my own take, but suffice it to say that it's nothing as simple as most sources would claim.  Or maybe it really is, only complicated by most people getting it wrong, and there being lots of different takes.  It doesn't help that the teachings themselves actually are quite diverse, both the received, supposedly original words of the Buddha, and many more later ideas based on those.  Buddhism interpreted as modern analytical philosophy is not useful, in my opinion.  

If it helps fill in my own perspective I believe that reality is a construct, as we experience it, based on a relatively real external set of physical objects (funny how diverse a concept like "real" can become though).  How could someone not believe that physical objects are real?  Maybe as well not to go into that.  Lots of ideas and schools of thought end up being a bit complicated, typically not rejecting something that basic, but the finer points of the more unusual things they do say can be hard to pin down.  In a strange way what I've just said, that "reality is a construct," could be interpreted as both a summary of Buddhist thinking or as Kant's own thinking, but in two completely different senses, so that would work out in two completely different forms.  But it's hard to be clearer about all that, to go a level deeper.


So do I think that tea tasting can be objectively and correctly described or perceived?  I really don't know, but that is something I think about, sometimes.  For the most part I suppose I think it can be, but I also think that you can't really remove subjective preference aspects.  I also suspect that taste elements can't actually be fully described because those taste components really can be complex, but what I mean by that is limited.  Lets go with an example:  I've been told that when a wine tastes like something, lets say cherries, there can be actual molecular components in wine that are exactly the same as those found in cherries.  How is that possible?  Maybe I've understood wrong, but apparently strange things are possible, and yeast acting on grape juice and tea leaves processed in interesting ways really can achieve complex, amazing, real results.  In the end identical or very similar flavor related compounds can come from different sources.  

But a wine or a tea tasting like cherry, which I've just accepted is possible, based on identifying a "cherry" scent / flavor molecule, wouldn't contain only one type of molecule.  Even cherry juice wouldn't, really, but maybe as well not to question that too far.  Besides, flavors are just one aspect of tea and wine anyway, and things get more complicated from there.  Feel is a lot more complicated, and it doesn't seem to relate to one simple cause.  It's sort of how it all comes together that makes it work, or else work out really well, or fail entirely.

At a glance what Kant is saying may seem clearly wrong because it's too complicated, and all those mental functions and parts couldn't exist without us knowing about it, but I'm not so sure that works.  If we accept the old Freudian psycho-analysis model of ego-id-superego we wouldn't necessarily experience these aspects of self, and using a related complicated internal mental framework to process and describe sensations could feel simple.  In modern times we might be more inclined towards brain-area-functional models, and we wouldn't necessarily experience that interplay of mental capacities either, at least in the sense of noticing if it was complicated or simple.

Kant deserves a lot of credit for giving us a starting point for lots of different ideas, but that can be hard to appreciate.  Probably a good bit of what we now take to be a basis for an ordinary worldview can be traced back to origins in his thinking, or to prior influences that led him to make connections and set up those models, although describing the linkages would take some doing.

It doesn't seem like we can do much with his idea of beauty, extending those ideas back to cover taste, without going a lot further.  For me the experience of enjoying tea is as simple as can be, but converting that experience into a description is a different kind of experience.  I can't say what goes on inside my mind while it happens.  To some extent the experience itself seems to change over time, along with my descriptions of what teas are like, so there may be more to understand that I'm not aware of.

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