Thanks to a generous friend my kitchen now includes one of these espresso machines. I enjoy shiny things and it helps me remember my ethnicity but most importantly it provides the starting point (mercifully not “grounds”) for some reflections on the epistemology of value.

My first thought, on setting this thing up, was: I stand on a slippery slope at the bottom of which waits That Guy, the one who owns things like this and drags out his bathroom scale to practice tamping with exactly 30 pounds of pressure. Why is this a chilling thought? True, people like this can be tedious bloviators but the problem is deeper.

One suspicion about these sorts of obsessions, I think, arises from the possibility that the connoisseur is mistaken about the values he claims to find in his preferred corner of the world. (High-end audio products are a nice example: if you paid $500 for your Ethernet cable, you paid too much!) There are two sorts of worries here. The first is that the connoisseur isn’t tracking genuine features of the world—skeptics believe he thinks the espresso tastes better because it came from the shiny Elektra. (Dan Ariely has done some experiments on the effects of expensive wine labels, with hilarious results.) The second is trickier: even if the connoisseur is tracking real differences in the objects, we might be skeptical that he’s right about what’s better.

Yet there are other cases where connoisseurship is legitimate: there are people who really can “see what to do” in a way that is equally inscrutable to outsiders. Carpenters, doctors, and chess masters are the usual analogues because they have a reliable ability that outstrips formalization, which thus can’t be readily articulated, and which, as a result, is often described by appeal to the perceptual metaphor. Even if they can’t tell you why, they know the right course of action.

The question is where to locate the sensibilities of taste on this continuum. The clear cases are ones where success and failure can be recognized by the non-expert— recognized “from the outside.” The good carpenter might not be able to articulate his reasons for doing one thing rather than another but the house’s proper functioning can be determined by observers who have not mastered carpentry. The difficult cases are ones where success and failure cannot be independently verified: whether or not the practitioner gets it right can’t be seen from outside of a certain sensibility. Fashion design is like this, maybe, because to the outsider everyone looks equally ridiculous.

(Tragically, perhaps, questions about the best way to live are also like this. When Socrates and Callicles square off in the Gorgias they each see each other as missing out on what’s really valuable. By Socrates’ lights Callicles’ life of desire-satisfaction is shameful, while Callicles sees Socrates as the dupe of convention. Similarly the connoisseur sees the neophyte as having crude, unrefined tastes, while the neophyte thinks that the connoisseur has been duped by all the shiny chrome. We might think the question comes down to whether Socrates or Veblen has the better explanation of some of our preferences.)

If only we had a way of adjudicating the dispute without, in question-begging fashion, adverting to the sensibilities of one or the other interlocutor. Hume has a plan, and fortunately for us it involves a leather thong:

#14. One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy, than has hitherto been attempted. And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in DON QUIXOTE.

#15. It is with good reason, says SANCHO to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: this is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.

#16. The great resemblance between mental and bodily taste will easily teach us to apply this story. Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. Now as these qualities may be found in a smaller degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it often happens, that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all the particular flavours, amidst the disorder, in which they are presented. Where 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. Here then the general rules of beauty are of use; being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases, when presented singly and in a high degree: And if the same qualities, in a continued composition and in a small degree, affect not the organs with a sensible delight or uneasiness, we exclude the person from all pretensions to this delicacy. To produce these general rules or avowed patterns of composition is like finding the key with the leathern thong; which justified the verdict of SANCHO’s kinsmen, and confounded those pretended judges who had condemned them. Though the hogshead had never been emptied, the taste of the one was still equally delicate, and that of the other equally dull and languid: But it would have been more difficult to have proved the superiority of the former, to the conviction of every by-stander. In like manner, though the beauties of writing had never been methodized, or reduced to general principles; though no excellent models had ever been acknowledged; the different degrees of taste would still have subsisted, and the judgment of one man had been preferable to that of another; but it would not have been so easy to silence the bad critic, who might always insist upon his particular sentiment, and refuse to submit to his antagonist. But when we show him an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste, he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove, that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence: He must conclude, upon the whole, that the fault lies in himself, and that he wants the delicacy, which is requisite to make him sensible of every beauty and every blemish, in any composition or discourse.

The problem is that we never actually find the key—maybe it’s there spiritually and we’re too sinful to see it.

Another interesting issue to come out of the story: it would be a real pain in the ass to have such refined tastes. Everyone else is enjoying the wine, but no, you have to go and complain about the leathery aftertaste. (Kobe, I’m looking at you.) Again, two ways of thinking about this. First, we can think of the sensitivity as a mark against genuine expertise: a real expert would be able to appreciate the simple hearty finish, but the overrefined judge’s sensibilities are marred by their precious delicacy. (I think there’s an analogy to GE Moore’s open question argument here, but maybe that should wait for another time.)

Second, we can think about the practical difficulties of being an expert observer, viz., it’s hard to get a decent drink. (“I don’t want to learn anything about wine because then I’d have to spend more to get loaded” or similar thoughts express a practical reason to avoid developing sensibilities in virtue of which one would have various other reasons, e.g. a reason to buy expensive bottles of wine, or coffee grinders.) So thinking about connoisseurship gets us, in a roundabout way, to thinking about the differences between different sorts of reasons. One sort of reason to want or not want something has to do with whether it’s good or not; the other sort has to do with the practical impact of wanting those things. (This point about desire might be easier to see in the parallel case of belief, where the distinction is between believing on grounds related to the truth of the belief’s content vs. believing on grounds related to the value of having a belief. Pascal’s Wager or wishful thinking are instances where we might be tempted to regulate our beliefs based on the second set of reasons, or to wish that we could.)

Look, if all this had a point, it would be a journal article. Let the take home lesson be that it’s hard to think about value.