WHAT’S IT LIKE TO EAT A CHOCOLATE HOBNOB?
Dr Guy Longworth, Philosophy
To dunk or not to dunk, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mouth once it has been drenched in tea or do we take up arms against those who promote such sacrilege? Why do we (fervently) prefer the experience of one over the other and how can we explain our observations to others? Dr Guy Longworth asks us to contemplate the nature of experience and how we explain that knowledge to others, all via the medium of a chocolate covered biscuit.
What is it like to eat a chocolate Hobnob? And how, if at all, can one come to know the answer to that question? How, that is, can one know what it is like to eat one? One obvious answer, at least applicable to normally endowed humans would be: by eating one. Alternatively, and perhaps more carefully, one might try through a combination of one’s being normally endowed with knowledge acquiring powers and one’s undergoing a sufficient quantity of experiences of eating chocolate Hobnobs. But is that answer the only one? That is, is having such an experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob a necessary condition for knowing what it’s like to have the experience?
I wish here briefly to set out two more specific aspects of these questions, analogues of which have figured in some recent philosophical work. The first question is, must one have some sorts of experiences in order to come to know what it’s like to eat a chocolate Hobnob? The first question is a version of questions that have famously been pressed by Thomas Nagel (about what it’s like to be a bat) and Frank Jackson (about what it’s like to see the redness of a rose). The second question is, must one have the experience specifically of eating a chocolate Hobnob? The second question is a version of questions that have famously been pressed by David Hume (about his missing shade of blue) and Thomas Nagel (again, about being a bat, given that none of us has been). Hume’s question concerned the possibility of acquiring a particular type of idea of a shade of blue that one had not experienced that shade, but had experienced surrounding shades.
Let’s begin with the first question. Suppose that one had never eaten a biscuit, or any approximately biscuit-like foodstuff. Imagine, for example, that one had been locked in a biscuit-less canteen all of one’s life and fed only yellow paste. Would a verbal description of what it would be like to eat a biscuit put one in a position to figure out what it would be like? Could one even imagine what it would be like for one to experience eating a biscuit? And if one could, could one tell that that was what one was imagining, for example by reliably distinguishing that imagining, as the imagining of eating a chocolate Hobnob, from similar imaginings?
The second question aims to home in on a more specific requirement. Suppose that one had enjoyed a wide variety of experiences of eating (plain) Hobnobs. And suppose that one had also had many experiences of eating chocolate biscuits—for example, chocolate Digestives. Suppose, finally, that one had reflected carefully on those experiences and were normally endowed with powers of imagination. Would one’s experience, reflective knowledge, and imaginative capacity put one in a position to figure out what it would be like for one to experience eating a chocolate Hobnob? Here, one might think that one’s experiences might do so if the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob were a sort of combination of aspects of the experiences of eating a (plain) Hobnob and eating a chocolate Digestive. For in that case, one might be able to construct an imagined experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob from its constituent aspects. Alternatively, however, one might wonder whether the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob is merely a combination of aspects of experiences one could have had by other means. Perhaps, for example, the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob involves a chocolate-aspect and a Hobnob-aspect. However, perhaps those aspects are similar to, but not identical with, the chocolate-aspect of eating a chocolate Digestive and the Hobnob-aspect of eating a (plain) Hobnob, respectively. In that case, although it may yet be possible to figure out what it would be like to eat a chocolate Hobnob, doing so might involve non-combinatorial operations of the imagination.
Thomas Nagel, 1974, What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review 83: 435–50
Frank Jackson, 1982, Epiphenomenal Qualia, Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127–136
John O. Nelson, 1989, Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue Re-viewed, Hume Studies Volume XV Number 2: 353-364
Paul Snowdon, 2010, On the what-it-is-likeness of experience, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Volume 48, Issue 1: 8–27
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Dr Guy Longworth’s research interests are testimonial knowledge transmission, the nature of knowledge of language and linguistic understanding and the nature of first person thoughts. His other interests include Kant; Descartes; the philosophy of language; the nature of linguistic properties; the semantics and metaphysics associated with talk about events, processes, and states; the philosophy of linguistics; the nature of perception, especially perception of speech; the history of analytical philosophy, especially the works of Austin, Chomsky, Davidson, Frege, Quine, and Russell. He is a member of the editorial board of Mind & Language and editor for the languages category on Philpapers.
Image: Image of tea and biscuits by Nilanjan Sasmal (via Flickr).