A Note on Subjectivity

subjectivity coffee perceptionThis blog post will look at a significant issue for coffee lovers, especially those who love speciality coffee. In places it is very theoretical, to the point of being philosophical, but it has practical implications.

The problem is familiar to all who have ever tried to convince a friend that they should try coffee x, rather than their substandard coffee y. The conversation might go something like this:

“Why do you always drink instant coffee? It’s much worse than my expensive/well-made/better-tasting coffee.”
“Taste is subjective, I’ll drink what I like.”

The standard response at this point is to admit that taste is indeed subjective, and that’s the end of the debate. This leaves the coffee lover in a state of discomfort: they know that their coffee is better, and yet if someone else is simply impervious to this argument, how can it be better? Coffee drinkers descend into a pit of subjectivity where all opinions are emotional and not supported by facts.

What I briefly outline below cannot hope to answer this question. I cannot suggest how coffee lovers might make ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘ an objective statement. This blog is just a thought on how we can start to claw back some objectivity from the position that we are in. To do this, I reference John McDowell*, a philosopher of perception. Broadly, McDowell says that too often we make a claim that something is objective/subjective when actually it is mind-independent or mind-dependent. To illustrate the difference: when we perceive the colour yellow we often say it is subjective, when actually we mean it is mind-dependent. It is not subjective in the sense that there is any chance of disagreement – like there is with ‘coffee x is better’ – but it is true that it requires a person for it to exist. The same is true to some extent of coffee: the flavour of coffee is dependent on someone tasting it, and this is what we mean when we say coffee is subjective.

With this view, it’s possible for coffee flavours to be objective, though it is still dependent on a mind perceiving the flavours. What does this mean for coffee lovers? Not a huge amount. But it might suggest that making tasting notes is not necessarily in vain. Coffee is objective because we can agree on how flavours may, given the ideal conditions (brew-time, temperature, a tongue without chewing gum), be teased out and agreed upon between different people. But…

The Bottom Line… under this view, we can maintain objectivity in coffee tasting. What we cannot do at this point is say ‘coffee x is better than coffee y‘. That will have to wait for another blog.

Please ask questions, stimulate debate. This is not uncontroversial.

*John McDowell, ‘Values and secondary qualities’ Honderich (London, 1985) in and ed. Ted Morality Objectivity

  1. Keith said:

    The distinction you make is a good one, but it’s not clear that flavours are mind-dependent in the way you suggest. Just because something can only be detected by a creature that has a mind doesn’t entail that it’s mind-dependent in the strict ontological sense; i.e. that without minds it would not exist. (Compare the case of thoughts, which are mind-dependent in this sense.) Instead, flavours could be perfectly objective and mind-independent aspects of the external world that one only encounters in virtue of possessing a mind, but then how would that differ from any other mind-independent property, such as shape or, more controversially, colour?

    • Good point, and something I considered when writing this. My reason for not including it was that if flavour IS objective in the way that shape is, then I have no reason to add mind-dependence into coffee tasting ontology. That is to say: if flavour is mind-independent and objective, then this makes my life as a coffee snob easier. The blog was meant to explore what happens when people claim that flavour is, specifically, subjective.

      For brevity, I felt I couldn’t include more discussion of different possibilities than I did. Of course, if I was being really rigorous I would have to deal with the question of flavour being mind-independent (as you say) AND subjective, which is potentially problematic.

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