In Which Philosophical Enquiry Disabuses Me of An Insidious Preconception

By Neal Comment

barry-smith.jpegBased on my rather limited experiences, I have never been much on white wines; I have even been known to order reds with fish entrees. But when Oxford University Press set up a lunch date with Barry C. Smith (left), the editor of Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, I figured the best course of action for me to take was to leave the selection to him. I indicated that the cod looked tempting, he had his eye on the risotto, and then he asked our waiter for a bottle of the 2000 Marc Colin et Fils Première Cru.

As we waited, I told him how much I enjoyed the accessibility of the essays in the collection, which had its origins in a conference at the University of London, where Smith is the deputy director of the philosophy program, three years ago, and he enthused about the capacity crowd that had come to his lecture at the Astor Center the night before. “Usually, the word philosophy has people screaming and running off, afraid they won’t be able to understand,” he said. “But if you just ask simple questions, get people engaged, and walk them through the issues using clear, simple language, they’ll find they’re already doing philosophy without thinking about it.”

Smith sees wine appreciation as an excellent parallel to the philosophical situation, centered as they both are on questions of perception and shared experience. The opening essays, the ones presented at the 2004 conference, dealt explicitly with these topics, as Smith speculates on whether one’s wine tastings are truly subjective, and Kent Bach proposes that one does not need extensive knowledge to appreciate a fine wine. We discussed the distinction Bach makes between the fundamental sensual pleasures of drinking a fine wine and the additional pleasures that come from a cognitive awareness of the wine’s material qualities. “I think that’s dead wrong,” Smith said, suggesting that what Bach describes as cognitive experience could more accurately be framed as the result of greater attention to sensual experience through rigorous training. “If you’re a wine critic,” he explained, “you’re paying attention to perhaps five or six separate elements of experience, zeroing in on them individually… What critics do that we don’t is to keep all those elements separate and then bring them together.” From there, we were off on a fascinating conversational tangent about the nature of memory and the status of taste, texture, and bouquet as information, culminating in a story he’d once heard about a woman who retained perfect sense-memories of hundreds of wines stretching back decades, able to identify any vintage after just a few sips.

But what of that Burgundy we’d ordered? With Smith’s encouragement, I was able to still my mind and pay greater attention to individual facets of my experience with the glass, from the bouquet of pollen (which gave way, slowly, to an undercurrent of flint), to the silky feel of the liquid on the tongue and the lingering finish. It was, I thought to myself, an excellent example of how cognition serves as a tool for enquiring into existence—and that wasn’t the only philosophical line of enquiry that came up during our meal. Late in the conversation, as we discuss how some drinkers insist that they can “taste the terroir” in certain regional wines, Smith considered how what they were actually experiencing what a highly localized tradition of winemaking, of cultural legacy applied to geographical conditions. So, I thought aloud, an appreciation of regional wines, like a stated allegiance to “slow food,” was as much about ethical choices as about aesthetic experience? That’s something that I’d never really thought of before this lunch, and yet of course it seems obvious in retrospect. (Not that I’m completely dense; it’s just that what thought I did give to local, organic production was focused largely on my own health and the immediate, material aspects of environmental impact. Then again, when it comes to philosophy, I am primarily a pragmatist.)

One last round with the question of objectivity, then. Smith sees an inconsistency in how many of us face the question of wine tasting. On the one hand, we insist that it’s all subjective—but, if so, what’s the point of any wine criticism, let alone the attempt to establish standard rankings? Wouldn’t complete subjectivity reduce criticism to autobiography? (I immediately think of useful parallels that might be drawn to literary criticism.) And yet, he continued, how many of us spurn the opportunity to drink great wines by insisting “this is wasted on me”—when, if taste were truly subjective, there would be no inherent greatness to waste, for all experiences would be equally valid? “It seems to me that we’re not sure of ourselves,” Smith reflected, which brings us right back to the insecurity about philosophy. When you get right down to it, I proposed, philosophy is something anyone should feel comfortable doing, because it’s about asking yourself how to live. Smith brought even greater precision to the issue. “How do we fit into the world of nature?” he said of the contemporary emphasis of many philosophers on science and subjectivity. “There are many places for us to address that question.” And then we paused as our waiter refilled our glasses. I’m coming around on this white wine issue, although further research may be required.