Expressing Vitality: Wine as the Art of Life

by Dwight Furrow

If a rectangular canvas splashed with paint and lines can express freedom or joy, why not liquid poetry?

Works of art are pleasing but they are also intended to communicate or express something. Something is shown or made manifest through a work of art. In many cases what is communicated is some feeling or attitude that in some way belongs to the artist. But not all art is about self-expression. Some works are intended to reveal something about the artist’s materials when worked on in a particular way. For instance, many Impressionist works by Monet and others expressed a singular relationship between color and light, although these works also communicate something about the artist’s point of view regarding what is being expressed.  Some works reveal something about their subject matter when placed in an assemblage with other subject matters regardless of whether they reflect anything about the artist. A landscape may express the relationship between a building and an atmosphere, without expressing something important about the artist’s psychology or biography. To express is to reveal something hidden or not obvious but that need not be restricted to human psychology. Works of art invite us to feel something about them but that feeling need not be something possessed by the artist. Hamlet expresses uncertainty and ambivalence independently of any feelings Shakespeare may have had and there is no need to investigate Shakespeare’s biography to grasp what Hamlet is expressing.

Even when art is expressing some human quality, the expression reaches far beyond facts about an individual artist. The 19th Century German philosopher Hegel argued that art expresses a shared sense of “the deepest interests of mankind, the most comprehensive truths of the spirit”. Art’s role for Hegel is to express something whole cultures can share when brought to light and put on a pedestal.

What about wine? Can wine be expressive in the way works of art are expressive? I’ve argued that wine can express emotion, although only occasionally is that related to a winemaker’s feelings. But here I want to focus on other dimensions of wine’s expressiveness that go beyond the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. Read more »

Two kinds of psychophysical reduction, part 2: physical

by Dave Maier

Ted Chiang’s (very) short story “What’s Expected of Us” (collected in his recent Exhalation) tells of an unusual device called a Predictor:

Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they are playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it’s easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can’t. If you try to press the button without seeing a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterward, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There’s no way to fool a Predictor.

This is because the device sends a signal back in time, flashing at time t if and only if you press the button at time t + 1 second. Your push causes the flash, even though the flash appears first. No guesswork necessary; that’s how the device works.

In the story, many people, including the narrator himself, take the Predictor to be a demonstration of the unfortunate fact that they have no free will, and that, as the narrator puts it, “their choices don’t matter.” I can see why they think this, but I’d like to try to undermine that intuition here if I can, since it underlies much of the non-science-fictional debate about free will and physical reduction that we started last time. (Note: we will not be solving the free will problem here today, nor do I claim originality for this line of thought; on the other hand, all infelicities in the exposition are my own.) Read more »

Wine Appreciation as an Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.

Thus, wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding, allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade everyday life.

But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation or food consumption is discouraged as would be the case at a concert hall or museum. Read more »

Infinite horizons

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The Doomsday Scenario, also known as the Copernican Principle, refers to a framework for thinking about the death of humanity. One can read all about it in a recent book by science writer William Poundstone. The principle was popularized mainly by the philosopher John Leslie and the physicist J. Richard Gott in the 1990s; since then variants of it have have been cropping up with increasing frequency, a frequency which seems to be roughly proportional to how much people worry about the world and its future.

The Copernican Principle simply states that the probability of us existing at a unique time in history is small because we are nothing special. We therefore must exist roughly close to half the period of our existence. Using Bayesian statistics and the known growth of population, Gott and others then calculated lower bounds for humanity’s future existence. Referring to the lower bound, their conclusion is that there is a 95% chance that humanity will go extinct in 9120 years.

The Doomsday Argument has sparked a lively debate on the fate of humanity and on different mechanisms by which the end will finally come. As far as I can tell, the argument is little more than inspired numerology and has little to do with any rigorous mathematics. But the psychological aspects of the argument are far more interesting than the mathematical ones; the arguments are interesting because they tell us that many people are thinking about the end of mankind, and that they are doing this because they are fundamentally pessimistic. This should be clear by how many people are now talking about how some combination of nuclear war, climate change and AI will doom us in the near future. I reject such grim prognostications because they are mostly compelled by psychological impressions rather than by any semblance of certainty. Read more »

What an artistic masterpiece is not

by Dave Maier

Philosophers have spilled a great deal of ink attempting to nail down once and for all the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing’s being a work of art. Many theories have been proposed, which can seem in retrospect to have been motivated by particular works or movements in the history of art: if you’re into Cézanne, you might think art is “significant form,” but if you’re impressed by Andy Warhol, you might that arthood is not inherent in a work’s perceptible attributes, but is instead something conferred upon it by members of the artworld.

Nothing has really seemed to fit everything, and for whatever reason, essentialism in the philosophy of art, or at least arguing about it in public anyway, has drifted in and out of fashion. Yet that question, or something like it, won’t simply go away. Unless everything is art, some things are art and some are not. What’s the difference?

When you get stuck like this, one way to get back on track is to ask a different question. There are plenty of worthwhile candidates, but one which keeps coming up for me is: what’s the difference between something that’s not art because it’s not good enough, and something that’s not art because it’s the wrong sort of thing? Let’s start there. Read more »

New realism roundup

by Dave Maier

“Realism” is a word with many senses. In politics, it’s synonymous with pragmatism in being the alternative to idealism, which it considers naive. In science, realists oppose instrumentalism and (extreme forms of) empiricism, positing a reality behind the phenomena of empirical investigation. In philosophy as well, one can be a realist about this or that by resisting the reduction of that or this phenomenon to other things thought more ontologically basic.

Mainly, though, philosophical realism is metaphysical realism, an ontological commitment to a basic reality irreducible to, and independent of, mind, belief, language, social conventions, empirical observations – whatever you got. On this side of the pond, realism has generally been considered the default position, but analytic philosophy was born in linguistic analysis and a robust strain of empiricism, so various sorts of antirealism have remained popular here as well.

On the Continent, however, things are different. Analytic philosophy was a revolt against a post-Hegelian tradition which remained dominant in Europe, and in the last third of the previous century, when postmodernism ruled supreme, continental realists hardly dared even show their faces in public. At least, that’s the story now being related by a new breed of continental realist. Now that postmodernism is yesterday’s (or last week’s) news, realism is popping up all over.

If postmodernism was nonsense on stilts, then a return to common sense can only be good. But analytic antirealists, at least, aren’t just dimwits or charlatans, and we shouldn’t simply identify substantive philosophical claims, however intuitive, with mere sanity; and continental realism, it turns out, comes in a bewildering variety of forms. Before sounding the hosannas, and awarding the palm to realism at last, we owe this new development a closer look. Read more »

Robert Parker’s Legacy: The Influence of Criticism on Wine Styles

by Dwight Furrow

It is fashionable to say that great wine is made in the vineyard. There is a lot of truth to that slogan but in fact wine is made by a complex assemblage with various factors influencing the final product. Last month I argued that the wine quality revolution in the U.S. was a result of a fascination with the French image of wine, new technology, a focus on varietal expression, and the benefits of California sun that enabled grapes to ripen more consistently. However, an additional factor influencing wine quality is the feedback from wine critics who influence consumer tastes as well as production styles. How much do critics influence wine styles and how is that influence transmitted?

Any discussion of the influence of wine critics must start with the iconic Robert Parker who is widely credited with rousting wine production from its complacent slumber in the early 1980’s. Yet, he is also widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for making wine more homogeneous and less interesting by (1) encouraging more alcoholic, riper wines that lacked nuance while (2) introducing a scoring system for wine judging that made wine more accessible to consumers by suppressing its complexity. Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, Parker was no doubt extraordinarily influential, and it’s worth looking at the sources of that influence to better understand how wine styles change. Read more »

When is a drone not a drone?

by Dave Maier

In the Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche levels a powerful attack on the modern Platonistic conception of mind and nature, urging us to reject such “contradictory concepts” as “knowledge in itself,” or the idea of “an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking.” More recently, Donald Davidson’s attack on the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content, and thus of belief and meaning, requires us to see inquiry into how things are as essentially interpretative.

This idea can seem to conflict with our natural conception of the world as objective, fundamentally independent of what we say or think. In a similar context, Wittgenstein has his imaginary interlocutor challenge him (Philosophical Investigations §241): “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true or false?” The implication is clear: if your position requires that what we say makes things true, rather than simply mirrors it, then that is an unacceptably irrealist result; how the world is cannot depend on what we say about it.

The suspicion can also arise – especially when the relevant reflections about language come from those steeped in literary theory – that “interpretivists” have mistakenly extrapolated from what may very well be true in the specific case of artistic interpretation and its objects to any discourse about the world at all. Similarly, defenders of the traditional view of objectivity such as John Searle (following John Austin here) have suggested that it is the specific cases of “illocutionary acts” such as “I hereby pronounce you man and wife,” which do indeed cause their objects to be thus truly described, that have unwittingly led to the interpretivist heresy. Read more »

Wine Worlds and Distributed Agency

by Dwight Furrow

Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology.  After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.

Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes. Read more »

Wine and the Epiphany of Depth

by Dwight Furrow

Traditional aesthetics at least since Kant has been focused on the form of a work of art. It’s the design and composition of a work that strikes us beautiful. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, according to this view, we do not enjoy Van Gogh’s Starry Night because it contains our favorite color or reminds us of the night sky in our hometown. It’s the arrangement of colors and shapes that compels our pleasure and warrants the judgment of beauty. Even pre-Kantian, classical conceptions of aesthetics were focused on form in that they emphasized symmetry and harmony as criteria for beauty.

Despite the continued influence of formalism in the 20th Century there were currents of dissent that took an opposing position. Thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Whitehead and Deleuze were arguing that genuine aesthetic appreciation is not about form but the unraveling of form. Despite their considerable differences, each was arguing that the most important kinds of aesthetic experiences are those in which the dominant foreground and design elements of a work are haunted by a background of contrasting effects that provide depth.  It’s the conflict between foreground and background, surface and depth, between what is known and what is mysterious that give art its allure. The uncanny is the key to art worthy of the name. For example, for Heidegger in his famous study of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes, it’s the seemingly insignificant brushstrokes in the background of the painting that allow amorphous figures to emerge and begin to take to shape as we view it. The background figures preserve ambiguity and allow the concealing and unconcealing of multiple interpretations to take place, which Heidegger argues, are at the heart of a work of art. Read more »

“Insanity is never trusted”: A conversation between Andrea Scrima and Ally Klein

by Andrea Scrima

Ally Klein was born in 1984 and studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Carter (Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria, August 2018) is her first book.

Ally Klein. Photo: Pezhman Zahed

The novel’s plot is easily summarized. Carter, the main character of the eponymous novel, is dead. When the narrator hears the news, he or she—the sex is never clear—is caught by surprise. The book opens with an introductory recapitulation of events, but reveals very little in the way of biographical information about the person telling the story. When the story proper begins, the narrating self wanders ghostlike through the streets of an unknown city until, one night, it runs into Carter—a striking figure bursting with so much life energy that she immediately pulls the narrating self into her orbit. Fascinated, this self tries to court Carter; the ensuing relationship wavers between intimacy and distance, the respective degree of which always lies in Carter’s hands. In the end, everything ends in catastrophe, while the narrating self gradually appears to lose its sanity and its grasp on reality.

Andrea Scrima: In one sense, Carter reads like a fever dream; when the narrating self moves to a small city divided by a river, its mind is already beginning to break down. Whether or not Carter might be a product of the self’s imagination or a projection of a part of the self is something the book leaves open. Without focusing too much on interpretation, my question is: does the novel allow for this read?

Ally Klein: Yes, among all the other possible interpretations, you can also see Carter as a product of the imagination. The question is where this imagination begins, and how far it carries. As the book opens, the reader learns that Carter had been suffering from a heart condition that, in the end, proved fatal. The narrating self, which came close to getting a degree in medicine, is shocked by the news; somehow, it managed to ignore all the telltale signs.

Perhaps the self doesn’t want to face the obvious; when they meet the first time, it sees nothing but vitality in Carter. It interprets the sound she makes inhaling a cigarette as a potent life force, whereas for Carter, breathing presents a real struggle. This is where the so-called imagination begins. Carter’s entire identity is filtered through the perception of the narrating self. Read more »

How Wine Expresses Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?

Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes.  So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time. Read more »

Rorty and Geertz on ethnocentrism

by Dave Maier

If someone accuses you of “ethnocentrism,” they’re probably saying that you come off as arrogant or dogmatic in rejecting other cultures’ practices as illegitimate or inferior. Richard Rorty, however, applies that term to himself, and indeed takes it to be a central part of his own view. Since he’s not, I take it, thereby confessing to arrogance or dogmatism, he must be using the term idiosyncratically. Even so, Rorty’s conception has drawn criticism not only from the usual suspects but also from perhaps the most prominent critic of “ethnocentrism” in its usual sense: anthropologist Clifford Geertz, a thinker with whom, given their shared liberalism (generally speaking), as well as their shared intellectual inheritance from Wittgenstein, we might expect Rorty to agree.

Photo credit: Steve Pyke

So what’s going on here? As noted, Rorty’s ethnocentrism (I’m going to stop putting the word in quotes now) plays a central role in his philosophy. In particular, he tells us, it’s the conceptual link between his “antirepresentationalist” view of inquiry, on the one hand, and his (somewhat self-mockingly dubbed) “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” on the other:

“[A]n antirepresentationalist view of inquiry leaves one without a skyhook with which to escape from the ethnocentrism produced by acculturation, but […] the liberal culture of recent times has found a strategy for avoiding the disadvantage of ethnocentrism. This is to be open to encounters with other actual and possible cultures, and to make this openness central to its self-image. This culture is an ethnos which prides itself on its suspicion of ethnocentrism – on its ability to increase the freedom and openness of encounters, rather than on its possession of truth.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 2)

That Rorty’s ethnocentrism isn’t just some free-floating doctrine (which shouldn’t be surprising, given his lack of interest in coming up with philosophical theories which (simply) “get reality right”) means two things. First, we’ll need to see what it’s doing in order to see what it is. Second, we won’t be able to dislodge it and replace it with something better unless our suggested replacement isn’t simply a better explanation of, say, belief and inquiry, but also fits just as well with the rest of what we say as Rorty’s ethnocentrism does with the rest of his thought. This may require giving up some of those other things as well – for better or worse. (Was anyone actually happy with “postmodern bourgeois liberalism”?) Read more »

Music, Emotion and Forms of Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

That music and emotion are somehow linked is one of the more widely accepted assumptions shared by philosophical aesthetics as well as the general public. It is also one of the most persistent problems in aesthetics to show how music and emotion are related. Where precisely are these emotions that are allegedly an intrinsic part of the musical experience? Three general answers to this question are possible. Either the emotion is in the musician—the composer or performer—in which case the music is expressing that emotion. Or the emotion is in the music itself, in which case the music somehow embodies the emotion. Or the emotion is in the listener, in which case the music arouses the emotion.

I suspect the most popular view among the public, since it draws on the romantic views of the self and creativity which is still very much with us, is that music expresses the emotional state of the artist. But this is implausible. I doubt that song writers when writing a sad song are in a state of sadness. At best the song could be expressing a composer’s understanding of sadness or perhaps a memory of a previous emotional state. But even if that were granted, we usually know little about the emotional states of composers, song writers, or musicians and so the listener is forced to somehow “read off” the emotion from the music itself. The emotional state of the artist just seems irrelevant to the process of determining the emotive content of the music. No doubt some composers and musicians are expressing their emotions in specific cases. But the only way to know that, short of inferring it from biographical details, is to infer it from the music itself, which seems to locate the emotion in the music. Read more »

Beauty is Neither Harmony Nor Symmetry

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been understood as the highest form of aesthetic praise sharing space with goodness, truth, and justice as a source of ultimate value. But in recent decades, despite calls for its revival, beauty has been treated as the ugly stepchild banished by an art world seeking forms of expression that capture the seedier side of human existence. It is a sad state of affairs when the highest form of aesthetic praise is dragged through the mud. Might the problem be that beauty from the beginning has been misunderstood?

The Ancient Greeks were the first to define beauty. Using the perfection of geometrical bodies as a paradigm, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned objects connected the world of finite human beings to the infinite, divine world. In the Symposium, Plato has Diotima regale Socrates with stories of the soul ascending towards beauty, driven by Eros, the god of love, leading from the sensible world to the intelligible world and ultimately the discovery of Beauty in itself. In theory, beauty could be extracted from objects via reason if we were sufficiently expert geometers.  Beauty is a concept, a ratio, a specific proportion between parts which gives us insight into the ideal structure of the cosmos, a manifestation of something eternal. The neo-Platonists emphasized that such an ideal harmony must exhibit unity, all difference and multiplicity swallowed by an intelligible whole, a state of pure integration governed by a principle that organizes the elements and to which the elements must conform.

However, conceptually, these notions of perfect symmetry, unity, and harmony are problematic. Read more »

The cromulence of wasabi, and other stories

by Dave Maier

One starting point for any philosophical account of language is that the truth of a statement depends both on what it means and on how the world is. Handily for contemporary pragmatists of my stripe, this fits neatly with the post-Davidsonian project of overcoming the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content. All we need to do is show that the two factors that make up truth are not so detachable as contemporary dualists claim.

If it were as easy as that, though, we’d be done by now. Last time I said some things about semantic externalism, the idea that our meanings and other mental contents depend in some way on how things are in the world (as opposed, that is, to being transparently internal to the mind in the Cartesian manner). While not uncontroversial (there are a number of versions of this idea, some of which lead to serious problems), this thought is not generally regarded as scandalously radical or insane – possibly because when it goes bad, it does so in the direction of realism, contemporary philosophy’s default metaphysical assumption. The world, and the semantic content it determines, turns out to be too independent of our minds for us to know for sure what we are even saying. But again, for most contemporary philosophers, metaphysical realism, even of a problematic sort, has always seemed preferable to the unthinkable alternatives.

Things get dicier, or can easily seem to, if we consider the converse thought: that how things are in the world depend in some way on our meanings and beliefs. Stated so baldly, the only people who accept it are the most hard-bitten idealists. Not only does this thereby fall off to the forbidden side, it’s not at all clear how to state it in any more acceptably hirsute fashion. (I except the obvious cases, the subject of an entire book by contemporary realist John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality), such as the straightforwardly conventional, mind-created, but thereby no less real, truth that this sawbuck is more valuable than that fin – although inventive if also perverse counter-examples are available even for that one.)

I won’t be arguing for any particular doctrine today, let alone anything controversial, but instead simply batting about some examples, in the hope of a better understanding of a few important and interrelated things: first, how diverse our semantic options really are, and how little the dictionary really tells us about them; second, how essential to meaning are the creative and expressive aspects of language use; and third, the overlapping and indeed interconstitutive notions of a) knowing what a word means; b) knowing how to use a word appropriately; c) knowing the word’s referent; d) knowing what such a thing is. With any luck this may clear the way to discussing matters of meaning and truth without the threat of linguistic idealism seeming to hover over us at every turn. Read more »