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 2: Kent
Bach's paper - What good is knowledge in enjoying
‘What good is knowledge in enjoying
the experience of drinking wine?’ asked philosopher Kent
Bach, himself a wine lover with a 4000-bottle cellar.
‘We could ask the same about cheese, coffee, chocolate or malt
whisky’. Does knowledge about wine make the wine taste better?
Can it enhance the experience of drinking the wine?
He then posed the following question as an interesting
side issue: are people who know more having a different
perceptual experience? ‘I’m not asking what good knowledge
is in making, selling or evaluating wine – I take it that
knowledge is good in all those respects,’ clarifies Bach.
‘Also, I’m not asking whether there is any value in being
able to blind taste a wine’. Instead, he’s distinguishing
these from the pleasure one has drinking the wine. Many of these
types of knowledge pertain to taste. Open a wine you’ve had
before and there is expectation: this is the cognitive pleasure
of remembering what a wine will taste like.
Bach then outlined four assumptions he is making in
developing his arguments. (1) We are talking about people who
have a basic liking for wine. (2) That people have the practical
skills of knowing how to taste. (3) A rather shaky assumption
that expectations and external influences play no role in
one’s experience and judgment. (4) We’re discussing the
effect of knowledge on people with normal sensitivity to aromas
Three related questions, posed in order to help frame
his arguments followed. To what extent do differences in
preference reflect differences in taste? Do we share a common
experience? Is it possible for two people to taste the same
wine, experience the same thing and then for one person to like
it and the other not?
According to Bach, it is possible to distinguish three
types of pleasure: sensory, cognitive and emotional, with the
third, he suggests, not being relevant to wine. He also makes a
distinction between four levels of perceiving components of a
wine’s characteristics. There is (1) sensing, (2) noticing,
(3) recognizing and (4) identifying.
If we compare bird watching and train spotting with
wine tasting, there’s a difference. In the first two pursuits,
the fun is in recognizing and identifying. With wine, there’s
a level of pleasure that occurs beyond merely recognizing and
identifying flavour components. Then Bach drew attention to the
sorts of terms used to describe experts in particular fields.
‘Discerning’ and ‘discriminating’ have both an aesthetic
and cognitive meaning. Both can imply merely expertise, but
there’s an additional level of meaning that implies good
There’s a distinction here between being an expert
and a connoisseur: the latter implies some level of good taste
in the area of expertise. This is illustrated in a rather gross
but amusing analogy. Imagine someone with a special ability to
taste and smell. They work in a medical laboratory, but instead
of using analytical devices to test blood and urine samples,
they use their elevated sense of taste and smell. But there
wouldn’t be an aesthetic side to this, and we wouldn’t
consider them as connoisseurs.
Bach proceeded to compare vision and taste/smell,
contrasting the terms we use to describe these different senses.
For vision, our words are precise: we have lots of specialised
descriptors for colours – even for degrees of redness. For
taste and smell the vocabulary is much less precise, and most of
the terms are connected with the ‘cause’ of the smell or
taste. With vision it is much easier to make a judgement. Look
at the just noticeable differences (JNDs) in colour perception:
one researcher has estimated that there are 10 million JNDs in
colour possible by untrained judges, a remarkable number (based
When people are presented with tastes and smells it is
more difficult for them to make a discrimination and it takes
them longer. We are slow to respond to different stimuli. Bach
referred to the work on multidimensional scaling that is used to
quantify sensory data in psychophysics. Large data sets have
been collected on people’s similarity judgements. From these
it is possible to construct a similarity or quality space. From
this work, the conclusion is that taste has the five well known
dimensions (umami, salty, sweet, bitter and sour). However,
estimates of the number of dimensions for olfaction (respects in
which smells can differ) have varied, ranging from 7 to 18, but
in any case many more than the three needed for colour (hue,
saturation, and intensity). This may help explain why
differences in smells are harder for us to describe, but it does
not mean that we are not capable of discriminating them.
Bach then posed another question: do experts taste
something that other people don’t? Putting this another way,
what is wrong with the default position that knowledge doesn’t
seem to make a difference? Could it be that novices can sense
and notice, but can’t recognize tastes and smells in wine?
Finally, we moved to a musical analogy. Bach reckons
that wine is like a musical chord that is sustained, but there
must be something more to wine, because while he can listen to a
symphony many times over, he couldn’t listen to a single
chord. It’s a rather deep point, and I’m not quite sure I
grasped this analogy properly in my notes. Still, a good place
to end – this was a thoughtful paper that ended up framing a
lot of useful questions, rather than providing many answers.
philosophy of wine