A Standard of Taste

Aesthetic judgements and disagreements over questions of taste seem impossibile to avoid. We have an innate desire to express, and even defend, our opinions of things we encounter through the senses from paintings, to music, to film, to home furnishings, to wine. For as strongly felt as our opinions of these things can be, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile them with the variety of opinions, preferences and tastes of others. We continually agree to disagree on matters of taste because, simply put, how could anyone be wrong about what they experience. However, we do seem to agree that there is such a thing as good taste and bad taste.

If taste can be good or bad, excellent or terrible, than there must also be a way of measuring such a standard. But what purpose would a standard of taste serve other than to praise the worthy and condemn the misled in a matter that is so susceptible to personal preference and predilections? For one, it can help us discern a sound aesthetic judgement from an inconsistent or incoherent one. Secondly, it can serve as a guide to refining our own tastes and sensibilities.

Testing the Wine”, English School, 19th century

When it comes to wine, the novice tends to blindly trust the expert, often undermining their own experience and shying away from ever expressing their own opinion. As in most cases, when in doubt perhaps we should consult an expert, and there are justifiable reasons for why some should be relied upon more than others for sound judgements and advice on a given topic. That being said, the notion that there are right experiences and wrong ones when it comes to wine tasting and appreciation is a discouraging attitude and pompous sentiment. There may well be good, well-informed judgements and “bad”, inexperienced ones, but there can not be right or wrong experiences given the complexity and uniqueness of each of our individual minds.

An effective standard of taste would act as a rubric for evaluating, not the wine or aesthetic object of choice, but the fitness of the mind at work apprehending it. We could measure ourselves against it and address areas of weakness with the purpose of cultivating our own sense of taste and developing our faculties of critical reasoning, ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of aesthetic experiences.

Such a rubric does exist and it was written with this spirit in mind by British philosopher David Hume. “Of the Standard of Taste” is a seminal essay on aesthetics which is part of a collection of essays in “Four Dissertations”, published in 1757. In this essay, Hume proposes five requisites of an ideal critic which outline a set criteria to aspire to in refining one’s aesthetic palate and ability to make sound judgements on matters of taste. They are every bit as beneficial for the wine connoisseur as for the art lover.

David Hume, 1711 – 1776. Historian and philosopher”, Allan Ramsay, 1766

The first is really a pre-requisite, and it is the proper functioning of the mind and body, without which we are unable to rely on our senses for a comprehensive experience of the object. It is obvious enough that when you have a cold or a fever, your senses are dulled and you’re not able to detect all the aromas and flavours in the wine. However, Hume also emphasises the necessity of clear head, unhindered by stress or exhaustion,

“A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge… universal beauty.”

With a healthy body and tranquil mind, the first requisite is delicacy of taste. In this case, Hume actually compares the appreciation of art to that of wine by referencing a story in Don Quixote.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”, Cesare Detti (1848-1914)

“It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.”

One’s ability to identify every minute nuance of aroma and flavour in wine is analogous to the ability to detect all the subtle details in a work of art. Delicacy of taste is defined as a quick and acute perception of each distinct characteristic, no matter how small, which the observer can describe with exactness and precision. This “sensible eye”, or palate, is a fundamental part of enjoying the finest qualities of an aesthetic object to the fullest.

If it is true that delicacy of taste is a rare trait, Hume believes it is also true that we can develop our sensibility through practice, the second requisite. The first encounter one has with a work of art is often confusing and overwhelming, with the observer being unable to distinguish its separate parts from the whole and evaluate its merits or defects. However, the more you are exposed to art, the easier it becomes to dissect the multiple features in a work and judge the excellence of its execution in relation to others of its kind. The same can be said of wine, an experienced taster will have the necessary knowledge, awareness and sensibilty to identify aromas and flavours and determine the wine’s quality. Through practice you can gain a more refined palate able to perceive beyond the most palpable qualities as well as a strengthened degree of decrement to form an opinion with confidence.

Autumn: The Grape Harvest”, Francisco Goya 1786

But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.

The third requisite is the ability to form comparisons. Almost every work of art or glass of wine, no matter how poor, will have some redeeming quality if in nothing else than it is “interesting”. However, to give the highest praise to an object less deserving is an insult to the object of true beauty and perfection. In order to judge a wine as good or bad, even excellent, it’s necessary to contextualise it within the framework of the other wines one has had. Through forming comparisons it’s possibile to evaluate the merits and defects of a wine consistently and in proportion to the others of its kind, making your judgement more reliable and verifiable.

One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.

A sound judgement on the quality of an aesthetic object should be based solely on the observance and contemplation of the object within its rightful context and not on factors external to it. For this reason, the mind must be freed from prejudice, the fourth requisite. Our judgement of wine can be influenced by numerous factors such as habit, intimidation, fashion trends, mistrust, and even our mood. All of these influences have the power to taint our experience and are best avoided by anyone who has a sincere interest in deepening their understanding of wine’s complexities.

The Courtly Guest in the Wine Cellar”, Francesco Vinea (1845-1902)

“It is well known, that in all questions submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste: nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty.”

The fifth and final requisite is good sense. If reason and intellect are not necessarily essential qualities of a sensory experience, they are instrumental in evaluating any possible influence of prejudice or weakness in the other requisites. This sort of self-awareness allows us to be honest about our experience and honest with others. At the same time, developing one’s reasoning and critical sense leads to clear and comprehensive understanding. Good sense and sound judgement go hand in hand.

the same excellence of faculties which contributes to the improvement of reason, the same clearness of conception, the same exactness of distinction, the same vivacity of apprehension, are essential to the operations of true taste, and are its infallible concomitants.”

Distracted”, Joseph Lorusso 1966

All that being said, Hume certainly admits that variances of judgement are somewhat inevitable. Much of how we view the world is formed by our personal experiences, beliefs and attitudes and it’s nearly impossible to separate ourselves from them entirely. These five requisites, in their best light, don’t distinguish an elite group but rather set a standard of taste based on reason for us all to aspire to.

Click the link below to read David Hume’s “Of The Standard of Taste”

Of The Standard of Taste

12 Comments

  1. A very interesting post which requires more than one reading if one is to absorb all the information it contains, but I was equally taken with the illustrations you used, none of which I had come across before. I particularly liked the Joseph Lorusso one and I am now on a search to find some more of his paintings.

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    1. Thank you! I did consider trimming it down, but that’s not one of my strengths. 😅 I recently discovered Joseph Lorusso and I think his art is stunning, it really captures the beauty and melancholy of every day life in a quirky way. He’s got a great website showcasing his paintings if you just google his name. Thanks for stopping by! 🥂

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  2. An interesting post Danell. Hume has provided a great framework here. So much is based on our own perceptions and the lens of our own experiences. Sometimes too, people are reluctant to share a negative opinion especially when it comes to wine, and if is contrary to popular opinion. Coincidentally I posted (on Instagram) this morning about a wine I did not enjoy. I sometimes avoid negative reviews because it can impact a small business, however I do think it’s important to be honest. What are your thoughts on this? Or is it just a matter of taste and therefore better left unsaid?

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    1. That’s a good point, being nice and fitting in with popular opinion has its social benefits! I personally don’t tend to write negative reviews simply because if I didn’t find something praiseworthy than I wouldn’t spend the time to write about it. I guess it depends on who you’re writing for and why. If your intention is to promote a business you would obviously try to put it in the best light, if you’re writing to give advice to others on wines you would want to be more objective, and if you’re just writing about your own personal journey it could be anything- and I think you find all of those on social media. Hume sets out guidelines on how to make objective judgements on matters of taste and is very careful to separate sentiment, which I interpret to mean personal preferences, from judgements based on reason, logic and experience. Whether you like/don’t like something personally is more about you than the object in question, and it might be fun to talk about with friends, but it’s usually not that informative about the thing itself. Even though you can never fully get rid of your subjectivity, I think an effort to be objective produces more interesting insights which enhance your understanding and can change your perspective. For example, there’s so much more to art than “I like it” or “I don’t”. You can still gain a lot personally from experiencing a work of art that you don’t necessarily like. I’ll leave it there for now… but I think we can get pretty close to being objective and it’s worth the effort. What do you think? Is taste purely subjective?

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      1. You’ve given some great points to think about Danell. When it comes to taste, it is very much based on personal opinion. In the case of wine, our palates may be different and therefore perceive the flavours differently. However it goes far beyond both subjective and objective. If we dive even deeper into the experience we open up the emotional realm. This is a vantage point from which I write my wine posts. Subjectively we offer personal opinion, objectively we offer facts and realities, while sensing emotionally we begin to speak about energy. It is the same with art or any other experience. Moving beyond subjective and objective, we feel it. We feel the energy in the bottle of wine or in the artistry. It goes beyond description or what the eye sees, or the palate tastes. It becomes a feeling and energy. That is where the true beauty lives.

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      2. I do love reading your wine stories, they take me on a journey and they are certainly emotionally charged. Some think that the purpose of art is to move us and make us feel something. Aristotle saw art as a cathartic release, allowing us to experience a range of emotions that we might suppress or avoid in an overly rational world. So emotion is definitely a big part of the aesthetic experience. I would say that emotions are incredibly subjective though just because we all feel things in different ways and associate things based on our own personal experiences. That being said, they also allow us to relate to each other and connect. Perhaps wine tasting is such a powerful experience because it involves many layers, sensory, emotional and cognitive. Thank you for sharing your perspective! 🥂

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  3. Great post in some depth as usual Danell. I have only read bits and pieces of Hume, the 5 prerequisites are good ones and quite comprehensive …… covering all of the bases. I will always wonder though about the balance across those 5 points from person to person though, and the weighting between sensory input compared with comparative ability and knowledge for example. The example of the leather and metal key is a well known tale in wine circles and demonstrates Hume’s slant towards the sensory, as well as a quote of his “man is but a bundle of sensations…” or something like that. Despite the 250 years since Hume I’m not sure that there is any greater clarity about taste and aesthetic judgement or perception. He didn’t have access to modern analytical chemistry techniques, an understanding of neuroscience or brain chemistry, and yet all of his points occur in similar guises in Jamie Goode’s book “I Taste Red”. More and more I struggle with the concept of “good taste”, it’s definition and the qualities one must have to “be a person of good taste”. Constantly I return to asking “what are the qualities I need to measure in order to judge the quality of a wine” so that I can go beyond merely stating whether I like a wine or not. And then, when I think I have them, I realise that there is still a mass of subjectivity in my judgement because I as an individual still need a sensory input to form a judgement against those pre determined qualities. What enters my brain is conditioned by my own interaction with the wine ……. blind tasting in controlled conditions, or during a meal with friends, or sitting in a wine bar reminiscing about student days etc etc. As you know I don’t write this to disagree with anything you have written, it’s my usual increasing uncertainty about any of this! Which takes me back to a very famous quote of Francis Bacon!
    And …. great choice of images too, I’ll definitely be using a couple 👏👏🍷

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    1. If there’s been no greater clarity on matters of taste since Hume than you and I are in big trouble! 🤣 Delicacy of taste is certainly sensory, but it can be improved by practice, knowledge and forming comparisons. (In fact, I’m secretly convinced that your sensory abilities are not in bad shape at all, it’s more a question of language) I don’t think that sensory experiences are entirely subjective either, even if we all have different thresholds and make different associations from different sensations. There are still the facts and realities of the object itself, which means despite our subjectivity we can never fully depart or go to far astray from what’s actually in front of us. We all may experience the colour purple in a different way, but we can all agree it’s purple (unless you’re colour blind). By the same token, if I said that this glass of Chablis tasted like bacon, you’d probably burst out laughing. We may never agree on questions of preference, but we could reach a fairly strong consensus that is coherent and consistent with the type of wine in proportion to others. On a separate note, don’t you find it a bit ironic that I argue for the sensory and objectivity while you argue for cognition and subjectivity? 🤔🥂

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  4. To be honest I don’t think I could even have held a conversation about this topic a couple of years ago, and that’s down to three things; reading lots about the subject, thinking a lot about it whilst experience different wines in different environments and situations, and last but not least engaging with yourself.
    My comment about not moving on much since Hume’s day relates only to wine and is heavily influenced by reading I Taste Red. Jamie reviews lots of recent literature, neuroscience research studies, for example and suggests that it is well nigh impossible to “stop” the cognitive and memory effects as we take our first sniff of a wine. In my opinion …… we still really don’t know what is the most significant effect on our judgement of a wine when tasted under “normal conditions”, quite different from the sterile conditions of professional tastings.
    You are spot on about the irony of our respective positions ….. one of us trained in the arts and aesthetics arguing for sensory and objectivity, the other a highly educated scientist and qualified psychologist arguing for subjectivity and the memory aspect of cognition!
    I can’t resist advising you of another book, it’s very famous, and I read it in the late 80s in my second year of a psychology degree. It’s called “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”, by Oliver Sachs. It’s a series of short chapters, each a case study of a client with neurological problems that were connected to sensory perception. The stories are easy to understand, funny in parts, but heartbreaking as you put yourself in the place of the patient. It shows how much we rely on our senses, but how some quite common incidents can cause catastrophic sensory failure. Then there is the much more common incidence of anosmias and ageusias that affect people to such an extent that their ability to receive full sensory inputs when tasting a wine is severely reduced.

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