Reality Check: Wine, Subjectivism and the Fate of Civilization

by Dwight Furrow

Perfectly round circlesI must confess to having once been an olfactory oaf. In my early days as a wine lover, I would plunge my nose into a glass of Cabernet, sniffing about for a hint of cassis or eucalyptus only to discover a blast of alcohol thwarting my ascension to the aroma heaven promised in the tasting notes. A sense of missed opportunity was especially acute when the wine was described as “sexy, flamboyant, with a bounteous body.” Disappointed but undaunted, I would hurry off to wine tastings hoping the reflected brilliance of a wine expert might inspire epithelial fitness. It was small comfort when the expert would try to soften my disappointment with the banality, “it's all subjective anyway.” So one evening, while receiving instruction in the finer points of wine tasting from a charming but newly minted sommelier, I let frustration get the better of me and blurted “Well, if it's all subjective, what the hell are we doing here? Is it just your personal opinion that there is cassis in the cab or is it really there. We all have opinions. If you're an expert you should be giving us your knowledge, not your opinion!” Someone muttered something about “chill out” and it was quickly decided that my glass needed refilling. But the point stands. The idea of expertise involves the skillful apprehension of facts. If there is no fact about aromas of cassis in that cab there is no expertise at discerning it.

These conversations over a glass of wine are more pleasant (because of the wine) but structurally similar to the semester-long task of getting my college students to realize that moral beliefs are not arbitrary emendations of their lightly held personal attitudes but are rooted in our need to survive and flourish as social beings. Yet even after weeks of listening to me going on about the sources of value they still write term papers confidently asserting that with regard to “right” and “wrong”, eh, who knows?

Subjectivism, the view that a belief is made true by my subjective attitude towards it, has long been the default belief of freshman students and arbiters of taste. Unfortunately this tendency to treat it as the wisdom of the ages has escaped the confines of the wine bar and classroom into the larger society. Buoyed by the cheers of multitudes, our fabulist-in-chief, routinely finds his “own facts” circulating in what seems to be an otherwise empty mind. Unfortunately, this is no longer mere fodder for a seminar debate.

Accompanying this idea that we are entitled to our own facts is the belief that reality can be invented through sheer force of the will. Authoritarian leaders have always sustained their power by re-defining reality such that complex problems are amenable to simple, authoritarian solutions. The idea of the strongman who can act and succeed independently of true belief, the confidence that conviction and will are sufficient to solve problems, is the logical extension of subjectivism, and the U.S. now has its very own Combover Caligula to test the theory.

This drama takes place against the background of majorities believing that while scientists keep our planes aloft, our computers humming, and help the enormously complex human body fight disease, they can't make simple measurements of CO2 concentration and temperature gradients. Climate change denial is the ultimate fabulation, the most extreme case of simply ignoring an inconvenient reality because you would rather it were different.

The common denominator linking all these fabulations is the belief that reality is whatever the mind says it is. Reality poses no independent standard to which our thoughts and attitudes must conform. Unfortunately, this idea has a rich and influential philosophical pedigree. The monumental presence of Immanuel Kant looms over the modern world, for it was Kant who argued that reality as-it-is-in-itself can never be known. According to Kant, the structure and organization that reality appears to have–constituted by time, space, and causation—is a product of the mind imposing order on reality according to principles and categories that enable these “appearances” to make sense to us.

Before my colleagues in philosophy go apoplectic let me clarify that I am not suggesting a logical or causal connection between the sophisticated arguments of Kant and the puerile subjectivism discussed above. Kant was no subjectivist because he argued that the rules that govern perception and reason are universally shared among rational beings (among which he includes, perhaps mistakenly, persons). Furthermore, his arguments were based on the quite plausible notion that any claim about reality as-it-is-in-itself will be dependent on how the mind gives structure and meaning to that claim, and thus all reference to a mind-independent reality is pure speculation. It was Kant's laudable dislike of unsupported claims and his awareness of the limits of human knowledge that led him to be cautious about claims to know reality. The traditional notion of “the real” is that which is independent of human experience, something unsullied by the distortions imposed by human thought. Kant was right that the very attempt to think such a thing would inevitably bind it to human thought.

Nevertheless, for the rash and incautious, it's a very short step from the view that a mind-independent reality is unknowable to the claim that therefore we can just forget about reality as a constraint on our ideas altogether. Thus, I wonder if the “spirit of the age” has finally run roughshod over the careful, rigorous skepticism of Kant by demonstrating the ultimate absurdity of thought disconnected from reality. At this point in history we urgently need a dose of reality. An awareness of the limits of knowledge and the impenetrability of the real is not sufficient; we need an awareness of reality pushing back, penetrating our insights and offering stubborn facts to which we must attend. After all, Kant does require that we bite a very large bullet. He poses the question whether we should believe him or our lyin' eyes which tell us that reality is right there in front of us. We are all intuitive realists; only in a philosophy seminar would we think otherwise.

Despite its alleged universality, Kant's view that all of this is just an elaborate construction of the mind seems to invite elaborate reconstructions based on all manner of preferences and prejudices, and so I fear that if we are to get beyond fabulation we must get beyond Kant. And that means showing that we need not bite that bullet that Kant thought necessary.

However, the alternative to Kant's transcendental idealism seems equally absurd. For the most straightforward way of rejecting subjectivism is to take on board the kind of objectivity to which the natural sciences aspire—what is real is whatever the best scientific theories say is real. But that leaves us with an arid reality evacuated of all meaning and value, since the mindless, meaningless physical particles and fields of force discovered by physics seem to lack any essential reference to what matters to us. Appeals to science have little to say about what we ought to care about, let alone the aesthetics of wine, moral norms or anything else in life that depends on judgment. We seem to be stranded on one side or the other of an abyss formed by the mighty pillars of objectivity and subjectivity with no way to traverse the chasm. Is there a way across that chasm?

Kant is arguing that we can't prove the common sense view that we are in touch with an independent reality and so intellectual rigor demands we be skeptical. This puts the pursuit of knowledge in the driver's seat but leaves us bereft of the very knowledge we seek. Yet, before we can prove anything we must first meet the causal force of reality head on. As we move about the world it presses in on us, resisting our actions, disrupting intentions, penetrating mind and body, a piercing, gale-force wind that requires careful tacking to navigate.

Kant wants to say this causal force is itself something the mind imposes on itself. But that is only remotely plausible after stepping back in a moment of abstract doubt and asking what we can really know. It's not addressing the human experience of a reality that buffets, ingresses, rubs, wounds, attracts and fascinates. What Kant misses is that our fundamental transaction with the world is not via knowledge. It is via feeling, emotion, sensibility, attraction and repulsion, in other words, aesthetics. Reality is felt before it is known—I suffer and love, therefore I am. Skepticism gets no foothold here.

How does this acknowledgement of the felt influence of causal forces help avoid subjectivism? That would be a very long tale but I will try to provide a sketch. The causal lines of force that resist our aims but also enable all human creativity are indicators of something deep and consequential. For they emerge out of potentialities, latent forces, dispositions in things that when activated by the presence of other things, including human beings, have a direction. I call these directed lines of force telic norms, patterns of probabilities that prescribe how reality might develop under certain conditions. These telic norms are attractors for feeling to which we respond with pleasure or aversion. There is value in the world for without it I doubt that a frog could catch a fly.

Whatever positive influence we have over reality will be realized by responding to telic norms under conditions appropriate to their realization—otherwise chaos ensues. Objectivity is achieved by accurately tracking the lines of force that emerge from a given set of conditions and that provide an anchor for telic norms. Whatever the future holds, it will emerge from these lines of causal influence and our ability to absorb their direction and make use of them. The first contact with them is not the mind that knows but the sensibility that feels drawn or repelled. When the mind spins away from these lines of force we have subjectivity and error.

Which brings me back to wine (you just knew I would return to wine). Winemaking is an art form in which the quality of the final product depends on nature and the recognition that nature has its own powers and dispositions that we can only sometimes, and within limits, influence. With each vintage nature imposes its “will”. Good winemakers accurately track the telic norms that emerge first from the grapes and later the wine in its various stages of development in light of their sensibility and intentions regarding the final product.

The problem of objectivity is not that critics or consumers disagree about the quality of particular wines. Of course they disagree. We all have different preferences and histories and convergence of judgment would not be desirable in any case. What matters for objectivity is that critics and others who taste aesthetically track the potential of a wine, taste its ability to provide satisfaction to various people with differing sensibilities. Aesthetic tasting is not a matter of asserting subjective likes or dislikes but of identifying potentiality, the latent forces and indwelling capacities of a wine to produce pleasure.

Of course wine quality (or beauty if you prefer) is subjective to a degree but it is not merely subjective. It isn't something we project or impose onto an object but is a response to something in the object being judged, an appreciation of its power to affect us which is more felt than apprehended.

Kant was alleged to have had a taste for the grape. Had he tasted aesthetically might history have developed differently?

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.

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