Pleasure: From Water to Wine

We all seem to instinctively know what pleasure is. No philosopher, psychologist or guru needs to explain it to us, we know it when we feel it. It is that which pleases us, that which causes feelings of enjoyment, happiness and liking. It is the opposite of suffering. It is that which makes our lives worth living and that which we spend our time and energy pursing. However, the question of whether the experience of pleasure is merely a sensory pursuit, confined to the world of sensation, rather than an intellectual one is less obvious.

In an attempt to examine this question, as many before me have, I think that the matter of aesthetic experience, and more specifically aesthetic pleasure, may be a useful guide. Here it is important to point out that not all that is pleasurable is aesthetic, but aesthetic experiences are pleasurable. It is within the potential of pleasure to evoke aesthetic experiences wherein lies its cognitive power.

Let us first make a distinction between non-aesthetic pleasure and aesthetic pleasure. Kant argued that aesthetic pleasure is disinterested in that the pleasure derived from the object is not defined by our interest in how to use it or how to fulfil any personal desire, but rather the pure and rational contemplation of the object as an end in itself. Therefore, a non-aesthetic pleasure would be the pleasure derived from the object in as much as it is useful to us or fulfils a personal desire. There are a number of loopholes and grey areas in this theory, however it establishes a useful framework for the time being.

Bence Nancy in “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction” takes this notion further by referring to a distinction in psychology between “relief pleasure” and “sustaining pleasure”. Relief pleasure is the pleasure experienced after suffering or unpleasantness ceases and the body returns to its normal state. A good example would be the unpleasantness of being hungry or thirsty and the relief felt after eating or drinking something. Sustaining pleasure, on the other hand, is the pleasure experienced in doing the activity itself which motivates one to continue doing the activity. For example, when looking at a beautiful painting, the pleasure one experiences sustains the activity of looking at and contemplating its qualities, complexities and feelings it evokes.

The Swing, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767), one of my favourite paintings that I think most people would agree is beautiful in the classical sense of the word. There is a distinct pleasure in looking at this painting that involves the eye moving around the canvas, appreciating the play of light, shadow and texture, as well as an intrigue towards the figures and the frivolous, romantic quality it evokes.

Relief pleasure is short lived, and because it is based on the fulfilment of a desire (ex. to not be hungry or thirsty) it is not disinterested and not aesthetic. On the contrary, sustaining pleasure is an open-ended activity with no further goal than enjoying and sustaining the pleasure one receives from it. It is disinterested in as much as the pleasure is derived from contemplating the object in itself, and so it speaks to an aesthetic experience of pleasure.

Consider the difference between drinking a glass of water or drinking a glass of wine. We drink water because we are thirsty and the pleasure we experience is in the relief of no longer being thirsty. After our thirst is quenched there is really no reason to drink more water (unless, of course, you are aesthetically engaging in the experience of its cooling, replenishing effect.). Do we drink wine in the same way, because we are thirsty? Or, do we drink wine to enjoy the pleasure of its unravelling aromas and flavours- sniffing, sipping, and swishing- taking our time and savouring each moment? Do we not enjoy sipping a glass of wine in the same way we might enjoy looking at a beautiful painting?

There is another key difference between water and wine in that each wine is unique. Yes, there are “water sommeliers” capable of dissecting and discerning individual qualities in different glasses of water, but for most of us any glass of water will do. This is not so for wine. Some spend hours, days, weeks, years even, learning about different types of wines, comparing different vintages and terroir, and choosing a wine based on its specific qualities.

In another part of the “A Very Short Introduction” series, Roger Scruton discusses beauty and the disinterested, aesthetic pleasure of contemplating an object deemed beautiful. He puts forward the idea that wanting something for its beauty is wanting it specifically and their can be no other substitute. The interest in that specific object has no other purpose than to contemplate it as it appears to us in experience. He argues that we call something “beautiful” when we draw pleasure from contemplating it for its own sake, setting personal interest aside as to attend more fully to thing in itself. Surely, we can make a similar claim about our interest in one particular wine.

And so, if an aesthetic experience, and the pleasure derived from it, is a contemplative one- it follows that the aesthetic experience of drinking wine is both a sensory and intellectual pursuit; a pleasure for the body and mind.

This is in no way a conclusive statement of mine, for there are still many doubts and questions to be answered. Can a pleasure ever really and truly be disinterested if we seek pleasure and avoid pain in order to improve the quality of our lives? Is disinterestedness a necessary requisite of any aesthetic experience to begin with- what about personal preference, prejudice and taste? I’ve nor read or understood nearly enough of Kantian philosophy to tackle these questions. Also, Roger Scruton has written “I Drink, Therefore I Am” which I have yet to read but will no doubt shed clarity on subject.

What remains for me is the belief that pleasure, sensations and the phenomenology of experience are worthy objects of contemplation and that the aesthetic experience of drinking wine is a window onto that world.

Sources:

Katz, Leonard D., “Pleasure”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://http://<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/pleasure/&gt;.

Nanay, Bence. “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2019.

Scruton, Roger. “Beauty, A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2008.

16 Comments

  1. As usual Danell you’ve given me a lot to think about with your deep insights into this topic. I have read all of I Drink Therefore I Am by Sir Roger, I even have it in Audible, several times, and yet find myself mystified as to whether I am personally at the sensory or intellectual end of aesthetics ……. if there is such a thing! I am certain however that my pleasure in drinking a wine is heavily loaded with more cognitive/memory than anything sensual. Within microseconds my brain has begun a comparative process, and one which makes comparisons with other styles of the same grape or type. For example, every chardonnay I drink sends signals to my brain and a comparison begins placing it on a scale related to a Chablis or a Meursault. My daughter does the same, her comparisons relate to Chablis and Puligny Montrachet. However, answering my own question maybe, I do sense whether malolactic or not, whether oaked or not, and which side of the river in Chablis based on minerality.
    But, back to your post, I wouldn’t personally use suffering vs pleasure as a “scale”, it’s the Buddhist in me, we use suffering vs well-being, but I don’t want to split hairs😂. I’ve listened to about 45 mins of the Scruton book on beauty so far and find it heavy going, but I’ll persevere. And ……. you’ve made me dive back into another book I have …… Questions of Taste, sorry, one more for your list.
    Great post, I’ll have to read it more times, but I’ll get there 🙏🙏

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    1. Like new knowledge brings the realisation of how much you don’t know, new books bring the realisation of how many you still have to read! I’m still working through these ideas, but it’s a start. I think that binary divisions such as pleasure/suffering and sensory/intellectual seem obvious on the surface, but if you look closer they are actually very difficult to separate. Pleasure in the hedonistic sense is not disinterested and could bring about suffering (bingeing), pleasure in a stoic sense is maybe closer to well-being, but you could do things that are good for your health for example that involve suffering (dieting, exercising), Kant seems to say that pleasure is sensory but talks about disinterested pleasure in the contemplation of the object in itself, which to me is intellectual curiosity- but it’s still unclear to me. In terms of sensory/intellectual there is the difference between top-down and bottom-up, as you’ve mentioned. I tend to approach wine tasting from the bottom-up, you from top-down, but can you really separate the two, or are they both working in a constant cycle? These are still unanswered questions for me, yet I think it’s safe to say that the pleasure in drinking wine is much more complex than the pleasure in drinking water, so it’s a start.

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      1. Certainly agree about the issue of pleasure in a stoic sense being closer to well-being, Epicurus and hedonism has been really misinterpreted in my opinion because he lived a simple life in “the garden” regarding most things …… except sex apparently! After I wrote the last comment I read the chapter on aesthetics in the Questions of Taste book I mentioned. Chapter by Tim Crane, and one of his points that has really got me thinking is the issue of Intrinsic Value vs Instrumental Value in aesthetics. First thoughts, I am personally at the Instrumental end of thinking because It’s Not About The Wine…… my real please comes from say, a glass of wine with friends or family at Chateau Vougeot surrounded by history ……… Discuss!

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      2. I’ve had to go do some research 😅 I was tempted to use a gourmet meal as an example of sustaining pleasure, but the painting was more fit for the purpose. Food (and wine) could be both relief and sustaining pleasure as it ends the state of hunger but we also enjoy the sensations of taste and smell which sustain the activity and motivate us to keep eating. I guess in a similar way you could say that relief pleasure has an instrumental value while sustaining pleasure has an intrinsic value- food and wine have both. Lots of things have both, like driving a nice car or getting a university degree- In fact education, and therefore knowledge, can have just as much an intrinsic value as an instrumental one (like knowing the truth is an end in itself). So, while drinking wine as a tool to gain knowledge about history, geography, philosophy, etc. has an instrumental value, I find it hard to believe you wouldn’t otherwise do it without a means to something else. Sure, drinking wine is a tool to enjoy company with friends more, but what happens when you drink alone? You could read about how terroir effects the wine, but there’s something that happens when you drink the wine and your senses recognise the terroir which is enjoyable in itself as an intrinsic value. What I’m trying to say is that there’s knowledge, both intrinsic/instrumental, and the lived experience, which I would have to say is a joy unto itself as an intrinsic value. (I haven’t read that chapter, so fill me in if I’m missing something.) Thoughts?

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      3. It’s taken me a whole day to think about your final question but …. I partly agree …. but would say that the experience itself is or has intrinsic value such as having a glass of Puligny Montrachet in that village at that time. But then it is stored in memory and becomes instrumental, when tasting other similar wines, as a comparator or reference point. Here’s one back …. the difference between an expert and a connoisseur?

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      4. Yes, I think we can both agree that it has both intrinsic and instrumental value. I imagine it’s a scale and we may attend more to one or the other without it being exclusive. By definition, an expert is one who knows a lot about a subject, a connoisseur is one who knows a lot about a subject of taste (art, music, wine) and can judge its quality/skill. Rather rudimentary, if you ask me, but definitions often are. The question of judgment interests me. If an expert may be used on a judges panel, to give advice, or to teach a course, they are instrumental to others while they may hold an intrinsic value themselves in the knowledge itself. A connoisseur, on the other hand, may have the same amount of knowledge, but it is knowledge for something, be it determining monetary value, giving prizes, or choosing what to invest in. Can an expert be a connoisseur? Can a connoisseur be an expert? I think yes, but with the element of judgement being intrinsic to (for lack of a better word) the connoisseur and not necessarily the expert. What remains is whether judgement has an intrinsic or purely instrumental value? Consider the critic (art, film, literature, wine, etc.)- what’s the difference between the critic, the expert and the connoisseur?

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      5. There’s a brilliant example in the Question of Taste book. Imagine someone who is an expert urine taster and can detect all of the elements related to possible diseases. Is he a connoisseur of ursine? 🤷🤷

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      6. 😂 ok, I don’t really want to imagine that, but I’ll give it a go. An expert urine taster could enjoy the knowledge intrinsically and enjoy being able to use that to detect possible diseases instrumentally, but it’s hard to imagine they would enjoy it aesthetically. A urine connoisseur would enjoy it aesthetically. So where does that leave us?

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      7. Nobody would be a urine connoisseur! But if it were possible scientifically someone could be a urine expert because they can detect at low thresholds many “elements”. Move on😂

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      8. Yes, but hypothetically if one WERE a urine connoisseur, they would approach urine aesthetically. So I retract my previous statement about judgement being intrinsic rather than incidental because you can have an aesthetic experience without aesthetic judgement. Moving on… for now. 🤐😂

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