Saturday, May 17, 2008


Jonathan Mayhew has some sharp thoughts about "taste" here:

The mystery of taste is not why we don't like the same things, but why we ever correspond at all. If taste is subjective, then there's no reason two people would ever agree. So there has to be something in the object itself. It's not just that we like Mozart because we're told it's supposed to be great: the response is genuine.

This reminded me of some claims I made in an essay I think I have linked to before:

Taste is not an individual matter; the idea that "there's no arguing about taste" is backwards: there is only arguing about taste. In fact, tastes are the communal result of argument: our "individual" tastes only develop within a context of differing tastes in which each of us confronts others with our response to works.


Donald Brown said...

I don't take Mayhew's point: "if taste were subjective then there's no reason two people would ever agree." That doesn't follow. That's saying that people can only agree on what is objectively true. But that's false too. Many people don't agree on whether or not something is objectively true (if you doubt this: today in the mail I got a leaflet for a book that claims the universe is geocentric).

So if there's no reason why people would agree on subjective judgments, there's also no reason why they wouldn't. We'd be dealing with statistics. A random sample of people (like your Poetry Daily quiz): how many feel one way, how many another. There's only seven choices, so there's going to be some "agreement" even if everyone has a different subjective reason for his or her choice.

I like your point better, that taste is made by contention over judgment. The only thing that has to be objectively true is that x holds this or that opinion.

Kant said only that we recognize the beautiful because it satisfies some sense we have (no one would disagree) but he also insisted that this sense was rational. Some disagree with that. But, if it is rational, then it can be persuaded by argument, and so there's no fixed taste but only dispute about taste. Why I like making my opinionated comments on the poems: because that's how I know what fits my taste and what doesn't.

Paul Gibbons said...

I'm a late-comer (and lurker) to the argument on "taste," but it seems one that's similar to discussing "significance" or "value." I like your point -- taste coming more from the outside influences. I wonder, though, id there any other stance besides that of "confront[ing]"?

Andrew Shields said...

I wish I had more people voting on the PD project this time around; then I would trust the statistics!

Donald Brown said...

What would it mean to trust the stats? Is there something the votes are supposed to prove?

Andrew Shields said...

If I had forty or more regular voters, and they produced relatively clear results, I would not say that means that the overall winning poem must be great, but it would mean that it "resonates" with a lot of people and hence must have some effective qualities.

By "relatively clear results" I mean a clear winner (by three or four votes) in most weeks, and then a clear winner (or top two or three) in the final vote.

That's what I'd like to be having, but I am enjoying it even with my regular dozen or so voters.

Donald Brown said...

I see, yeah, I've noticed that the winner is sometimes by a very minor margin and it seems there have been few winners with more than 4 votes. Not exactly runaway popularity for any given poem.

But I've always been skeptical about the statistical approach to greatness; it seems too equivalent to the 'box office' or 'best seller' version of success. It seems in most things, the more people who like it, the less interested I am.