Carolyn Korsmeyer – Making Sense of Taste (1999)

A more or less empirical approach to the gustatory aspects of taste, with the modest goal of establishing taste as “worthy of philosophical inquiry.” Some of the most interesting themes include the play between inside and outside (with regard to the human body’s boundaries), distance and proximity (with regard to the “aesthetic object”), subject and object (with regard to direction of sensual faculties and objective properties), separation and combination (first assigned to vision the latter assigned to taste), the hierarchy of the senses, the role of gender with regard to this hierarchy, the importance of the everyday (especially with regard to still life painting), and the importance of narrative as a frame understanding food as a process linked to community building and subject formation (though the last goes drastically under-developed).

Chap 3, “The Science of Taste,” notes that eating employs gustatory, olfactory and haptic sensations in a sequence that contain its own narrative of satisfaction (82). Argues, “The description of taste as a sense that directs attention inward and not outward betrays a fixation with the pleasure of the sense and ignores its cognitive dimensions and its roles in discovery and identification” (99). Instead, she claims, “taste points inward and outward simultaneously…its mode of operation requires that its objects become a part of oneself” (101).

Chap 5, “Visual Appetite,” reads a series of paintings, mostly still-lifes, from The Lady with the Unicorn (as progression from sensual experience of world to one in which the senses are transcended in the fifth panel—which means a renunciation of the passions) to the Dutch school (the triviality of the subject material highlights the ephemerality of the terrestrial—things are often decaying—but also the worthiness of the everyday for artistic representation) to Cezanne (in which fruits are decontextualized from nutritive function and forcefully made into aesthetic objects).


Chap 6, “Narratives of Eating,” reads the dinner scene in To the Lighthouse as a moment of alternative cognition—spurred on by food. Curiously, she forgets that Bourdieu wrote about such ordering scenes, having taken care of his critique early on. Unfortunate.

In general, Korsenmeyer cannot let go of the cognitive function as the central ordering faculty of taste and eating. She ignores the potential for things like body memory, or really any sort of Phenomenology (as conceived in the Husserlian tradition in France) of taste and digestion. A useful historical resource but ultimately unsatisfying. Also, her readings of art and literature are under-developed, mainly ways of exposing the persistence of certain historical prejudices against or for sensual cateogries.

Great bibliographic resource:

Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California, 1993)

Roland Barthes, “Reading Brillat-Savarin,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986)

Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Tranformative Philosophies of Food (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992)

Luc Ferry, Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age, trans. Robert de Loazia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Voltaire, “Goût” in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie

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