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Philosophy and wine: 
from Science to Subjectivity

Jamie Goode's Report on a one-day meeting held on Friday 10th December 2004, organised by the Philosophy Program of the School of Advanced Study, London University (http://www.sas.ac.uk/Philosophy/Wine.htm)

Part 1: Roger Scruton's paper - Philosophy and the Intoxicating Properties of Wine

‘Philosophers have probably drunk more than their fair share of wine’, observed Roger Scruton in the introduction to his paper, ‘but they haven’t had their fair share of the words written about it’. This was a good way to begin this conference on philosophy and wine, which gave three well regarded academic philosophers a chance to begin to redress the balance. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be reviewing the presentations and discussing some of the issues that were raised at this one-day meeting.

Scruton’s opening paper concentrated on the philosophy of intoxication. He began with two questions. First, he asked whether there is a single phenomenon of intoxication: is something different about the intoxication induced by wine, or is it the same as that induced by cannabis or whisky? Then he asked whether intoxication was something that philosophers should be exploring. Is intoxication a ‘natural kind’, i.e. something that can be wholly explained in scientific terms? If so, this leaves philosophers nothing to say on the subject.

While science can explain the physiology of the drunken state, Scruton argued that there is more to intoxication than just drunkenness. His idea is that the experience of drinking wine is intoxicating in itself quite separately from the physiological effects of the alcohol it contains. So, when we ask about intoxication, we are indeed asking a philosophical question. We can’t make a direct causal connection between the state of intoxication and the wine itself.

Scruton used the analogy of the excitement of a football fan to illustrate the relationship between intoxication and wine. The excitement of the fan watching his/her team play (or in the case of Manchester City fans like myself, the state of nervous anxiety and then utter depression) is caused by the football match, but isn’t a definable physiological condition. ‘Intoxication induced by wine is also directed at the wine in the same way that the excitement of a football match is directed towards the game’, says Scruton. But it is impossible to make a direct link from the game of football to the state of excitement in the fan.

He then considered the relationships between our different senses. Thomas Aquinas famously distinguished the cognitive senses of sight and hearing from the ‘non-cognitive’ senses of taste and smell, a division that Scruton thinks is still helpful today. He distinguishes, on this basis, the sensory and aesthetic pleasures. ‘The taste of wine is sensory; poetry is intellectual’, he states. Intoxication is considered sensory and not aesthetic. Along similar lines, he posits that, ‘A visual experience is a representation of reality, whereas taste and smell are not like that’. This is reflected in the difference between cogent accounts of paintings and the imprecision of winespeak. ‘Tastes are not representations of the objects’.

Then we are led to consider some deeper, more profound aspects of intoxication by wine. ‘Intoxicating drink is a symbol of and a means to achieve an inward transformation’, says Scruton. ‘From ancient times wine has been allotted a sacred function. It enters the soul of the person drinking it’. Thus wine takes on a significant role: as we drink it, it becomes part of us in a special way.

To emphasize the special nature of wine, Scruton makes a four way classification of kinds of stimulant.

(1) Pleases us but doesn’t alter the mind. 
(2) Alters the mind but gives no pleasure. 
(3) Alters the mind and pleases us. 
(4) Alters the mind by the act of pleasing us.

An example of (1) would be tobacco, which has some mental effects but doesn’t alter the mind. The pleasure is connected with the mental effects. (2) Is illustrated by drugs which we swallow whole purely for their effect; we take no pleasure in the drug ingestion process itself, but take the drug purely for its effect. (3) These are stimulants that are mind altering but which give pleasure in their taking, such as cannabis or alcohol. Class (4) includes wine, where it is in the act of drinking that the mind is altered.

Alcohol in general and wine in particular has a unique social function. Many of the social contexts we have devised are aimed at limiting consumption, by controlling the rate of intake. The buying of rounds of drinks in the pub and the circulation of wine at the dinner party are examples of this, and they mirror the Greek symposium.

‘The qualities that interest us in the wine reflect the social order of which we are a part’, says Scruton. Wine is not simply a shot of alcohol. At its heart is the transformation of the grape in fermentation. The transformation of the soul under its influence is a continuation of this: the Greeks described fermentation as a ‘work of God’. This is reinforced by the concept that the human skill in this process is the skill of husbandry: we aren’t actually ‘making’ the wine. Indeed, Scruton asserts that the goal of good winemaking is to ensure that the alcoholic content doesn’t escape from the wine but remains part of it.

Truth is an important component of wine. Its effect is present and revealed in the flavour, and thus wine has a quintessential honesty. There is ‘truth in wine’, but this is truth for others, and not for ourselves: as we drink wine each of us reveals more of ourself to others; we talk more, and more openly. Wine is quite unlike other mind-altering drugs which are dishonest in nature, because they claim to elevate the perception of the user such that the user enters a transcendental realm. These drugs lie to use because they tell us about another world outside our own. Instead, wine tells us about the true world; the one we live in, revealing more about it. Wine, when drunk in company, leads to an opening out of the self to others.

Scruton also touched on the importance of the concept of ‘terroir’. In ancient cultures the production of wine resulted from a settled occupation of a patch of land. To plant vines signalled a sense of permanence about a location, and thus was a significant activity in the life of a community. By savouring wine we are ‘knowing’ something about the history and geography of a community. The association of a wine with a particular place means that the name of a place is, according to Scruton, the best and most reliable description of that wine.

So, some interesting ideas and concepts are raised here. In particular, I like the idea of wine as a ‘virtuous intoxicant’, to use one of Scruton’s terms. According to his view there is something special and unique about wine; it isn’t like other drinks. As an indirect support of this idea, the consistent and long-standing role of wine in culture and religion, which he chronicles in his paper, does suggest that this is a unique substance. Following through on Scruton’s ideas, if we feel there is substance to his claims then we need to bear them in mind in discussions about ‘naturalness’ of wine and notions of terroir – both subjects of intense current debate in the wine world. In the question and answer session, someone asked about Australian wine, and how it fits with these sorts of ideas. ‘Australian wine is a big problem’, admits Scruton. ‘Here is a landscape that has been dragged from hunter gatherer to farmer in 100 years; it is not yet a properly settled landscape. Settlement has come from outside as an act of conquest. This does affect the wine’, he suggests. ‘This is why Australians haven’t built a goût de terroir into their wines in the same way that the French have.’ Some thought-provoking and controversial ideas.    

The philosophy of wine

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