Science to Subjectivity
Goode's Report on a one-day meeting held on Friday 10th
December 2004, organised by the Philosophy Program of the School
of Advanced Study, London University (http://www.sas.ac.uk/Philosophy/Wine.htm)
Part 1: Roger
Scruton's paper - Philosophy and the Intoxicating Properties of
‘Philosophers have probably drunk more than their
fair share of wine’, observed Roger
Scruton in the introduction to his paper, ‘but they
haven’t had their fair share of the words written about it’.
This was a good way to begin this conference on philosophy and
wine, which gave three well regarded academic philosophers a
chance to begin to redress the balance. Over the next couple of
weeks I’ll be reviewing the presentations and discussing some
of the issues that were raised at this one-day meeting.
Scruton’s opening paper concentrated on the
philosophy of intoxication. He began with two questions. First,
he asked whether there is a single phenomenon of intoxication:
is something different about the intoxication induced by wine,
or is it the same as that induced by cannabis or whisky? Then he
asked whether intoxication was something that philosophers
should be exploring. Is intoxication a ‘natural kind’, i.e.
something that can be wholly explained in scientific terms? If
so, this leaves philosophers nothing to say on the subject.
While science can explain the physiology of the drunken
state, Scruton argued that there is more to intoxication than
just drunkenness. His idea is that the experience of drinking
wine is intoxicating in itself quite separately from the
physiological effects of the alcohol it contains. So, when we
ask about intoxication, we are indeed asking a philosophical
question. We can’t make a direct causal connection between the
state of intoxication and the wine itself.
Scruton used the analogy of the excitement of a
football fan to illustrate the relationship between intoxication
and wine. The excitement of the fan watching his/her team play
(or in the case of Manchester City fans like myself, the state
of nervous anxiety and then utter depression) is caused by the
football match, but isn’t a definable physiological condition.
‘Intoxication induced by wine is also directed at the wine in
the same way that the excitement of a football match is directed
towards the game’, says Scruton. But it is impossible to make
a direct link from the game of football to the state of
excitement in the fan.
He then considered the relationships between our
different senses. Thomas Aquinas famously distinguished the
cognitive senses of sight and hearing from the ‘non-cognitive’
senses of taste and smell, a division that Scruton thinks is
still helpful today. He distinguishes, on this basis, the
sensory and aesthetic pleasures. ‘The taste of wine is
sensory; poetry is intellectual’, he states. Intoxication is
considered sensory and not aesthetic. Along similar lines, he
posits that, ‘A visual experience is a representation of
reality, whereas taste and smell are not like that’. This is
reflected in the difference between cogent accounts of paintings
and the imprecision of winespeak. ‘Tastes are not
representations of the objects’.
Then we are led to consider some deeper, more profound
aspects of intoxication by wine. ‘Intoxicating drink is a
symbol of and a means to achieve an inward transformation’,
says Scruton. ‘From ancient times wine has been allotted a
sacred function. It enters the soul of the person drinking it’.
Thus wine takes on a significant role: as we drink it, it
becomes part of us in a special way.
To emphasize the special nature of wine, Scruton makes
a four way classification of kinds of stimulant.
(1) Pleases us but doesn’t alter the mind.
(2) Alters the mind but gives no pleasure.
(3) Alters the mind and pleases us.
(4) Alters the mind by the act of pleasing us.
An example of (1) would be tobacco, which has some
mental effects but doesn’t alter the mind. The pleasure is
connected with the mental effects. (2) Is illustrated by drugs
which we swallow whole purely for their effect; we take no
pleasure in the drug ingestion process itself, but take the drug
purely for its effect. (3) These are stimulants that are mind
altering but which give pleasure in their taking, such as
cannabis or alcohol. Class (4) includes wine, where it is in the
act of drinking that the mind is altered.
Alcohol in general and wine in particular has a unique
social function. Many of the social contexts we have devised are
aimed at limiting consumption, by controlling the rate of
intake. The buying of rounds of drinks in the pub and the
circulation of wine at the dinner party are examples of this,
and they mirror the Greek symposium.
‘The qualities that interest us in the wine reflect
the social order of which we are a part’, says Scruton. Wine
is not simply a shot of alcohol. At its heart is the
transformation of the grape in fermentation. The transformation
of the soul under its influence is a continuation of this: the
Greeks described fermentation as a ‘work of God’. This is
reinforced by the concept that the human skill in this process
is the skill of husbandry: we aren’t actually ‘making’ the
wine. Indeed, Scruton asserts that the goal of good winemaking
is to ensure that the alcoholic content doesn’t escape from
the wine but remains part of it.
Truth is an important component of wine. Its effect is
present and revealed in the flavour, and thus wine has a
quintessential honesty. There is ‘truth in wine’, but this
is truth for others, and not for ourselves: as we drink wine
each of us reveals more of ourself to others; we talk more, and
more openly. Wine is quite unlike other mind-altering drugs
which are dishonest in nature, because they claim to elevate the
perception of the user such that the user enters a
transcendental realm. These drugs lie to use because they tell
us about another world outside our own. Instead, wine tells us
about the true world; the one we live in, revealing more about
it. Wine, when drunk in company, leads to an opening out of the
self to others.
Scruton also touched on the importance of the concept
of ‘terroir’. In ancient cultures the production of wine
resulted from a settled occupation of a patch of land. To plant
vines signalled a sense of permanence about a location, and thus
was a significant activity in the life of a community. By
savouring wine we are ‘knowing’ something about the history
and geography of a community. The association of a wine with a
particular place means that the name of a place is, according to
Scruton, the best and most reliable description of that wine.
So, some interesting ideas and concepts are raised
here. In particular, I like the idea of wine as a ‘virtuous
intoxicant’, to use one of Scruton’s terms. According to his
view there is something special and unique about wine; it isn’t
like other drinks. As an indirect support of this idea, the
consistent and long-standing role of wine in culture and
religion, which he chronicles in his paper, does suggest that
this is a unique substance. Following through on Scruton’s
ideas, if we feel there is substance to his claims then we need
to bear them in mind in discussions about ‘naturalness’ of
wine and notions of terroir – both subjects of intense current
debate in the wine world. In the question and answer session,
someone asked about Australian wine, and how it fits with these
sorts of ideas. ‘Australian wine is a big problem’, admits
Scruton. ‘Here is a landscape that has been dragged from
hunter gatherer to farmer in 100 years; it is not yet a properly
settled landscape. Settlement has come from outside as an act of
conquest. This does affect the wine’, he suggests. ‘This is
why Australians haven’t built a goût
de terroir into their wines in the same way that the French
have.’ Some thought-provoking and controversial ideas.
philosophy of wine