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Tasteless Philosophy November 21, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Despite being preoccupied with analyzing sensory experience, philosophers have ignored taste, smell, and touch, focusing instead on vision (and to a degree sound) as the most important sense.

Hans Jonas’s “The Nobility of Sight” is a representative example. Only vision, he argued, points us in the direction of the eternal, universal truths, which have been philosophy’s concern throughout most of its history. Vision puts us in mind of the eternal because time is not essential to its functioning. When we view a landscape we see the visual field displayed all at once, in no time; and an object can be visually identified immediately without a sequence of appearances over time, in contrast to sound, touch, or taste that need time to reveal the character of their objects. And visual objects have stability. We can view an object, look away, and then return to the very same object as if nothing has changed unlike the fleeting, ever-changing objects of taste, smell, and sound.

Furthermore, Jonas argues, with vision we can see things better if we maintain a distance from them. Touch, smell, and taste require that we be intimate with the object thus increasing the chances of personal bias might influence our understanding of it.

Despite their illustrious pedigree, these are very bad arguments. We learn nothing of the eternal through vision, or any other sensory mechanism, and vision without the opportunity for subsequent confirmation, in time, would be the source of constant error. Furthermore, our sense of the stability of objects is as dependent on the sense of touch as on vision. The stability of our visual field is dependant on the body’s orientation is space, which is maintained, in part, by our tactile contact with solid objects.

As to the alleged objectifying distance of vision, science shows that vision involves intimate contact with physical objects–swarms of photons. And we seem just as capable of misinterpreting those photons as we are the signals from taste buds. Recent psychological research is demonstrating the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. If anything introduces subjective bias into perceptual judgments it is the fact that objects are often seen at a distance or under conditions otherwise unsuitable for reliable identification. Apparently seeing is misbelieving.

At best, vision’s distance and the illusion of simultaneity allow us to spin metaphors about the eternal and universal. But misleading metaphors are bad metaphors.

There is an important contrast between vision and the other senses however. Through vision we do gain a sense of an horizon, an area beyond our present space. This is surely important for the development of our imagination.

By contrast, sound, touch, taste, and smell root us in the here and now. Objects must be spatially and temporally present for them to effect these sensory modalities. But why should experience rooted in the here and now be uninteresting to philosophy?

If taste is philosophically uninteresting, perhaps it is because philosophers lack taste.

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Sound, Vision, Taste and the Fine Arts November 1, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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One traditional argument opposing the idea that the edible arts are genuine fine arts is that taste and smell are very limited sensory modalities. They are important only for pleasure and for their functional role in providing us with nutrition, but we get relatively little information or knowledge about the world via taste and smell, according to this argument.

Vision and hearing, by contrast, provide us with substantial world-directed information through which we establish a robust representation of reality. Vision and hearing give us an understanding of spatial location. Vision enables us to carve up the world into discreet objects that we can then view from multiple distances and many perspectives, thus enabling us to track movement and ascertain size and shape. It provides us with a simultaneous, comprehensive representation that need not unfold over time so we can size up a situation quickly. Via hearing, we process the spoken word and gain insight into emotional tone and resonance, key factors in our ability to navigate the social world.

This deluge of visual and auditory information is fodder for the artistic imagination which uses it to shape imaginative worlds that expand our perspectives and give us new ways of seeing and hearing reality.

There is no doubt that vision and hearing are the sense modalities that process the greatest volume of information. But that alone tells us little about what qualifies as a fine art.  The quintessential fine arts—painting and instrumental music—are in fact rather limited in their capacity to represent anything via sensory experience itself, despite the fact they rely on information-rich sense modalities.

Painting can represent the look of whatever fits within its static, narrow frame. But to the extent painting tells us much about a complex, dynamic world, it piggybacks on the even more information-rich activity of narrative. But paintings tell stories not only in virtue of their visual information but because the visual information is embedded in the temporal and conceptual flow of memory and anticipation, with events linked via causation. Without narrative, paintings represent only the surface appearance of things. Paintings that do not rely on narrative—some abstract works for instance—seem not to be aiming at representations of the world at all. They are about their own surfaces, their materials, or other works of art. In other words, without narrative they are much like the flavors and textures we experience in the edible arts, if tastes and smells were implausibly considered to be merely sources of pleasure without narrative structure.

Music, shorn of the narratives expressed by lyrics or implied by vocalization, is even less representational than paintings. Although music sometimes expresses emotion, it seldom represents precise, particular emotions. Furthermore, much music seems to have little to do with emotion. Music, the most abstract of the arts, is often quite distant from anything we experience in the natural world. Yet that lack of representational content does not disqualify it from being a fine art.

Thus, works of fine art either lack world-directed informational richness or they get much of their informational richness from narrative. In any case, their seems little reason to privilege vision and sound as the only sensory modalities worthy of anchoring the fine arts.

This creates some conceptual room for the edible arts if it can be shown that the edible arts have world-directed informational richness. But that is a task for another day.

Cross Posted at Edible Arts