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Friday, June 20, 2008

Take the Talking Cure

Article published in the New Statesman, June 19th 2008.

Gloria Origgi on why a second language is the best antidote to intolerance

By rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland's voters may have thrown the European Union into cri sis, but in a more profound way I am optim istic about Europe. A while ago, I took the train from Paris to Brussels for a meeting at the headquarters of the European Commission. The train was full of people my age - the late thirties - going to Brussels to participate in various EU projects.

I started chatting with my neighbours. Most of the people I spoke with came from more than one cultural background, with two or more nationalities in the family. All of us were at least bilingual, many trilingual or more. My neighbours epitomised the deep cultural change now taking place in Europe. A new generation has grown up, of people born more than a quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War and now moving around Europe to study and work - meeting, dating, marrying and having children with people from other European countries and doing so as a matter of course.

More and more European children are growing up multilingual. They are unlike immigrants born in one culture and having to grow up in another. They are unlike children growing up in a monolingual, monocultural family that happens to be located in a wider multicultural en vironment. For these children, cultural and linguistic diversity is not just a part of the society at large, it is a part of themselves, a novel kind of identity. Multilingualism is becoming an existential condition in Europe, good news for a continent in which national identities have been so powerful and have caused so much tragedy and pain in the past.

This condition also affects our cognitive life. Recent research in developmental psychology shows that bilingual children are quicker to develop an ability to understand the mental states of others. A likely interpretation of these findings is that bilingual children have a more fine-grained ability to understand their social environment and, in particular, a greater awareness that different people may represent reality in different ways. My bilingual six-year-old son makes mistakes in French and Italian but never confuses contexts in which it is more appropriate to use one language than the other.

I believe that European multilingualism will help produce a new generation of children whose tolerance of diverse cultures will be built from within, not learned as a social norm.

All this may be wishful thinking, projecting my own personal trajectory on the future of Europe. But I can't help thinking that being multilingual is the best and cheapest antidote to cultural intolerance, as well as a way of going beyond the empty label of multiculturalism by experiencing a plural culture from within. And, of course, this is not just a European issue.

Gloria Origgi is an Italian philosopher based in Paris. Taken from "What Are You Optimistic About?" (edited by John Brockman, Pocket Books)

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

What's in my Common Sense?
















Draft. Do not quote. A version of this paper will appear in the October 2008 issue of the review The Philosophical Forum.

“I believe that I have forbears, and that every human being has them. I believe that there are various cities, and, quite generally, in the main facts of geography and history. I believe that the earth is a body on whose surface we move and that it no more suddenly disappears or the like than any other solid body: this table, this house, this tree, etc.” [Wittgenstein, On certainty, §234)

“We are all, I think, in this strange position that we do know many things, with regard to which we know further that we must have evidence for them, and yet we do not know how we know them” [Moore, 1959]


In his famous paper In defence of commonsense (1959) G.E. Moore starts with a long list of what he calls commonsensical propositions that he holds true :

  1. There exists at present a living human body, which is my body.
  2. This body was born at a certain time in the past
  3. Ever since it was born, it has been either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth
  4. There have existed some other things of this kind with which it was in contact
  5. Among the things which have, in this sense, formed part of its environment there have, at every moment since its birth, been large numbers of other living human bodies
  6. But the earth had existed also for many years before my body was born; and for many of these years, also, large numbers of human bodies had, at every moment, been alive upon it; and many of these bodies had died and ceased to exist before it was born.
  7. I am a human being, and I have, at different times since my body was born, had many different experiences, of each of many different kinds.
  8. I have often perceived both my own body and other things which formed part of its environment, including other human bodies
  9. I have not only perceived things of this kind, but have also observed facts about them, such as, for instance, the fact which I am now observing, that that mantelpiece is at present nearer to my body than that bookcase
  10. I have been aware of other facts, which I was not at the time observing, such as that my body existed yesterday
  11. I have had expectations with regard to the future, and many beliefs of other kinds, both true and false
  12. I have thought of imaginary things and persons and incidents, in the reality of which I did not believe
  13. I have had dreams and I have had feelings of many different kinds.

These are propositions that according to Moore are commonsensical, that is, are believed and held true by every “regular” or, one could say, “commonsensical” human being. There are subtle debates among philosophers about the epistemological status of these kinds of propositions, whether we know them (as Moore claims) or just believe them to be true while knowing that they are partly false; how do we know them etc., whether they have a special status, an ear-mark, as Thomas Reid thought, that distinguish them from other kinds of beliefs or propositions…

But what strikes most at a first glance in Moore’s list is the heterogeneity of the propositions he accepts in his commonsense:

Some of them, like 1 and 7 are expressed in the form of first-person thoughts (I imagine that Moore would have consented to rephrase 1 as: “I am alive”) the evidence of which is based on one’s present self-awareness. Others, like 8, 12 and 13, are again first-person thoughts, but this time believed on the basis of memory, whereas 3, 9 and 10 are factual statements whose evidence is based on something I may discover by observing myself instead of a direct self-awareness. I find 2 and 6 even more surprising to cast in the “commonsensical” category: the fact that one is born sometime is something one is told about. Many people don’t even know exactly when they were born: before the mass diffusion of hospital births, in which the exact time is recorded in the official acts of birth, birth of children was vaguely reported days or months after by the parents. Memories of the event are usually very, very costly to recollect: maybe after an entire life of psychoanalytic training one is able to go back to that. And I can imagine a commonsensical belief in another culture that people are not born but brought to Earth from another planet (actually, to conceive such a belief, I do not need to think of a very exotic culture: when I was 8 years old, I found the personal diary of my 10 years old sister in which she was writing every night about how kind we all were with her even if she was not the daughter of my parents, but an extraterrestrial creature coming from a planet called Happiness). Proposition 6 strikes as even more controversial. This seems a genuine piece of testimonial knowledge, or, more exactly, historical knowledge, that I’ve acquired through some instructor at a certain point in my childhood, usually around the age of five or six, when some folk-historical concepts start to develop in children that are reinforced by school-learning. But, surely, I believe it for reasons that are quite different from the other propositions in Moore’s list. Certainly, no direct experience is involved in 6.

This apparently idle analysis of Moore’s commonsensical shows that even in the conception of one of the most enthusiastic philosophers about commonsense, this notion seems to point to a very weird philosophical kind. Pieces of self-awareness, of experiential knowledge, memories, testimonial beliefs and “common-knowledge” beliefs that are cheaply acquired in each culture seem to float freely together without any clear conceptual tie to connect one to the other. The general glue that makes these things stick together seems to be the idea that “Anyone who has a drop of commonsense would obviously believe them”. Commonsense in philosophy thus seems to be a rather “commonsensical” notion that doesn’t capture any real psychological kind.

In the history of philosophy, the expression has been used in a quite ambiguous way:

Common sense, from the Greek words, κοινή (common) αισϑήσις (sensation) was used in two very different ways, sometimes by the same philosopher, who left open - unintentionally or intentionally - a double reading: it may refer to a sort of sixth sense which gathers the various impressions received from the five senses into a common apperception (Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Reid, Robert Burton)

“Inner Senses are three in number, so called, because they be within the brain-pan, as Common Sense, Phantasie, Memory [...] This Common sense is the Judge or Moderator of the rest, by whom we discern all differences of objects. Ibid. III. xiii, The external senses and the common sense considered together are like a circle with five lines drawn from the circumference to the centre.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621 I. i. II. vii.

For Locke, each of the senses gives an input that has to be integrated in a single impression. Commonsense is the result of this integration, the sense of things in common between disparate impressions.

And, at the same time, commonsense refers historically to an average experiential/practical knowledge dependant on a universal human κοινή. Κοινή in Greek was in fact used to refer to the average language spoken by Greeks, a mixture of dialects that established the Attic variant of Greek as the common one. Commonsense is then what everyone commonly believes in a community, the wisdom of ordinary language.

And indeed the same ambiguity is found in modern and contemporary philosophical literature on commonsense. Take the anti-skeptical arguments in which commonsense is invoked. In modern and contemporary philosophy, the notion of commonsense was at the centre of various arguments against scepticism, like in Scottish commonsense philosophy. The overall structure of these arguments may be summed up in this way: Look, there are some obvious truths - the realist says - that nobody would deny and that lie at the foundation of philosophical inquiry. But when relativists object to realists that the appeal to a universal κοινή is misplaced, because every culture has its own system of commonsensical beliefs, commonsense philosophers usually reply by appealing to the other meaning of commonsense, that is, commonsense as more than common knowledge, as a special sixth sense that guides us in practical reasoning.

Another ambiguity is the one between two other possible meanings, that is commonsense as good and sane comprehension as opposed to the distorted visions of the mad. A further one is between commonsense as the view of the world of the layman as opposed to the scientist’s image of things.

All these ambiguities are present in Thomas Reid, “earmarks” of commonsense beliefs:

(1) Universally held by mankind

(2) Whose acceptance is reflected in the common structure of all languages

(3) Whose contradictory is not merely false but absurd, and

(4) That is irresistible, so that even those who question them are compelled to believe them when engaging in the practical affairs of life

Note that for Reid these are not epistemological criteria that we need to identify before commonsense beliefs are evident to us. They are automatically self-evident, and the criteria are just a way a posteriori of “marking” commonsense beliefs.

To sum up this excursus, it seems that commonsense beliefs are and have been for long time identified with those beliefs which it is commonsensical to hold. This of course introduces a problem of circularity in the definition (actually, there are few “explicit” definitions of commonsense: philosophers prefer the vagueness of the term so that it can be adapted to very different uses in different contexts).

But today I do not want to address the questions of the epistemological status of commonsense beliefs - questions such as: “do we really know commonsensical propositions and how do we know them?” - rather, I would like to share with you some intuitions about what we accept as “commonsensical” among our beliefs, how we pry apart commonsensical and non-commonsensical propositions, how we “construct” that very special system of irresistible beliefs that constitutes our folk epistemology[1]. As Clifford Geertz says, “There are really no acknowledged specialists in common sense”, neither philosophers, nor psychologists or other scientists. Maybe the layman is the expert in commonsense, but usually the commonsensical layman doesn’t have a cue as to how and why he accepts a stock of beliefs as commonsensical. So, I’ll turn to self-insight and autobiographical report in order to provide a concrete illustration of what’s in my commonsense and try to find out how and why some of my beliefs are for me commonsensical beliefs.

I hope that this will allow me to illustrate some general points:

  • Our folk-epistemology contains very heterogeneous beliefs such as: pieces of learned expertise, vulgar knowledge, proverbs, intuitions, cultural beliefs, perceptual beliefs (the ones we can verify with our eyes and ears), norms of practical reasoning that help us to use these beliefs judiciously and reflectively, hence:
  • Commonsense beliefs can’t be used to separate the Manifest Image from the Scientific Image of the world. There are some pieces of commonsense that are not manifest, as well as others that are scientific.
  • Commonsense beliefs can’t be used either to distinguish between what we know through our eyes and ears and what we know through culture. Both kinds of beliefs can be commonsensical.
  • They are no more unreflective and logically untied than other categories of beliefs (i.e. scientific beliefs or religious beliefs which we accept under authority are highly unreflective and logically untied as well)
  • Still, not any cultural belief can become a part of our folk-epistemology. Cultural as well as cognitive constraints intervene in making a special set of beliefs particularly irresistible.
  • It is not just pervasive cultural influence that is the evidence of validity of a commonsense belief, because we still want to distinguish between religious superstitions and ethnic canards of stereotypes from the belief that if you go out when it’s raining without an umbrella you can catch a cold.
  • What makes us accept some propositions as commonsense beliefs is a complex system of trust in the reputational cues about their source, cognitive constraints on their intuitiveness, and socio-cultural or, as I will claim, conversational constraints on their acceptability in a certain community.

I will use my own personal example as a test for these claims.

What’s in my commonsense?

  1. If I go out in the cold without warm clothing I catch a cold
  2. Olive oil is better for health than butter
  3. A fresh squeezed lemon juice each morning before breakfast prevents you from catching a cold or a flu
  4. Fasting is good for health
  5. Laughing is a cheap and efficacious anti-depressant
  6. I have dreams and these dreams mean something that I can interpret
  7. I have memories and sometimes I repress them
  8. I have a bad character and people around me have characters
  9. I am a woman and this influences my feelings and reactions
  10. There are no intellectual differences between men and women
  11. All that glitters is not gold
  12. Nothing on Earth travels faster than light
  13. Things do not fall just because they are heavy, but because of gravity
  14. I have a heart and a kidney

As you may see, my list is as heterogeneous as Moore’s list, although I won’t exchange mine with his. Actually, I would not include some of the propositions in his list in mine: I think I never thought of other people as other bodies around me - more as other minds, and intentional agents – and I don’t find commonsensical at all to reflect upon the fact that my body was in contact with the surface of the Earth or not far from it since I was born (especially after a week in which I’ve spent more than 20 hours at a distance of about 30 000 feet from Earth!)

My folk-epistemology includes pieces of knowledge that come from very different corpuses and that are tied together by a certain intuitiveness they have, by a certain privileged relation with my sense of certainty or, as I will argue, by the place they have in my everyday conversational practices. It is not their value in practical reasoning, as many have argued, or their capacities of “making a difference to judgement and action” (Shapin 735), that makes them belong to my common sense. Rather, it’s their place in conversation, the default certainty-value they have in our conversational practices, their pragmatic self-evidence that we expect would be evident for our interlocutors too that give them such a special status.

Let’s see in more detail what is the nature of my commonsensical beliefs: (1) is based on my experience as well as on the authority of grand-mothers. (2) is more of a cultural-biased belief that I’ve learned in my Italian education and was subverted when I moved to France: I remember myself staring at my son’s French paediatrician when he told me to add some butter in the soup instead of olive oil because it was “healthier” for the baby… (3) is a very idiosyncratic dietary rule that I inflict to myself on the basis of a number of intuitions about what my body needs in order to be in a good shape and on the personal experience that happens to work very well. (4) and (5) are less idiosyncratic and more diffused pieces of common knowledge, even if (4) seems to be scientifically untenable - whereas I’m not aware of any result that systematically falsifies (5). (6) and (7) are deferential to psychoanalysis - here also as a result of a mixture of acceptance of a certain corpus as admissible in conversation and of personal experience with its techniques. (8) and (9) are based or my folk-theories of personality and gender. Even if any serious psychologist or social scientist would deny (8) and claim that people’s moral behaviour is more a matter of the situation and its opportunities than a matter of character (the recent brilliant book by John Dorris Lack of character is exactly a plea for this idea, or the splendid definition that Scott Fitzgerald gives in The Great Gatsby of personality as “un unbroken series of successful gestures”), I still include an irresistible folk-theory of personality in my everyday way of making sense of the social world around me. The same goes for (9): it packs my folk-theory of gender, even if I believe in (10), that is, that there are no intellectual differences between men and women. (10) of course is a matter of experience, of deference to scientific knowledge and also of a valuable ideology that has a role in defining my identity. (11) belongs to my “proverbial economy”, to use the words of Steven Shapin: “A network of speech, judgement and action in which proverbial utterances are considered legitimate and valuable, in which judgement is shaped and action prompted by proverbs competently uttered in pertinent ways and settings, that is to say a cultural system in which proverbial speech has the capacity of making difference to judgement and action” (Shapin, 2001: 735) So I’m a competent user of (11). (12) and (13) belong to the commonsensical propositions I trust because I trust in modern science, even if they do not have any practical consequence in my everyday reasoning. The last one is even more puzzling: nobody would deny that this is a commonsensical belief, yet my knowledge of it is as indirect as the ones about light and weight. Of course I can take my pulse and interpret its beats, but how I connect it to the presence of an organ called “heart” is a matter of having learned some piece of sophisticated science and not of taking the world as its authority.

In the essay already mentioned at various points today, Clifford Geertz challenges the idea that commonsense beliefs bear a privileged relationship with the immediacies of experience and defines it as a cultural system, an interpretive system that, as art, myths, religion is historically and socially constructed. An indeed the pieces of my commonsense I have shown you belong to my culture: they say a lot about my cultural identity and how I define myself with respect to it. Still, their systematicity is questionable: as I’ve tried to show, intuitive knowledge and learned expertise are clearly mixed up, and the way they relate to the world’s direct authority is not just by taking the reality at its face value. If it were so, then, bodies would fall because they’re heavy and light simply doesn’t travel at all. So the demarcation between the manifest image and the scientific one doesn’t hold to define what is commonsensical. Nor the relative “naturalness” as opposed to the “culturalness” of my beliefs. Cultural beliefs such as the one on the benefits of olive oil can be as commonsensical as more experiential beliefs, such as if I get out in the cold I can catch a cold.

But what Geertz doesn’t say is why these propositions form a cultural system, an interpretive schema of “relatively organized considered thoughts” (p. 75): how do I accept them as commonsensical, or how do they become commonsensical ? Is there a criterion that allows me to filter what enters my folk epistemology?

This is of course a very complicated question that I don’t have the ambition to resolve here. Still, I would like to advance some suggestions about a possible criterion: for a belief to be acceptable in my commonsense it has to be acceptable in those conversational practices which I repute valuable and want to take part in. The boy who responds to his mother who tells him “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” by saying:

“Mother, three NIH studies have shown that on a sample of 458 Americans of all ages there was no statistically significant decrease in the number of house calls by family doctors; no I won’t eat this apple” (Latour, Science in Action: 208) is just refusing a conversation with its rules and epistemic standards, not really challenging his mother’s folk epistemology.

The most authoritative conversation in which all of us are involved from the onset is that with our parents and teachers during our childhood. I have a precise memory of the bookshelves in my father’s library, what was in and what would had never slipped through his severe judgement. The complete works of Freud were there. Words such as repression, super-ego, and unconscious circulated often in conversations. But I never heard a word of astrology or homeopathy in my parents’ house: neither their friends or, later, mine, would have accepted them as themes of conversation. So, I still would have problems in accepting this corpus in a conversation.

Of course our epistemic authorities change as our will to be involved in new conversations evolves, and our epistemic standards are constantly updated. What settles in my commonsense is what is cognitively constrained by my folk theories about the world (such as psychoanalysis, which, as it has been nicely argued by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in a paper entitled “Freud’s permanent revolution” owes its success to its capacity to be an extension of our everyday folk psychology). But at the same time, they are constrained by the reputational value we attribute to some conversational circles we want to be part of, our family, our teachers, and the social milieu which shapes our intellectual and cultural identities. But what we feel as acceptable, as believable, as an irresistible part of our sense of ourselves, is shaped in many ways by what we want to be able to talk about with the people we repute authoritative for us. So, in conclusion, what ties together the weird thoughts that I accept as commonsensical is their contribution to my autobiography, to that unique mixture of feelings, ideas and practices that renders me a unique human being.

Clifford Geerts says that commonsense is “the world in its authority”. I would reformulate its motto in conclusion by saying that it is rather “the word in its authority”.



[1] There are many senses in which expressions such as “commonsense” and “folk- epistemology” may be used, and I do not want to present here a new definition. In this presentation I will use them as synonymous, and will refer to “folk-epistemology” as the system of commonsense beliefs we commonly accept in our everyday understanding of the world.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Wine Talk: Cosmopolitanism with a Human Face

Draft. Do not quote. Presented at the Third International Conference on Philosophy and Wine. Pollenzo, Italy 30-31 May 2008.

As a Milanese living abroad since 1992, I have always been sensitive to the different weights different cultures give to various topics in conversation: when I moved to Paris for example, I was a little shocked at the beginning by the predominance of talk about food and wine at dinners, a kind of conversation that was proscribed at the almost “protestant” tables of the Milanese bourgeoisie. I was even more shocked in discovering that food was becoming a topic of conversation among academic friends and colleagues in countries such as England, United States and Australia. Some academic workshops started to change “style” by the late Nineties: while travelling around I had the impression that in many occasions local organizers were slowly replacing Spartan meals at the university refectories and cafeterias by more interesting dinners in local restaurants, thus transforming the severity of the intellectual trip in a richer human and cultural experience of discovery of new tastes. Food and wine were becoming an international topic of intellectual conversation, as music and art were since longtime: they were dramatically changing their position and legitimacy in the hierarchy of discourse in a way that other intimate and everyday life topics were not (talking about children and styles of hairdressing for example – were, and are, still in the realm of private life). Food and wine have joined the realm of “high-culture”: culinary traditions have been recognised by the UNESCO as part of the cultural “immaterial patrimony of the humanity”[1], quite an odd recognition for the most animal, natural and material among human behaviours. A conference such as the one we are attending these days here in the temple of the Slow Food cultural movement, is an example of this positional change.

Of course, this is just anecdotical, and my proposal here is not to provide a serious sociological explanation of what made the transition of food talk from the slums of private pleasures and urges to the glories of the academic high-tables possible. Rather, I will try to argue that the new role of food talk, and, in particular, of wine talk, in our contemporary culture is due to a special relation that the new wine industry was able to entertain with a certain image of cosmopolitanism that has entered our global culture and with what is acknowledged as “civilized conversation” in this culture. As if the wine world was able to suggest a landscape of reconciliation between the inevitable globalization of the means of production and markets and an intimate need for anchoring our identity in local traditions and legacies.

In the last two decades, globalization has taken place. On the one hand, it has realized an ancient Marxist nightmare, that is, that the imperatives of capitalist production inevitably would have led the bourgeoisie to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and establish connections everywhere.”[2] On the other hand, it has simultaneously realized a Marxist dream, that is, that the instruments of “capitalist exploitation” - new technologies that increased possibilities for human interaction across borders - would have provided in the end the necessary infrastructure for a cosmopolitan future civilization. Globalization thus concentrates all our deep and contradictory fears and hopes. Global, deterritorialized, liberal trading imposes acceleration on the standardization and rationalization of forms of production and exchange. For an item (and I am referring here to all sort of items or goods, a medication, a cultural product like a book, a scientific result, etc.) to go “global” it has to undertake a series of transformations that make it suitable for entering a reliable and efficient chain of production and transmission that sustains its diffusion around the world. This seems to lead to an inevitable uniformity of goods and to a growing dominance of common rational standards of production to the detriment of variety and cultural diversity. The frightening face of the global world thus presents itself as a desert landscape, a flatland of conformism in which all interesting differences will rapidly vanish away. But, as I said, this goes together with positive hopes, such as that the interconnectedness of the global world is creating new forms of conversations and trustful interactions among different people sharing common concerns and values while keeping different standpoints and perspectives.

The two faces of globalization solicit two very different forms of trust (or, sometimes, distrust): the first one is a trust in the reliability of the techno-scientific mode of production and transmission that makes globalization possible: it is a form of trust that is based on the technical expertise of producers and in the rational design of the means of distribution as well as the respect of the standards. It is a trust that comes out of a loss of control: we cannot control anymore all the steps that go from the production of an item to its delivery to us. So we need some reasons to be confident in the reliability of the process that selects and filters what we come up to buy, to eat or to even to know. It’s an impersonal trust more on the credibility of the reliable and rational design of social institutions and processes that on people. The second is a form of trust that comes out of the interconnectedness of the world that makes new encounters and conversations possible: it is a trust based on our relations with others and on an optimistic stance towards the opportunity we have today to share common values and conversations even with people whom we do not clearly share norms and customs.

The food and wine industry are especially concerned with this tension. Eating and drinking make us part of a food chain that starts somewhere under the land and terminates into our stomachs. This makes us dramatically vulnerable to other people’s decisions and choices. As Michael Pollan rightly points out in his last book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma[3], one of the most natural human activity, that of preparing and consuming meals every day, doesn’t rely anymore on our spontaneous capacities of choosing what to eat, but on a complex system of trust relationships that involve experts, marketing strategies, dietary advisors and policy makers. Food industry has obscured the natural connection we have with our bodies and our territory. But, on the other hand, the possibility today of sharing at a global level our eating and drinking experiences, as well as our fears about the risks of the spreading of a technocratic alimentary industry, has given to many of us the access to a new form of sharing our tastes at a new level, and – I argue - to get rid of some of our “unreal loyalties” to our cultural niches and folklore and take part into a broader conversation which nonetheless is deeply entrenched in local identities and cultural temperaments. Global networks such as for example Terra Madre, a Slow-Food initiative whose aim is to preserve, encourage, and support sustainable food production methods by allowing small local producers all around the world to gather and share their savoir-faire, are an example of these new conversations that require an effort of adaptation to a new sense of community for those who participate. It is a community that shares values about food production methods, which should be based on attention to territory and those distinctive qualities that have permitted the land to retain its fertility over centuries of use. This vision is in direct opposition to pursuing a globalized marketplace, with the systematic goal of increasing profit and productivity. Yet, it is thanks to global network that this initiative can thrive and to the capacity of its members to adapt to the conversational standards of this network. On a more modest note, even a very personal example, such as the blog that Noga Arikha and I write at www.tuttipiatti.blogspot.com is an instance of the articulation of very personal experience and sense of what a good meal is within a global network, the blogs, that allows us to share our local dinners in Paris and New York between us and with people around the world.

Food and wine have thus exacerbated this contrast between forms of trust. The hypothesis that I would like to advance in a very informal way, more as an attempt to find a cultural interpretation of a phenomenon than to provide an explanation for it, is that the rise of food and wine talk in our worldly conversations lies in the particular way that at least a fraction of this production has succeeded in articulating our trust in reliable, new ways of production and circulation of goods and our will to take part into cosmopolitan conversations, where no one is expected to converge on a single mode of life, but only to share some common tastes and manners without abjuring to local allegiances and perspectives.

But let’s try to argue for this in a more concrete manner through a brief excursus on the globalization of wine markets since 1990. Globalization of wine markets means many different things. On the one hand, the mastery of new agricultural techniques by many producers and the rapid diffusion of innovations such as drip irrigation, new trellis systems and techniques, grape chilling etc, started to modify the way of production of many European producers, thus enhancing the quality of their products and the possibility of market expansion. The decade 1990-2000 was a prosperous era for European winemakers. On the other hand, during the same decade, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States started to impose themselves as real competitors to the European monopoly of wine production, export and consumption. If we take the export, between 1988 and 1999, this New World group’s combined share of global wine exports grew from 3 to 16 per cent in value terms. When intra-European Union (EU) trade is excluded, Europe’s decline in dominance is even more dramatic: from 91 per cent to 66 per cent, while the New World’s share grows from 8 to 31 per cent. And of the world’s top ten wine exporters, which account for 90 per cent of the value of international wine trade, half are in Western Europe and the other half are New World suppliers. Rates of consumption modified also radically within the same period. Just as an example, while France and Italy were facing a decrease of consumption of – 16% and – 8% respectively, due to a change in preventive health policies in both countries, Australia, United States and China saw a growth of consumption respectively of + 32%, + 43% and + 115 %.[4] New producers were relying often on much bigger vineyards, thus allowing more important economies of scale and a better ability to negotiate with mass market retailers.

Globalization of wine was perceived by European producers as a shock and, by most of them as a “bad thing”. An industry that had for centuries relied on local savoir-faire and national regulations and norms that institutionalised and reinforced the status-quo (appellation system, etc) was facing a competition with “strangers” who did not necessarily share the same conception of control on wine. Indeed, if some general rules and principles are shared by almost all producers, like the definition of wine or the control over the use of chemical products, others are ignored (like the use of transgenic rootstocks (porte-greffe) or the control on irrigation). More generally, world-wine was perceived as a standardized product, a challenge to the colourful personalities and local and temporal (year by year) varieties of wine typical of the traditional production. For example, it has been claimed at lenght that red world-wine has standardized its taste in order to comply with the following international “taste-profile”:

  • Wine should have a very dark color-the darker, the better;
  • It should have very ripe, fruity flavors;
  • It should have a minimum of 14° alcohol; even more alcohol is okay;
  • The wine's tannins should be very soft;
  • The wine's acidity level should be low;
  • The wine should be voluptuous, or velvety, on the palate;
  • Most of the wine's flavor should be on the front of the palate[5].

But from the perspective of the emergent markets, wine globalization was perceived on a more positive note as a form of democratization of taste. Robert Parker, the internationally acclaimed “taste-pundit” in the world of wine, whose 100 points-based system of wine rating has revolutionized the wine market, presents himself as the advocate of a new class of wine consumers liberated from the inferiority complex towards the Old World. And indeed, the fact that so many people joined the pleasures of wine taste around the world made the market of wine less elitist. Also, if we take countries such as South Africa or Argentina and Chile, their presence on the international scene of wine world and the new image that these countries associated with their production was really connected to the process of democratization that these countries had undertaken and the willingness to give an image of themselves as “civilized” interlocutors on the international scene.

Still, it is true that wine taste today is partly due to the separation, so common in all food industry today, between the “taste-design” process, that is conceived and designed by experts (like the famous or infamous Austrialian flying winemakers that zip around the world, jumping from one season to the next, and taking advantage of the rotation of the globe to spread their expertise and grow the same wine everywhere) and the local characteristics of different soils and plants’ varieties. As the international taste was an abstraction, the outcome of a “cold” process of refining a flavour to please an abstract entity, the “ideal” palate of a generic consumer that could be located anywhere in the globe.

To put it roughly, the tension between the Old World and the New World of wine can be framed as a tension on two opposite interpretations of the role that two key concepts, democratization and civilization were playing in the globalization of wine market. While the Old World was perceiving the democratization of wine taste as an inevitable loss in “civilization”, the price to pay to give access to the many to the civilised pleasures, the New World was perceiving the same phenomenon as a step towards a new global civilization, which challenged an imperial view of civilisation of wine taste imposed by Europe.

The two attitudes were both plausible: civilization is an intrinsically normative concept: it refers to a human cultural patrimony that is potentially valuable for all humankind. But this patrimony is culturally situated: it stems from a particular nation, with its territories and cities. According to Norbert Elias[6] the concept of civilization (civilisation in French) refers ambiguously in the European Renaissance to the cultural, political, scientific accomplishments of a society and the behaviours and attitudes of its members (the good manners, the taste preferences of the “civilized” man). Even if the German term kultur refers to a more limited portion of the civilising process, that is, its intellectual, artistic and religious accomplishments, the term “cultivated” (kultiviert in German) refers also to the civilized manners: being cultivated refers to a form of people’s conduct or behaviour. As Elias says “it describes a social quality of people, their housing, their manners, their speech, their clothing”[7] Global civilization, if distinguished from imperialism and colonialism (that is, the imposing rules, manners and norms of life that stem from a centre of power) thus sounds as an oxymoron: either you are well mannered and national, or you are global, may be more democratic, but uncivilised.

Even the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship, that has been so fashionable these years in order to try to find a way out to these contradictions[8], has raised some doubts, as it evokes an “unpleasant posture of superiority toward the putative provincial. You imagine a Comme des Garçons-clad sophisticate with platinum frequent-flyer card regarding, with kindly condescension, a ruddy-faced farmer in workman’s overalls”[9]

Yet, what I want to argue as a conclusion, is that the rise of world-wine contributed and contributes to a more suitable conception of cosmopolitanism “with a human face” that is necessary to build a new global culture without erasing the local standpoints. The globalized taste of the wines from the emergent market had a huge impact on the taste of wine even in the Old World, and it is hard to argue that this was just to the detriment of local traditions. Local traditions, if they do not want to become pure folklore, have to evolve even if sometimes this means to pay a price to its own identity and accepting that others, “the strangers” or the “uncivilized” may teach something new to you. Standardized worldwine tastes have something to teach to local traditions, at least by making them aware of an update of how the manners and needs of people around the world are evolving.

And as the rise of world-wine grows, its discrimination becomes more fine-grained: styles of worldwine start to develop, insisting on the notion of terroir and matching grapes and winemaking styles to particular locations. Californian producers, which started with a very simplified system of wine denomination, that included on the label just the name of the producer and the variant of grape, have started since already 10 years to put on their labels the name of local renowned vineyards now associated to a grape variety, such as Zinfandel in Dry-Creek Valley and Pinot Noir in Carneros. Differentiation of areas and vineyards is still ongoing, rankings and evaluations are multiplying. Instead of the desert landscape of an uniform wine, the globalized wine is becoming part of a global “civilizing” process in which conversations multiply and help to make explicit some common concerns for quality and respect of the difference. Wine has entered its cosmopolitan face, as many other products have, but this doesn’t coincide with a loss of identity and quality. There is no room anymore for a local standpoint of view, because the simple contact with global phenomena has irreducibly changed our way of perceiving our own identity and locality. Wine-talk is part of an attempt to construct a valuable shared culture (or civilisation) of taste, a cosmopolitanism with a human face that reinforces both kinds of trust: trust in the respect of the processes and trust in people who attach to these processes the richness and value of their local perspective. What kind of talk wine talk is that makes it so suitable for cosmopolitan conversations? It is mainly a sharing of different rankings, a meta-normative talk about what is good and bad. Exchanging rankings, that is, evaluated information, is one of the central ingredient of a new, emergent global culture. One could see the whole networked culture made possible by the Web as a giant network of ranking and rating systems in which information is valued as long as it has been already filtered by other people. In an informationally-dense but normatively uncertain environment as the global society, exchanging rankings becomes a crucial step towards the construction of a common culture. That is how culture grows, how traditions are created. A cultural tradition is, to begin with, a labelling system of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. Wine talk is a talk that helps to establish new, exchangeable ranking of taste, thus providing a common ground to negotiate a new, shared cultural identity.



[1] Cf. http://portal.unesco.org/culture

[2] K. Marx (1848) Manifesto

[3] Cf. M. Pollan (2006) The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals, Pengouin.

[4] Cf. Report of European Commission 2006 : Vin. Economie du secteur, Direction générale de l’Agriculture, February 2006.

[5] Ed McCarthy, “The Case Against Globalization of Wine”, Wine Review Online.com

[6] N. Elias (1994) The Civilizing Process : Sociogenetics and Psychogenetics, Blackwell, Oxford.

[7] Cf. ibidem. p. 6.

[8] See for example A. Appiah (2006) Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, W. W. Norton, New York, who contrasts the notion of “cosmopolitanism” to that of “globalization” and “multiculturalism”.

[9] Cf. Appiah, cit., p. xiii.