profiles of taste

Reading Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun, a passage on taste prompted the idea that taste has a peculiar aspect to it that vision does not: taste lacks adumbrations or profiles. Of course, it has depth and complexity. Just think about the way a sommelier will describe the flavor of a specific wine: he or she will identify the qualitative identity or style of the wine. When you taste a mouthful of wine, you taste the whole of the wine. In fact, when you and another person taste the same wine, you are both tasting the entirety of the wine. It is not the same physical bit of liquid that you taste; the liquid that touches you rather than another person gives you a different profile of the liquid as such, which must be divided and shared. The taste, however, cannot be divided: it is shared, but paradoxically shared at once in its entirety.

Vision cannot apprehend the object in its entirety in a glance. Merleau-Ponty tells us that we perceive things, not profiles of things. Our body knows that when it sees the front of a cup, the back of the cup is there too; the cup can be picked up. But of course we do not see the back of the cup, we apperceive it. The existence of the back of the cup can be confirmed by turning it around or circumnavigating the object. That is, we can build up the complete cup through the series of profiles it presents to vision. Moreover, two persons cannot see the same profile simultaneously. Taste, by contrast, cannot be built up from its profiles and can be experienced by a multiplicity of persons simultaneously. The fact that when we speak about seeing ‘the whole cup’ through one of its profiles we are equivocating with the term ‘seeing’ sheds light on the the way in which we literally taste the whole wine when it is in the mouth. Apperception is absent in taste.

All of the talk of profiles and adumbrations in phenomenology seems to pertain mostly, if not exclusively, to the visual realm (although touch seems to be adumbrated as well, but also to present phenomenal aspects absent from vision). Or rather, profiles pertain only to the formal aspects of objects, not their quality. The qualitative life of objects cannot be incorporated in the framework of adumbrated objects, but it nevertheless pertains to those objects. Perhaps what has been said about taste here is true of the sensation of color, too.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
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3 Responses to profiles of taste

  1. oftheevent says:

    The only thing that I could offer to you as an instance of apperception with respect to taste would be the following, which may not be quite what you’re looking for. A sommelier, as you rightly mentioned, whether for wine or beer, is able to discern the complexity and depth of the beverage. There are different flavor profiles that arrive and depart at different times as one tastes the whole wine or beer when it’s in the mouth. This, I agree is one aspect of it. Another that seems a bit more interesting, and closer to apperception, is the theory behind pairing or progression. The same wine will taste different depending on what it is paired with, in the case of the former, and it will also taste different depending on what wine or beer one had before the present offering. In the case of beer, you would start with the lighter lager or pilsner before moving on to an IPA, because if you did it the other way, the lager or pilsner would have no flavor as it follows up the stronger IPA. What’s interesting is that once one knows these dynamics of the beverage, they become something like the back side of the beverage. It’s in there; the lager or pilsner is capable of having no flavor as its flavor profile, but only if it is tasted after certain things, and if it is tasted first, one would be hard pressed to taste this tastelessness in it. Yet I’m not entirely sure if this hits the mark of adumbrations in the same way as vision.

  2. plasticbodies says:

    pat, i think this takes things in a different direction, and strangely coincides with phenomena i was reading about in james’s chapter on sensation in the principles, vol. 2. these are the phenomena of ‘successive contrast’ and ‘simultaneous contrast’. each of these describes the way in which the sensory content of visual images is effected by what we have just looked at (in the case of successive contrast) and what surrounds the focal image (simultaneous contrast). james says of simultaneous contrast that ‘a bright object appears still brighter when its surroundings are darker than itself, and darker when they are brighter than itself’. we all know this because we’ve experienced it.

    what you were describing about beer pairing is closer to successive contrast, which james says is linked to the ‘fatigue’ of the organ involved in sensing. the organ responds ‘to any particular stimulus less and less readily the longer such stimulus continues to act’. it would seem that the same kind of fatigue, or something like it, would be at play in beer tasting. i’m not sure if there is anything like taste bud fatigue, but if there is, then perhaps this is what explains the diacritical experience you describe in the lager, pilsner, ipa series.

  3. oftheevent says:


    I’m in the process of reading Augustine’s ‘On the Free Choice of the Will’ and he provides something that may be of interest in book two, chapter 4. There he addresses the differences between the various senses. Oooh, Augustine.

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