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.
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.
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/>.
Nanay, Bence. “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Scruton, Roger. “Beauty, A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2008.