Brillat-Savarin: Complicating the Hierarchy
In The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin responds to Kant’s proposition that taste can only provide an immediate, irrational reaction to an object. Sweeney explains: “For Brillat-Savarin, tasting food is often a complex experience. We frequently engage with a great variety of gustatory elements, often coming upon new and different elements, in the successive stages of our ingesting experience” (Sweeney 124). To be sure, Brillat-Savarin divides the tasting experience into three stages:
The direct sensation is the first impression arising out of the immediate action of the organs of the mouth, while the substance to be tasted is still resting on the front part of the tongue.
The complete sensation is composed of the first impression, and the impression which follows when the food leaves its initial position and passes to the back of the mouth, assailing the whole organ with its taste and perfume.
Lastly, the considered sensation is the judgement passed by the brain on the impressions transmitted to it by the organ. (Brillat-Savarin 42)
Unlike Kant, who would have it that tasting stops after the “direct” or “complete” sensations, Brillat-Savarin posits that there is indeed a reflective stage, what he calls the “considered sensation” and which involves judgment from the intellect.
Sweeney offers the following as an example:
Suppose a New Orleans chef prepares shrimp Creole for us. Its complex aromas assault us. We taste the shrimp in the dark roux that combines onion, garlic, tomato, and peppers. We note the way the spicy heat lingers, how that heat integrates with spices such as thyme, clove, allspice, and perhaps a touch of sassafras. There is a lot to taste and think about in such a dish. (Sweeney 126)
From this, it is clear that a person can distinguish different qualities of a dish, think about them, compare the features to previous dishes he or she has tasted, and evaluate the experience rationally. It is also evident in this example that taste can indeed be a source of knowledge. As Korsmeyer points out: “No matter how wide the scope of vision or acute the discrimination of hearing, you can’t see or hear flavours. So minimally, taste is the conduit for discovery of flavour properties of objects” (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“). Nietzsche, also, would agree: “And what magnificent instruments of observation we possess in our senses! […] Today we possess science precisely to the extent to which we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses–to the extent to which we sharpen them further, arm them, and have learned to think them through” (Nietzsche 481). This does much to elevate taste from its lowly position in the sense hierarchy. However, sight and hearing can perhaps be lowered from their lofty height, too.
In his essay, Sweeney writes: “[…] the quirkiness of preference is not a characteristic unique to taste. We like or dislike particular colors, and, for some, bagpipe music is excruciating” (Sweeney 127). The examples are endless. There are people, for instance, who will have an immediate reaction of disgust to a movie if there is an actor or actress in it whom they despise. There is no reflection and no application of rational faculties. In addition, there are people who might respond to a painting of nudes with lust–thus, not “disinterestedly.” So, the distinction that Kant makes between food and art is problematic. We can sometimes respond to food in a rational and reflective way that Kant only thinks possible for objects of sight and hearing; conversely, we sometimes respond to art in immediate, irrational ways that Kant only thinks possible for objects of taste, smell, and touch.