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Matters of taste: Subjective or absolute?


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In the context of such a consensus, I think it's appropriate to say that someone who argues that Olive Garden makes superior Italian cuisine to - I don't know - Babbo really is just wrong (by and large, ignoring exceptional experiences).  In other words, they are not expressing a valid opinion in the context of that consensus [this is where Quine comes back in], because for it to be valid, you'd have to overturn the whole structure of evaluation of pasta and sauces and flavors and so on.

But that consensus about the 'correct' way to evaluate Italian food is only one of many. Those who like al dente pasta and lamb's tongues will prefer Babbo to Olive Garden. But the consensus among those who value the bland and the bountiful will be that OG is superior. I don't see how one can claim that "Babbo is a better restaurant than OG" means anything more than "Babbo is preferred by the sort of people who like restaurants like Babbo more than they like restaurants like OG".

Yeah, but saying that Babbo makes better Italian cuisine than Olive Garden and saying that Babbo is a better restaurant than OG aren't the same thing.

 

Whee! Drive-by semantics!

 

c

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So basically the main problem here is that "better" wrt to restaurants (or art or whatever) is not well-defined. I don't see how it can be.

 

edit: should read more before I respond, I see gj got there first.

 

"better" at what? at fulfilling the needs of its patrons, or at doing what they might both claim to do: making fine italian food? if in the first meaning of "better" it's easy to see that circular argumentation of the sort "Babbo is preferred by the sort of people who like restaurants like Babbo more than they like restaurants like OG" will turn up. if in the second meaning, some rather objective criteria might be used. like matters of balancing flavours, textures, colours and all that jazz. and indeed, some are more trained at judging such matters than others :lol:

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This is basically Hume, no? The problem with that for me has always been rather unclear how the consensus of the cognescenti is established. He has some lovely flowery analogy about how a 'gentleman' might prefer Byron in his youth and Milton in his maturity (or substitute simliar poets) but that if they know anything, they'll basically all believe the same thing in the end. That consensus looks awfully fragile to me....

 

Especially now actually - it seems to me that historically consensus judgement and the canonization that goes along with it was far easier than it is now - the total inability of most writers on the arts to come to any agreement whatsoever as to what consitutes the future 'great' art is pretty unprecedented in my understanding.

 

I do disagree with that, but it probably deserves its own thread. I would say, however, that it's wrong to overlook the incalculably large common ground shared by writers on the arts and focus on specific areas of disagreement. You know infinitely more than I about current aesthetic debates in music, for example, but one surely has to start from the point that the merit of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is pretty well-established - not really very controversial. And it is the task of a theory of judgment to explain why that is the case.

 

But that consensus about the 'correct' way to evaluate Italian food is only one of many. Those who like al dente pasta and lamb's tongues will prefer Babbo to Olive Garden. But the consensus among those who value the bland and the bountiful will be that OG is superior. I don't see how one can claim that "Babbo is a better restaurant than OG" means anything more than "Babbo is preferred by the sort of people who like restaurants like Babbo more than they like restaurants like OG".

 

But you do have to acknowledge the existence of expertise. I remember having this argument with Lord Mike a long while back: one shouldn't overlook the fact that people are teachable. People who prefer Olive Garden to a more serious Italian restaurant (Babbo, if you like) can (in general) be taught to appreciate the superior merits which Italian cuisine offers. I don't think you could take Robert Schonfeld (for example) and teach him to like Olive Garden.

 

Pick another analogy. Someone whose experience and enjoyment of wine runs to Zinfandel blush can be taught to appreciate finer wines. Wouldn't work the other way around - which is what your argument assumes.

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People who prefer Olive Garden to a more serious Italian restaurant (Babbo, if you like) can (in general) be taught to appreciate the superior merits which Italian cuisine offers. I don't think you could take Robert Schonfeld (for example) and teach him to like Olive Garden.

Some people, certainly. Those who are predisposed (for some reason) to like Babbo. But I imagine there are those whom you will never persuade. Equally, I suspect that there are those who love Babbo who could be persuaded of the merits of Olive Garden's food if you disguised its provenance.

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But you are scrabbling around for anomalies. The fact is that Babbo would be (almost) universally preferred to Olive Garden by people with expertise in Italian cuisine (or, in fact, cuisine in general).

 

The "Oh come on, it's just a matter of personal preference" approach has an air of robust common-sense about it. In fact, it's a terribly difficult position to defend. In the current example, it lacks any account of why preferences for Babbo or Olive Garden are not randomly distributed, both among "experts" and "tourists", but rather follow a very solid and predictable pattern.

 

It is even more difficult if one reverts to aesthetic examples. Someone might say that the Western canon in literature is under challenge. Fine. But what about the canon itself? How has it come to be very securely established that authors like Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and George Eliot have produced work of greater merit than Rider Haggard, R.D. Blackmore and Ouida. The "just a matter of personal preference" theory should surely predict a more or less random scatter of opinion.

 

No - the fact is that we are able to evaluate things - dishes, books, pictures - according to merit. Given that merit cannot be deduced from factual descriptions, we need an account of how that is possible. "My" account, in terms of an evolving critical consensus - may not be perfect, but I don't think it's as lacking in explanatory value as the "personal preference" position.

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A majority opinion is still only an opinion.

 

One thing that I found surprising is the high correlation between the average film review score on Metacritic and the reviews from viewers (of course, this could also mean that viewers who agree with the critics are more likely to post comments there...). So even though the opinion of the critics is just an opinion, it is useful as a decision making tool. (although in practice it is largely ignored, as the box office numbers for some very very poor films)

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"(O)nly an opinion..." Emphasis added. A lot seems to hang on that "only". And it depends what you mean by it. If you mean that the superior merit of, say, Milton as opposed to William Morris, as an epic poet, is an opinion rather than an empirical fact, then I am the first to agree with you.

 

However, if this a stalking horse for the position that the opinion of an unliterary ten year old, unschooled in the subject, is just as valid as the opinion of the members of the world's English faculites, then you have all the problems I indicated early - in particular, that it seems to follow that "education" is a meaningless concept.

 

Majority/minority is a red herring. I was pointing out not that, ina show of hands by English professors, Milton beats Morris. I was pointing to the fact that there is a systematic pattern of reasoned opinion to that effect, which the "just a preference" theory does nothing to explain.

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Majority/minority is a red herring. I was pointing out not that, ina show of hands by English professors, Milton beats Morris. I was pointing to the fact that there is a systematic pattern of reasoned opinion to that effect, which the "just a preference" theory does nothing to explain.

 

Agreed, however, the issue is not only that there is a consensus, but how that consensus is formed. The fact the the majority of the 'reasoned English professors' have studied with the majority of the previous generation of 'reasoned English professors' is surely germane here - values are perpetuated through repetition. This is difficult ground, because Milton is as clearly good stuff to me as it is to all of them, but that formation and perpetuation of consensus - whether informed (and I do absolutely agree that is significant) or not - doesn't necessarily entail the innate quality of the thing in question. Instead it could be the result of other factors that play favorably to the 'judges' - sympathy with political viewpoint (clearly relevant to Milton), teachability (I've certainly chosen weaker pieces as exemplars because they are useful to teach and my students might go on to believe they are masterpieces....) and so on.

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I am happy to concede all that, and that there's a whole complex sociological aspect to the evolution of the consensus.

 

Nevertheless, the kernel of the matter - as I think you acknowledge - is that Milton is clearly good. Very good. I think we really just don't believe that the coalescence of critical approval around Shakespeare and Milton in English literature, or around Bach and Mozart in music, and so on, is a phenomenon independent of the merit of the works in question - which is a consequence, intended or not, of the "just a preference" theory.

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I think we really just don't believe that the coalescence of critical approval around Shakespeare and Milton in English literature, or around Bach and Mozart in music, and so on, is a phenomenon independent of the merit of the works in question - which is a consequence, intended or not, of the "just a preference" theory.

Your use of the word 'merit' stacks the deck. Clearly, the critical approval of Milton is something to do with what is in Milton. And equally clearly, people of a certain background (which includes a 'good' education) usually prefer Milton to Morris. However, it does not follow that Milton is intrinsically better than Morris.

 

I think, too, you misinterpret what you misleadingly call the "just a preference" theory. To argue that such matters are a matter of personal preference is not to say that preferences cannot be altered by experience.

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Your use of the word 'merit' stacks the deck. Clearly, the critical approval of Milton is something to do with what is in Milton. And equally clearly, people of a certain background (which includes a 'good' education) usually prefer Milton to Morris. However, it does not follow that Milton is intrinsically better than Morris.

 

Well, let's unpack that. In simple terms, people educated in certain relevant respects (generally) "prefer" Milton to Morris, and they do so because of some aspect of the content of Milton's poems.

 

1. If we wish the decks unstacked, then delete "prefer". It misrepresents my point, in any case. Regardless of what they individually "prefer", I think English faculty professors will (generally) tell you that Milton is a superior epic poet to Morris, and give reasons why.

 

2. What aspect of the content of the poems is relevant here if it is not merit? Or literary quality. Label it as you wish. It isn't the number of words beginning with "h". Once you agree we must look inside the poems, we are looking, surely, at how good they are.

 

3. The whole thrust of my argument is against the notion of "intrinsic" or "innate" merit. That's why I deploy the concept of an evolving critical consensus.

 

I think, too, you misinterpret what you misleadingly call the "just a preference" theory. To argue that such matters are a matter of personal preference is not to say that preferences cannot be altered by experience.

 

But not for the better, I think you'd have to say. In other words, coming to appreciate Babbo through learning about Italian cuisine, and losing one's taste for Olive Garden, would be to swap one preference for another of equal validity. So I think that theory does give up on the whole concept of education (in the field of value judgments, at any rate). Or to pick another example, taking a wine appreciation course would be a somewhat irrational thing to do, as those who understand and enjoy vintage Burgundy are no better situated with regard to their tastes than those who revel in Blue Nun. (Again, one would like to see an account of why people can't be educated out of Burgundy and into Blue Nun.)

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