What Does Beauty Taste Like?

“De gustibus non disputandum est,” the Romans used to say: Concerning taste, it is not to be argued. But concerning taste—the physical sense, not the aesthetic sentiment—Carolyn Korsmeyer argues that it is not as philosophically inconsequential as once believed:

For centuries it was commonly asserted that beauty could only be apprehended by means of the senses of vision and hearing. . . . This is a typical sentiment, for the vast majority of philosophers writing about aesthetic taste dismiss or even disparage the literal sense of taste, its objects, and its pleasures, developing the concept of the aesthetic in explicit contrast to bodily taste sensation. Kant’s famous distinction between the sense pleasure of eating and the aesthetic pleasure of beauty merely reiterates what was essentially a philosophical commonplace. . . .

Given the poor reputation of the gustatory sense, one might be surprised to see it pressed into such delicate service. But several features of the sense of taste dispose it for this usage. Taste requires intimate, first-hand acquaintance with its objects. One cannot judge the taste of food from second-hand reports, and the same may be said of an object of beauty. Furthermore, taste is a sense that nearly always has a value valence – that is, one either likes or dislikes what is tasted. Because modern philosophy widely associates beauty with pleasure, the likes and dislikes that eating typically occasions are parallel to the pleasure-displeasure responses that mark aesthetic evaluations. Perhaps most paradoxically given the dismissal of this sense for its tendency to direct attention only inward toward the body, taste was selected also for its extreme sensitivity to the qualities of its objects. Properly cultivated, the sense of taste can detect fine distinctions among different kinds of food and drink, just as the good critic is able to discern subtle qualities in works of art.


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