Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sense and Sensibilities (distinguishing and discriminating)

When discussing such things as taste, discrimination and discernment, there is always a risk of sounding elitist.  It's an occupational hazard in the arts. But, as I hope to show, this is due to two quite different ways in which we are capable of responding to experiences, one of which we all have access to, whilst the other has to be learned.

"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." —David Hume (1757)

It could be said that an art school education is largely directed towards the cultivation of sensibilities, to the sharpening and refinement of tastes and to the subtleties and nuances of method, media and process. In order for us to become conversant with and to develop our appreciation of the fine details and qualities of experience it is often necessary to attend closely to the minutiae of sensations and to form distinctions between subtly different materials, gestures, expressions etc. But does this skill emerge through sensory experience alone or do language, and the distinctions that language enables, play a vital part in what Hume called "the delicacy of taste"? He writes: "Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact, as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste."

Hume observes that our first experiences of things are often "obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects." But as experience increases, "The organ [of taste] acquires greater perfection in its operations; and can pronounce, without danger or mistake, concerning the merits of every performance." But if it is the case that experience and exacting discrimination are sufficient to explain this skill then we are left with an unsettled question: do animals develop a delicacy of taste through experience also? And if experience and fine discriminatory capacities are fundamental to a delicacy of taste then old dogs and innumerable other mature animals must possess sensibilities that far exceed our own.

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues published the results of several frequently cited studies which explored the relationships between feelingful or “affective” judgements and verbal criteria. In the most famous of these studies test-subjects were asked to rank a selection of 5 jams in order of quality. The average rankings determined by these novice jam tasters turned out to be fairly closely correlated with rankings determined by expert jam tasters. Another group of novice jam tasters were also asked to take the test but in this case they were asked to make a note of the reasons for their judgements before ranking each jam. In this case the average rankings were significantly unlike those of the expert tasters.

Wilson et al conclude that what differentiates novices from experts is that novices have not yet integrated their affective states into a conceptual system, with the consequence that their attempts to verbalise their feelings fail to do them justice. Experts, on the other hand, have a much more stable grasp of their conceptual system and the ways this describes and frames their underlying affective states.

What this research reveals is that experience alone is insufficient for the development of our sensibilities. No matter how many jams I try - and I like jam a lot - I'll never become an expert simply by triggering my affective states, by tasting my way. What makes the crucial difference is my capacity to structure and articulate my feelings through language. 

Savouring a sensation then, can be thought of in two quite different ways. We can prolong an experience by deliberately lingering over it - sustaining and consolidating the associated feelings. Or we can contemplate an experience by carefully distinguishing between its component parts. This would be impossible if not for the categories and concepts of language. The ability to discriminate, on the other hand, is enabled by our sensory capacities, capacities that we share, though obviously to differing degrees of resolution and acuity, with other animals. 

Sensibilities, it turns out, are what language enables us to derive from the affective responses of sensory discrimination - from our senses. Without language we might still be able to savour our sensations but we would be unable to contemplate them. Not only is contemplation linguistically derived, it is also inherently social, precisely because of these linguistic roots. Perhaps this is why much of the most memorable and pleasurable savouring is that which is shared.

"No pleasure has any savor for me without communication." —Michel de Montaigne


Post a Comment