July 2015, number 2:

Contents: Introduction Sect. one:

  • 1: Distinguishing Coffee-ism and Tea-ism
  • 1.1: Retronasal Olfaction
  • 1.2: Dualism and Eastern Monism
  • 2: Monotheism, Pantheism and Polytheism
  • 3: From Berkeley to coffee and tea tasting
  • 4: DB Notes

Sect. three: Review of James Hoffmann …………………   In the first number of Independent Review, I said that in ‘the next issue or post, I plan to review James Hoffmann’s recent book, the World Atlas of Coffee, to be printed in section three; continue my account of the Tea and Coffee types, by drawing on Okakura’s great Book of Tea, and his idea of Tea-ism- and my idea of Coffee-ism; and also give an account of how I, a specialist in the philosophy of George Berkeley, came to be working on coffee-tasting.’ So this second issue has items in sections one and three. ………

  • 1: I have been asked to explain more fully how tea and coffee drinkers differ, from a philosophical point of view.

First I should say that MY philosophical point of view combines philosophy with psychology, by which I understand the science of experience; and it is experience which is where I begin. After that, I try to make sense of the different experiences- in this case the various tastes of teas and coffees- which I find point to differences in experiencing and experiencers, and hence to different types, from which I then try to show that certain religious and ethical consequences follow.   So what experiences distinguish tea and coffee drinking?  The basic coffee experience is of the distinctive coffee flavour, which can be experienced externally as a smell but also as a taste in the mouth, which is really the same as the smell but misperceived as a taste.  And this can be shown by your plugging your nose when you taste a coffee, for then what you thought was a taste disappears, which shows that it was really a smell. But almost as important as this distinctive coffee flavour (of the coffeol oil) are the two true tastes of coffee, i.e. the bitterness, which is the leading characteristic of Second Wave coffees, such as Starbucks and Costa, and the fruity or sour tastes of Third Wave coffees, which unlike Second Wave coffees, also contain a variety of subtle smells or aromas, which have been burnt away by the dark roasting of the coffee beans, which is the way Second Wave coffee companies produce the characteristic bitter taste of their coffees. To be complete, I should also bring in the third kind of mouth experience, which is neither of smell or true taste, but of the tactual sensations in the mouth, such as the heaviness or smoothness or viscosity of the coffee.

  • 1.1: But to keep things simple, we can leave these out here and move to the tea experience, which is almost entirely of a variety of smells or aromas. And here I should mention that probably the main thing which distinguishes the experience of tea is that, unlike coffee, there is nothing which all teas have, i.e. nothing like the distinctive coffee or coffeol flavour. So there is no one flavour or aroma that is common to Darjeeeling, Keemun, Pu-er, Oolong, Assam or green tea, etc.  Nor do true tastes play a significant role in the tea experience.  To be sure, all teas come from the same physical plant, the camellia.  But that is not experienced. It isn’t psychological or subjective, it is what we know to be its physical or objective nature, so not something experienced in the mouth, as are the various smells, which constitute the various kinds of teas, which, as mentioned above, are smells that are misperceived as tastes, by what present-day taste psychologists call retronasal olfaction, which is a smelling in the mouth, which can be illustrated in the following diagram.

unnamed   With the help of retronasal olfaction, which was only clearly recognized by taste-psychologists in the late 1980s, I think I can also clarify an underlying difference between the tea and coffee tasting types, a typal difference which goes back to Aristotle.  This is the distinction between the distal and contact senses, which was obscured when smelling was linked to tasting, by most investigators, as the two chemical senses, as against sight and hearing- the more objective or external senses. And yet it was, of course, known that we can smell things at a distance, by sniffing or orthonasal olfaction, as it is now called. What Paul Rozin showed in a pioneer article of 1982* was that smells, unlike the data of the other senses, are unique in being received in two ways, through the nose and also in the mouth, although registered in both cases by the same physical medium, namely the olfactory epithelium, as can be seen in the diagram above. And because the retronasal smells are perceived in the mouth, with the tactual qualities and true tastes, they are conflated with the latter and believed to be tastes.  Yet that they can and do exist separately is shown, I believe, in the experience of anosmics and ageusiacs, those respectively without any smells and those without any true tastes. And while smells in the mouth are closer than those perceived outwardly by the nose, say in sniffing a rose, they are still at a distance, still not contact or touch experiences.  Hence the sense of smell- and so tea-tasters- fit into the distal type, and so in the generic sense type with sight and hearing, which accords with the great variety and complexity of all three of these distal senses.  Whereas taste- and so coffee-tasters- go with the contact senses, which is shown in their very limited  or even dual character, as can be seen in the other modes touch or contact, such as hot-cold, rough-smooth, light-heavy, etc.   *P. Rozin, ‘Taste Smell Confusions’, in Perception and Psychophysics, 1982, pp. 397-401.   I hope that I have now made clearer the basic tea and coffee experiences, for it is from those different experiences that we get the key typal differences.  So coffee drinkers tend to be more interested in the (true) tastes, bitter or sour, whereas tea drinkers are interested in smells or aromas, especially the retronasal kinds, which I call mouth-smells.  And there is much more subtlety in the smells, since, according to taste psychologists, there are more than 1000 distinct smells, whereas there are only 4 true tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter; although some add a fifth called umani. Now one thing which seems to go against what I am saying here, but actually confirms it, is what I call the British & Irish tea mystery, that the British & Irish preference in tea is not for subtle aromas or any aromas but for a robust bitter black tea, modified by a little milk and sometimes sugar.  But to make a long story short, what this shows or showed was a preference for a tea that was more like coffee when there was no suitably strong bitter coffee available, which was the case before Starbucks and Costa became available in the 1980s.

  • 1.2: Going further and again cutting to the chase, from the basic experiential differences and preferences of tea and coffee drinkers, we can then move to more philosophical or even spiritual or ethical differences between coffee and tea drinking. In China and Japan there has been a long-standing interest in the connection between tea and philosophy and religion, especially that of Taoism and Zen Buddhism, which is probably most accessible in more recent writers such as Okakura and D.T. Suzuki.

Here I like to mention what Okakura says in his Book of Tea, about how tea (and hence Tea-ism) is different from the other great drinks of civilization. For (as he says in chap. one) it hasn’t the ‘arrogance of wine, the simpering innocence of cocao or the self-consciousness of coffee’. So Okakura’s insight is that tea and tea-ism in not having the self-consciousness of coffee or coffee-ism, is Buddhist rather than Cartesian.  For not only does it not find a true essential self in the Cartesian cogito, i.e. in self-consciousness, but it believes that the self, or self-hood, needs to be recognized as an illusion since it is at the basis of desire, the source of suffering which works against enlightenment and release from of suffering.  So Descartes’s attainment of certain knowledge in the cogito, the certainty that he is a thinking thing, would be utterly abhorent and rejected by both Hindu and Buddhist philosophers.   The typical Eastern experience begins in a pluralistic way, with the eager pursuit of variety, especially of pleasures, such as was the Buddha’s early life.  But, following his encounter with suffering, he eventually achieved enlightenment by recognizing that all appearances and variety are really one and futile.   So there is no fixed essence either in the world, or in the individual contemplating the world.  Thus in one famous Eastern image, the sage or mystic doesn’t know if he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man. And this way of thinking seems nicely expressed in the experience of tea drinking, how it can be of green tea, or Darjeeling, or Pu-er or Oolong or Keemun- teas with an almost endless variety of flavours, but without any generic essence or fixed point, such as coffee has, first in the one pervasive coffeol flavour, which can be both smelled and tasted, then in the two true tastes, sour and bitter, which differentiate its essence, and only then in mouth-feels and mouth-smells, other than that of the coffeol.  So it is in this way that a helpful connection can be made between tea and what Okakura calls Tea-ism and with coffee and what, following Okakura, I call Coffee-ism, and so by extension the Tea-ist and the Coffee-ist types. Ultimately, for the enlightened Tea-ist, there is the realization- as I mentioned above- that the apparent variety of life is an illusion; for as Schopenhauer, the great interpretor of the Eastern mind, tries to show, it all comes down to a circular path, with three elements: desire, with brief moments of satisfaction, followed by boredom, leading to more desire, and so on and on.  Elsewhere Schopenhauer pictures this circular path strewn with hot coals, although with some small portions without them, which we humans, walking bare-footed, try to remain on as long as we can, deceiving ourselves into thinking, when we are on them, that life is or can be good. That the Tea-ist is deeply pessimistic comes out in the Hindu hope of overcoming individual person-hood and desires by assimilating with Brahmin or impersonal existence, and the Buddhist even more radical idea of total release from existence in Nirvana, in nothingness. Whereas in the Christian and Islamic world (where coffee was discovered and developed) the ‘good news’ is that man is going to survive his death and live eternally.  And it is surely suggestive that, after being discovered in the Islamic world, coffee was taken up in Europe in the 17th century at the same time as the development of the New Science, which added a new dimension to the optimism of Christianity, which has, I think, enabled the West to continue optimistic despite the wide-spread loss of religion. Consider, too, that while there has been no intrinsic improvement or development in tea-tasting, there has been with coffee-tasting. This is shown most strikingly in the invention of the espresso machine, a technological spin-off of science, which has been able to produce a qualitative leap in the distinctive taste of coffee- so a parallel to the dualism inherent in Christianity and Islam, where the individual person not only continues after bodily death but is enhanced or perfected in its future life. But, to repeat, what the Christian and Muslim regards as the ‘good news’- that my particular living body and personality is going to live eternally- is for the Eastern religions of Hinduism and especially Buddhism the worst possible news. Okakura expresses Tea-ism’s pessimistic attitude to life, although in a relaxed way, when he writes: The outsider may indeed wonder… What a tempest in a tea-cup! But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse. So Tea-ism brings one close to enlightenment and the over-coming of personality if not existence.  In line with this, Okakura describes Tea-ism as ‘a religion of aestheticism’; so living a life of beautiful illusion as the closest thing to salvation.  As he puts it: Tea-ism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. ………….

  • 2: I now want to make use of the analogy of tea and coffee, and the relation between Tea-ism and Coffee-ism, that draws on a famous (but probably apocryphyl) story that when Abraham Lincoln was served a hot drink he is supposed to have said: ‘If this is coffee, please bring me tea; but if this is tea, bring me coffee.’

What I first want to suggest is that most people’s lives are lived in and like such a mixture of coffee and tea, where neither is clearly discernible; so they are not even aware that it is a mixture. Whereas Lincoln’s comment showed his insight into the nature of things, as well as his desire for purity. Perhaps the worst is where the mixture entirely disguises both elements, both the tea and coffee, as the colour green does in the mixture of blue and yellow. This would be like medium roasted  generic coffee, or what I call Americano, which is balanced between sour and bitter.  Sometimes one or the other prevails and dominates and tries to stamp out the other, even though the other is as pure and real as itself.  But sometimes the mixture asserts itself agains the two extremes from which it is composed, as in the case of the drink Lincoln was given, and also in the case of green in my analogy. Now I want to apply this in the religious realm, to illustrate and comment on what is arguably civilization’s most fateful development, which occurred 2,000 years. This was when the monotheistic God of Judaism was taken up by Christianity, which then went on to establish itself as a world religion- which was enforced about a 1000 years later, when the monotheistic God was adoped even more centrally to the new religion of Islam. My suggestion is that the God of monotheism (of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is, or was, like the drink Lincoln was served. More precisely the monotheistic God is a mixture of a belief in Nature or the whole world as God, i.e. pantheism, and the Gods of polytheism.  So the monotheistic God has pantheism’s one-ness but also attributes of the polytheistic gods, such as wisdom, goodness and especially person-hood. To be sure, this idea that the two kinds of Gods which do exist fused to become the monotheistic God, which doesn’t exist, is bound to seem radical and speculative. But if I my suggestion is on the right track, then it would follow that, at least in the West, the monotheistic God has occluded the truly existing Gods of pantheism and polytheism, which would then offer a new way of seeing the emergence of atheism, especially in recent times- as a sign not of spiritual decline, but the very opposite.  The present interest in monistic Eastern religions in the West indicates that pantheism is being taken more seriously.  And it is to be hoped that philosophers and theologians might begin to take seriously polytheism, as understood by Plato, i.e. the existence of eternal persons, at least some of which are superior to human persons.   ………………..

  • 3: How, I have been asked, did I, a lecturer in philosophy, get into coffee and tea tasting. In fact, it stemmed from my work on George Berkeley, the philosopher I have specialized on, who brought me to TCD, where I did my Ph.D. on his philosophy, and subsequently published three books on him. Now Berkeley’s first philosophical work was his Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, 1709, which was mainly about the senses of sight and touch, and enabled him to argue for one part of his immaterialism or idealism, in short, that what we see is entirely different from what we touch and is mind-dependent.

Having worked on this side of Berkeley’s philosophy in a scholarly way- especially in my George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man (OUP 1994)- and later and more substantially in my Penult, 2010,  I felt that to get a firmer hold on these senses and the senses in general, I should look at the two neglected senses, of smell and taste, which I felt I should do in a hands-on way by working with tea and coffee.  Why them? Two factors: they each, but especially coffee, have a distinctive, pleasurable taste and, on account of their caffeine content, a power for mental stimulation. So they seemed a good way of getting into the empiricist method of doing philosophy- or as I would say, experimental or psychological philosophy- which Berkeley recommends and practices, as I try to show in myBerkeley: Experimental Philosophy,  (pb 1997).   And as it turned out, bringing in these neglected senses enabled me to make the correlations between tea and coffee drinking, as discussed above. ……….

  • 4: DB Notes:

My Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting (34 pages, about 14,000 words)  is available, issued by Artisan Philosophy Workbooks, plainly printed in A5 size and simply bound in stiff paper covers, and aiming (in line with the artisan approach) to be useful and solid, rather than fancy or fashionable.  Copies can be purchased directly, at 4 euros each, from Gurman’s World of Coffee and Tea, in the Stephen Green Shopping Centre, Dublin 2 and from Books Upstairs, at 17 D’Olier Street, Dublin 2. Copies can also be sent at 5 euros each, including postage; or 3 euros per copy for orders of five copies and 2 euros for orders of ten copies, including postage in both cases. To obtain a copy or copies, write to Artisanphilosophy@gmail.com for information on paying and a Brochure of the other books available for sale from Artisan Philosophy Workbooks.   Having retired from teaching Philosophy full-time at TCD, I am now offering to give talks on the Philosophy of Coffee and Tea Tasting, also one-to-one study of Philosophy.  Contact dberman@tcd.ie ……….   Sect. three: Review: World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing—Coffees Explored, Explained and Enjoyed, 2014. James Hoffmann’s impressive World Atlas of Coffee is not only informative, even encyclopediac, it is also very attractively printed and illustrated.  His book also covers a lot of ground, with much space devoted to the  growing, harvesting and processing coffee (in section 1), and even more on the different regions where coffee is grown (section 3), about which I have little or nothing say here.  What I focus on are topics in section 2, especially what Hoffmann says taste, which is in general agreement with my own views as presented in my Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting– especially that the ‘longer a coffee is roasted the less acidity it will have…and bitterness will…increase the longer a coffee is roasted…’ (p. 50). What Hoffmann says about sweetness is intriguing, but I wish he had said more about it, especially on pp. 50 and 55, which also seems in line with my own view (although somewhat belied by what he says on pp. 64-5). I was also glad to see that, unlike most books on coffee, but not tea, he brought in retronasal olfaction (p. 64).  But I wished he documented some of his claims, for example about the variable effects of grinding on taste, (pp. 68f).  I suppose I should also note, as I say in my book, that like many present-day coffee experts, I believe Hoffmann is prejudiced against bitterness in coffee; see p. 88.  On the other hand, he has a huge amount of really valuable information which he communicates clearly and in a way that inspires confidence.  Given my recent experience of some Robusta from Uganda, I was particularly delighted to read what he says about it on p. 12, that The coffee industry treated Robusta like an ugly sister to Arabica until a rather interesting genetic discovery was made.  Once scientists began sequencing the genes, it became clear that the two species are not cousins or siblings.  Instead it appears that Robusta is, in fact, a parent of Arabica.  Most likely somewhere in southern Sudan, Robusta crossed with another species called Coffea euginoides and produced Arabica.  This new species spread and really began to flourish in Ethiopia, long considered the birthplace of coffee. Fascinating, but again I wish he had provided a reference to this scientific research.  Still on the subject of Robusta, I am not at all sure about his statement that ‘Some people will make a rather specious argument that a really well-produced Robusta coffee can taste better than a poor Arabica coffee and this may be true, but it does nothing to convince us that Robusta actually tastes good.’ Putting aside how a specious argument could be true, what concerns me more is Hoffmann’s reference to ‘us’, which again suggests that he is not a fan of bitter coffee.  And in all fairness, I think we need to ask how many kinds of Robusta Mr Hoffmann has actually tasted. If I am critical here, I hope it might encourage readers to send me their critical comments, either on my Philosophy of Coffee-Tasting or material in sections 1 and 3 of this net-based Review, for section 2.   ……….