TLS Online November 23, 2017
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Philosophies of taste


Does wine taste the same to an expert and an amateur? It has become something of a truism, for those writing about taste and expertise in the context of wine appreciation, that how one tastes affects what one tastes. When one tastes with experience and knowledge – of intentions, production methods, grape varieties, terroir and so on – and with the concomitant levels of attentiveness required to discern all of the relevant perceptual properties, the taste of the wine is affected. The expert’s flavour experience is thus different from that of the novice. So, we apparently have an answer to our question: the wine tastes different.

Unfortunately, as one might suspect, this is too quick. For this deceptively straightforward question hides some fiendishly tricky philosophical issues. Indeed, it is not immediately obvious what precisely is being asked. For a start, we are not yet sure what it takes for a wine to remain “the same”. Perhaps in some sense experts and non-experts taste the same wine, but that wine tastes different to each. Even ignoring the complication of how we identify (both types and tokens of) wines, we can quickly see that the question hides further complexities, most prominent of which is the question of what we mean by “taste”.  In particular, without the following distinctions in place the question is ambiguous.

First, we need to differentiate literal tastes – the purely gustatory experiences we have when certain receptors on the tongue are stimulated – from our overall taste experiences. That is, we tend to use the word “taste” loosely to describe what most researchers now refer to as flavour. Flavour experiences are, in the words of the philosopher Barry Smith, “the result of the multisensory integration of olfactory, tactile and taste impressions, modulated by the dynamic time course of a tasting event and the location of sensory stimuli in the mouth”. In other words, taste is only one element in flavour perception and one that plays a much lesser role than olfaction – most of what we call taste is really smell.

Second, we need to differentiate between our flavour experiences, and the causes of those experiences. This is important, because we want to explain those situations where we believe our flavour experiences, for example, fail to match the “real” flavours that are there in the wine to be detected. So when we use the word “taste” to refer to “flavour”, we still need to bear in mind the distinction between our flavour experiences and the flavours of the object we take ourselves to be experiencing.

Third, there is a difference between an overall flavour experience, and the various taste and smell components (or flavours) that constitute it. This will be clarified below.

There are basically two main philosophical approaches to our question. The first gives a negative answer to it. Arguably the most natural way of articulating this idea appeals to the fashionable notion of cognitive penetration. The thought is that the various cognitive states constituting expertise – beliefs, knowledge, linguistic capacities and so on – affect in some very direct way our actual (non-cognitive) sensory perceptual experiences. That is, the difference between expert and non-expert is fundamentally an experiential one. So if this is true, the wine really does taste (and smell) different to the expert.

Nonetheless, this line of thought has been resisted, and some philosophers, such as Jerry Fodor, deny the purported phenomenon of cognitive penetration; that is, by their lights, knowledge doesn’t impact on phenomenal experience. According to this second view expertise allows one to use one’s knowledge to organize, discriminate within, attend to, interpret and judge one’s experience of the wine in a way that differs from that of the non-expert. But, crucially, this does not amount to a difference in the phenomenal experience of the wine’s flavours. In other words, expert and non-expert have the same flavour experiences – the wine tastes the same to each – but the expert reflects differently on this experience and comes to different judgements about the wine’s flavour. Call this the Sceptical Claim.

In essence, the sceptic contends that the apparent behavioural differences (such as the judgements made or descriptions offered) between novices and experts are the result of merely cognitive, and hence non-perceptual, changes in judgement or belief.  One might also note that the apparent differences between the expert and non-expert can be partly explained in terms of changes in attention; roughly speaking, experts are simply better at paying attention to different features of the object.

How should we assess this dispute? Both sides want to allow that there is genuine expertise in wine tasting and hence to allow that how one tastes affects what one tastes. They appear to disagree about the “what”, and to some extent about the “how”. It is evident that the sceptic thinks experts and novices share the same basic sensory perceptual content, or at least do to the extent that they are equally attentive. So, roughly, expertise affects how one judges, interprets, or evaluates one’s flavour experiences but does not alter the actual taste and smell sensations that constitute these experiences.

It is not clear, however, that the non-sceptic – according to whom the expert and amateur have different experiences – must disagree with this. After all, it is likely that basic chemical compounds and volatile molecules produce identical or similar experiences in physiologically similar human beings. So, if a wine contains, for example, blackberry flavours – or more precisely, the chemicals responsible for such flavours – or the yeast brettanomyces, then experts and non-experts should both detect them and experience them in the same way; they should undergo similar phenomenal experiences.

But now, here is the rub. Wine involves complex layers of chemicals and volatile compounds, the perception and discrimination of which is subject to their dynamic temporal profile and to the temporal act of tasting itself. In addition, in this act of tasting, experts pay attention differently and to different things unfolding in time, including assessing their own sensory experiences, and possessing a trained vocabulary with which to do so. Two important things follow from this.

First, the way in which, for example, chemical substances like brettanomyces are manifested in sensory experience can differ depending on all of these aspects. Sometimes, in some wines, it will smell like sweaty leather, and in some others like spicy cloves or bacon. How it is experienced, then, will depend on a number of variables that may depend on expertise. Second, there is an ineliminable evaluative element here. On the one hand, taste and smell experiences are intrinsically valenced – roughly, they are pleasant or unpleasant. On the other hand, their valence is affected by, and in turn affects, the other constituents of the wine being experienced. So, for example, the brettanomyces in a Syrah wine from the Rhone is sometimes thought to be a wine fault and is evaluated negatively, but can sometimes, for other wines, introduce a pleasant savoury dimension to the wine that adds to its positive evaluation. How it is experienced in either case will, I contend, depend in part on i) how it is experienced in combination with the other elements of the wine, and ii) how the experts value (or disvalue) the dimensions that brettanomyces can bring to such wines. Moreover, just to complicate matters, (i) and (ii) are themselves inextricably intertwined.

The challenge for the sceptic, who believes that the expert and the amateur have the same phenomenal experience when drinking the same wine, is this: underlying all of these possible experiential variations, what is it that is being tasted as the same by both expert and non-expert? The answer cannot just be “this chemical compound”, because that is not what is represented in the taste experience. We do not taste chemical compounds as such, but rather, they need to invoke the presence of real flavours – metaphysically real flavour properties that exist in the wine independently of our actual experiences – that are not simply reducible to their chemical bases. This would allow us to explain, as we must, why experts try to distinguish their own preferences and subjective impressions from the values and properties they take the wine really, independently to possess.

So, the sceptic must contend that in our flavour experiences we are able, at least in theory, to prise apart (mere) valence from (genuine) sensory perceptions and that our ability to do so depends on there being real flavours that our flavour experiences are caused by and correspond to. In this way, experts and non-experts will have (at least to some extent) exactly the same literal sensory taste and smell experiences, but their overall cognitive descriptions, “judgements”, or interpretations of them will differ.

Does this position of the sceptic’s make sense? I have my doubts, even if we allow the existence of real flavours. Note that the sceptic must describe the overall judgements made about her sensory experiences as cognitive rather than perceptual in order to avoid the possibility that they are cognitively penetrated in the way the non-sceptic would hold. But surely what we are interested in is the overall flavour experiences and these broadly construed experiences are in large part perceptual and shaped by expertise. As such, it cannot be that experts and non-experts taste the same thing if by “taste” we are referring to these overall experiences of flavour.

Can we separate out from these overall experiences the individual tastes and smells that, the sceptic maintains, are experienced identically by experts and non-experts? This is a nebulous phenomenological issue, but if what I argue above is correct, there is reason to think that these individual components of flavour experiences will themselves be affected by their place in the overall flavour profile of the wine, and hence no guarantee that they will “taste” the same to experts and non-experts.

Moreover, I doubt that valence – whether our experiences are pleasant or unpleasant – can be so easily prised apart from sensory perception. If I used to like broccoli and no longer do so, does the broccoli still taste the same to me? As I have just argued, where “taste” refers to overall flavour experience, I think we are compelled to answer in the negative, because valence will be an essential part of this experience. Is there, then, a broccoli taste common to pleasant and unpleasant broccoli experiences – and common to expert and non-expert experiences – that we can identify apart from valence? Even if we conceded to the sceptic here, and allowed this possibility for some individual taste and smell sensations, I suspect that in complex sensory objects like wine, valence would be too inextricably tied to the way sensations are experienced to separate them neatly. Hence, the wine does not taste the same to the expert and the amateur.

Cain Todd is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of The Philosophy of Wine (2010).