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Friday 18 February 2011

Some initial notes on the faculty of taste.

This is my own take on taste. It is a preliminary sense that will see what relation it has with the eighteenth century conception. I feel that here is an ever present danger of reading into an older philosophical text something like a false perspective that is part wish fulfillment and part anachronism. Thus, I want to be able to describe the eighteenth century debate but without an attempt 'find' something that was never quite there. Indeed, for all my trepidation of advancing theories there was nothing like that concern present at that time. Rather, it was the growing desire to advance a particular theory of art or beauty or some such that would give us a complete picture of how to 'properly' describe art that was one of the primary causes for the discussion of taste dropping out of the philosophy of art. This focus upon trying to pin imagination down as a specifically identifiable mental faculty and one that is therefore capable of a rationalised reduction into its strict practice is one that I believe deviates from the original conception of taste. With the description of taste as found in the eighteenth century there is more than enough to develop a worthwhile and elucidating discussion upon of relationship with art, artists and their work. However, as these worries can only be fully explained in light of a discussion of the theoretical work of the philosophers writing around Hume's period, I will therefore leave further elaboration on this rejection of theory until their work is under more focus.

What then do I mean by taste? I want to describe something here that is to be seen as part of what it means to be human. That is, something that is a fundamental constituent part of how we interact with the World and with each other. It seems uncontroversial to say that when we experience certain things we take pleasure in the experience. Whether it be seeing a sunset, or hearing a piece of music, or eating food, or any of many other things. Also, that we distinguish between these objects of our experience calling them; beautiful, lovely, good, and so forth. As well as finding certain experiences to be displeasing and these also involving various distinctions. The account of taste is one of the many ways in which philosopher's have attempted to describe these experiences and their objects. It is one that attempts to give something like a description in what I take to be a non-theoretical manner. The immediacy of the judgement of taste is still one that can become more refined by a process of learning the rules. So, we have something like an immediate natural response to an occasion or experience in some way and it is in this sense an individual reaction. We might say that the physiological could play a part here as well as the application of reason, but that this aesthetic judgement that taste makes is also one strongly influenced by the 'surround', that is, by the cultural 'rules' for understanding it is also something shaped by the outside. A further point here would be to not readily emphasise any causal direction of taste, that is to say, to see taste as being primarily beginning with the individual or from the external World (internalist or externalist).

Rather, I would instead characterise the judgement of taste as only being possible due to a merging of perspectives. A judgement of taste cannot be a judgement of taste unless it is subjectivity individual in some way and thus it is your judgement, however, it must also be one that is informed by external cultural practice and the possibility of description to others. There need be no first, or initial starting point, this mainly because a starting point always seems to imply the existence of an end point. In a further distancing from the idea of a theoretical completeness, the judgement of taste is never one that ends. By this I mean that another description can always be given of the experience, it is not ever a final description. If my experience is not directly communicable to others then all I can do is offer more attempts at description, perhaps this will bring the other into an understanding of my insight. To use an architectural analogy, this is akin to what is called 'top down construction'* where they build up and down simultaneously. Building up before the foundations are complete, but obviously never going too far or else the structure, the understanding, would topple.

So, taste can be seen as immediate in a certain regard, but that it must also require this intervention of rules into the process. I do find myself being lead by my intuitions to say that the type of judgement made in taste and the type of knowledge required in making this aesthetic judgement is of another type that there must be something special about the case of art and therefore about taste. However, I think it might be possible to say that and yet still not fall into the trap as seeing it as something especially different, in that it cannot be talked of in the same way to other experiences and methods of description. For in talking about the results of science or in ordinary everyday discourse there could be said to be a similarity, but in these cases as compared to our discussions about art objects there seems to be a greater deal of transparency especially when discussing science. There is most often a very definite way of describing such and such a formula or the results of an experiment. The methodology of science is rarely up for debate in the same way that word-use in the descriptions of ordinary life or of art objects seems to necessitate. Of course, various example could be raised here to show both the actual opaque-ness of some scientific descriptions and the transparency of some art works, where the meaning is just there, however, I would consider as these views are most common (science is transparent and art is opaque) that, for now, it is worth simply accepting them at face value (although further investigation into this might be worthwhile).

I believe that apart from the apparently necessary ambiguity to the language of art that there are as many similarities with ordinary language and, indeed, scientific language than there are apparent distinctions. The potential danger of subjectivism in aesthetic judgements, “well, I can't be wrong because it's how I feel”, is denied by the fact that we can judge these judgements. Not all sentiments are created equal. There is a normative character to how we use our aesthetic language, but it is not exclusive, there is more in common with our language use and development and yet, for all that, I still want to say that there is something special about the character of the aesthetic debate.

*    Specifically I'm thinking of the construction of the Shard currently taking place in London.