There’s Taste... Then There’s Taste

13 March 2019

Lots of us have tastes in music, movies, stories, or art—and we generally know what they are. I really enjoy depressive British sadcoms. One friend enjoys almost all political dramas. Another enjoys genuinely absurd, surreal horror films. A family member won’t watch anything that uses cartoon animation, and another can’t stand romantic comedies.


These groups of things we like tend to fall into genres: groups of movies, music, or other arts that have readily identifiable descriptive features in common. (This may not be accidental; maybe the reason we label the genre groups we do is that people who really like some members of one genre group tend to like other members of it as well.) This is partly what makes it useful to figure out which genres of movies, music, etc. you tend to enjoy. Knowing what you like in genre terms allows you to search through a relatively homogeneous category with some confidence that you’ll find something in that category to enjoy.


In a certain light, though, the fact that our tastes tend to fall along genre lines can look really remarkable. Is there really anything inherently better about sadcoms than the optimistic, colorful American comedies that I love to hate? (Sorry, Parks and Recreation, I’ll never get it.) The answer is probably ‘no.’ But then what explains my liking sadcoms so much? At best, my liking can look like a merely subjective reaction to something I recognize or identify with; at worst, it can look like an absurd fetishization of a certain kind of irony.


What these two interpretations have in common is the idea that my liking some members of a genre has purely subjective content. It’s either just blank, inexplicable joy in sadcom misery (which others may or may not share) or it’s a recognition of sadcom features as something that scratch a particular itch of mine—or both. It’s become a truism that there’s no explaining—and no disputing—these tastes. It would be just as silly to try and justify them as it would to justify my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla.


This basic thought has led a lot of philosophers to ignore genre-tracking tastes in studies of Aesthetic Value. Aesthetic Value (which I capitalize here in order to express its Very Serious Weightiness) is often thought to have aspirations beyond merely subjective likings. When you talk about “beautiful” or “great” works of art, you seem to be implying that they have such Aesthetic Value. And in doing that, you aren’t just saying that you like them. It seems like you are saying they have something in them to be appreciated. You are suggesting that others should appreciate them as you do. In more extreme cases, you might even suggest that others who don’t appreciate them as you do are mistaken or even defective in their faculties. (The classic source of this point is Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment.) There’s having taste, you might think, and then there’s Having Taste. The first is merely subjective, the latter of Great Weight (and perhaps even Genuine Objectivity).


Now, I think it is true that when you like many members of a genre you don’t necessarily think they have any real Aesthetic Value. But I do think philosophers are too quick to draw a sharp distinction between taste and Taste. There are all sorts of ways in which liking something, and thinking it has genuine Aesthetic Value, may be related. Here are just a few ways of thinking of the connection between subjective liking and judgments of Aesthetic Value:  


(A) Perhaps there is a feeling in common between cases in which you just simply like something, and cases in which you find something to have real Aesthetic Value. In this case, the common feeling might lead you to mistake some things you merely like for things with Aesthetic Value.


(B) Perhaps liking something in a merely subjective way is a way of attributing some form of Value to an object—but not necessarily Aesthetic Value, whatever that is. If so, what is this other kind of Value? It might be a special sort of value for each of the genres we care about; perhaps there is a standard of excellence inherent to period mysteries, and an entirely different standard of excellence inherent to experimental film noir.


(C) Perhaps liking something in a merely subjective way is to attribute Aesthetic Value to it, in some way. In this case, you might overvalue the things that belong to the genres you have a soft spot for. This might be something like a persistent perceptual illusion; you can’t help making this attribution of Aesthetic Value, but you can learn when to discount it, and to avoid recommending (e.g.) psychological thrillers to those who don’t themselves enjoy them.


(D) Perhaps there is an essential relationship between liking the works of art of a genre and the ability to judge their Aesthetic Value accurately. Liking (e.g.) British sadcoms revs up your attention, motivates a lot of consumption and comparison, and puts you in the position to draw subtle distinctions in form within exemplars of a genre. These abilities, it is often noted, are abilities that are themselves central to recognizing genuine Aesthetic Value. We often rely on expert testimony of critics to judge whether or not to go see a movie—perhaps we should also understand each of us as experts of limited kinds about specific genres of art. Far from overvaluing works in the genre you like best, then, you might be best placed to judge their Aesthetic Value.


It’s not obvious to me which of these views is most nearly right. Nor is it clear that these are the only options. But I think it’s worth teasing apart the options available to us when we think about the relationship between taste and Taste.


Comments (8)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 -- 1:43 PM

Taste is a funny thing, seems

Taste is a funny thing, seems to me. It may even be a manifestation of personal growth, over a lifetime or parts thereof. When I was much younger, I thought rock'n'roll was the best music going. Maybe that was just to drive parents crazy, or maybe it was a 'peer thing'. Probably a little of both. Later in life, I went through a blues period. The gritty sounds of earthy blues and the biting power of electric guitar solos are compelling---I still love all of that. But, I also listen to classical music. And jazz. I use to play. Now, writing is my intellectual outlet...Times and tastes change. Aesthetics? Yes, I suppose so. But, in many ways, I am still among 'the vulgar', as decried by Enlightenment philosophers. It's all good.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 15, 2019 -- 9:30 AM

This is a muddle... but I

This is a muddle... but I like it enough to put a value on it even if I find it an ugly muddle or so I am told. With that said (B) is the best of these 3 to put thought toward.

Taste is emergent, a special value greater than subjective value. First, we must put a name on something before we turn toward or away from it.

I don't like your talk of genre, groups or class. The first sentient being had no genre to rise above its sense of taste. Somehow this being emerged with taste intact. It may be useful to play with Google groups to find Sadcoms you have not yet become more depressed by. Past performance is, however, no guarantee of future depression. Aesthetic value is social. taste >>Taste - more fundamental and interesting and unfortunately ... much less interesting.

This post was interesting. This has given my day something to think about. Thanks.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 15, 2019 -- 9:41 AM

Three is the new four. There

Three is the new four. There ... I've made a muddle of it. Like it or leave it.

I wish PT would allow edit of comments until replies are made to them. It seems counter to the fundamental core of Philosophy - to get to the point... if there is one.

I choose (B) as best of the "four" with the hope that more choices are there to be found.


Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, March 18, 2019 -- 1:03 PM

Hi Tim,

Hi Tim,

Thanks for bringing our attention to the comment editing problem. I should be fixed now. Please let us know if it's still not working for you.


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, April 1, 2019 -- 9:01 PM

Laura... word to the wise.

Laura... word to the wise. Don't get me started... but I really appreciate your CMSing this in so quickly.

This is not exactly right however given the forum (IMO.) We can't let Cliff Clavin get away with a post reply edit when he's overstepped his bounds.

Replies should lock down the comments they are attached to once posted. This would promote discussion, one-upmanship and maybe some philosophy of sorts. Honestly, I have seen this work on other blogs to great effect, especially when coupled with a voting function a "hear hear" or "hush hush" along with a moderation report button (which was on this site but I don't see it now.)

I'd send this to you directly but I don't see your email on the site. Here are a few other ideas which you didn't ask for...

There should be a sideboard with recent comments along with a link to the post.
We should have email/text notification when someone replies to your comment (I prolly would have gotten back sooner with that.)
Private messaging is a can of worms but a tasty one when done with the right amount of user control (ie being able to block nuisance posters "like me!"
It sounds like you are possibly dabbling with this... - people get into this point votey thing even when it means absolutely nothing. Sometimes a simple up or down vote is all that is required instead of heavy philosophizing.

You get a thumbs up for your work btw.

because it's happening...

EDIT: I just edited this for punctuation. Word to the wise... be careful what you ask for... now I'm going to be held to a higher standard. At least I don't have to re-post.

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