Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meeting Questionable Standards in 1757

Did I mention that the year 1757 –– the same year that this conflict between Mr. Colebrooke and Lord Chesterfield went down –– was kind of a big deal in the history of "taste" among philosophers?

(For readers just catching up, my last post outlined a controversy within the Thursday's Club over the question of "wit" as an adequate criterion for honorary membership.)

For Hume, food was always
an apt metaphor
(Can't you tell?)
First, in 1757, David Hume penned his famous essay "Of the Standard of Taste," which likened the art of flavor detection to that of aesthetic judgment.  Both of these faculties, according to Hume, operated in the same way:  

Wherever 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, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense....

Gustatory taste, for Hume, was a particularly apt example of aesthetic taste: our faculty of judgment.  But virtually on Hume's heels came the publication of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.
If sweet was beautiful, what
tasted sublime?

Does anyone out there in the republic of bloggers happen to know what Edmund Burke's favorite food was?  The Enquiry makes him out to be quite the sugar fiend.  Indeed, "sweetness," in Burke's opinion, was "the beautiful of the taste."

But Burke didn't hold much confidence in our tongues.  After all, he asked, how can we really quantify the quality of our taste?  Do we truly enjoy the flavor of foods in of themselves, or do we simply enjoy the sensation of feeling full?  Do we really like the taste of opium?  Or do we like how it makes us feel?  Depending on our unique physiological constitutions, the sense of taste could be relentlessly subjective.  

Did the members of the Thursday's Club draw upon either of these ideas when it came to the subject of Lord Chesterfield and his witty letter?  As I write this, I'm still not sure.

For it seemed like Colebrooke's biggest bone to pick with Chesterfield was not whether a "standard of wit" could be devised.  Why of course it could!  (Guess he wasn't much of a skeptic.)  Instead, he appears more concerned about what the antiquarians of the future would think.

"The great difficulty and labour under is, how this minute may be interpreted by some future philosopher  into whose hands this manuscript may possibly fall ... when a higher entertainment is offered to our understandings, unless the ingredients that compose it are specified, posterity will be at a loss, to know whether this petition etc was not a name given to some new dish of that nobleman's invention..."

It's always comforting to know that even 250 years ago, someone was expecting that I would come along and try to explain the wheelings and dealings of this club to the entire blogosphere.  But I don't really know whether Colebrooke, by saying this, is merely rationalizing a dislike for the Earl of Chesterfield.  If he's so concerned about posterity, what aspect of the club's prestige is he trying to protect?