An expanded, revised, and translated edition of Viktoria von Hoffmann’s Goûter le monde: une histoire culturelle du goût à l’époque moderne (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2013), this study is an eclectic account of the dual nature of taste, as a term that refers literally to physical sensation and figuratively to the faculty of social and aesthetic discrimination. Hoffmann takes a firmly intellectual-historical approach to her subject, investigating ‘the ways in which people thought about, discussed, constructed, and invented the concept of taste in early modern Europe’ (p. 10). Chapter 1 rehearses a well-established narrative about food culture, as cooks abandoned the heavily seasoned dishes of medieval cuisine in favour of a new emphasis on simplicity and purity of flavour. Hoffmann links this transformation to a broader valorization of taste as a legitimate subject of discourse. Chapter 2 investigates the dark side of taste, including its links to sinful gluttony and animal appetites, as well as to the supernatural world of witches and demons. Chapter 3 argues that although taste occupied the lower end of the sensory hierarchy, it accrued a new value in the work of empiricists, sensualists, and materialists such as Locke, Condillac, and La Mettrie, where taste sensations represent immediate, experiential forms of knowledge. Chapter 4 locates the emergence of ‘taste’ as a figurative term in spiritual and religious writings. The rise of taste as an élite social and aesthetic category, Hoffmann suggests, depended on a disavowal of base, subjective physical taste, a process perhaps seen most clearly in the work of Kant. Chapter 5 offers a fascinating analysis of the elevation of nouvelle cuisine to a science or art. Hoffmann considers this elevation — along with secularization, empiricism, and the rise of aesthetic taste — to have led to a new appreciation of the physical sense of taste. Throughout, there is something of a disjunction between the rhetorical framing of the book and its content, which is often more nuanced, as well as more limited, than some of its more ambitious claims would imply. In particular, Hoffmann’s overarching narrative, which purports to explain the emergence of the figurative sense of taste-as-judgement from the older sense of taste-as-sensation, depends on a schematic opposition that is belied by her more detailed analysis. In fact, Hoffmann is perceptive both about the forms of knowledge and discrimination involved in cooking and eating, and (conversely) about the tendency of sensory metaphors to retain a connection to embodied practices. Similarly, the titular claim that the book addresses ‘early modern Europe’ — presumably an attempt to expand the readership — is misleading: the focus is almost exclusively on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, with some brief consideration of influential British and German philosophers. Hoffmann’s contention that France functions as ‘a case study exemplifying wider discussions that were held elsewhere in Europe’ (p. 12) is not entirely satisfactory: it misses, for example, the ways in which ideas about taste interacted with confessional conflicts across England and the Continent. Reservations aside, however, there is much to be enjoyed in this engaging history of a neglected sense. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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