I don’t know anything about … but I know what I like

We’ve all heard it said, probably confidently announced it ourselves. It usually crops up when we are talking about things like art, music, wine. That definitive proclamation

‘I don’t know anything about [insert particular thing] but I know what I like!’

Often followed by an emphatic ‘And I know I don’t like that!’ Typically whilst aggressively pointing at some divisive piece of contemporary art, avant-garde music, or expensive wine.

Garden variety opinions — like my previous thought that Socrates has the right sort of ignorance — may be held for some good, wrong, or no reason. Though, whatever it is, there’s possibly another better reason that can change this sort of opinion. I could just come to know something about Socrates’ ignorance that rightly changes my mind about it. Realise I was mistaken.

But our claims about what we like, equally dislike, appear rightfully untouched by reasons. They simply can’t be wrong.

No reason could change my liking, my deep feelings, say, for the dark, murderous ballads of Nick Cave because what I (what we) like is particular to me (to each of us). My own feeling for Nick Cave’s music is why I like it. I might talk about things, such as, the poignancy of the lyrics, harshness of the guitars to explain my feelings. Nevertheless, these claims only give us reason to appreciate — understand the value of Nick Cave — not my like for it.

This appears most obvious with what we like on our tongue. No matter how much you know about, say, the qualities of Dom Pérignon — some buff might go on about ‘flavour profile’— and the given reasons — grape variety, fermentation, or some guff — for it being an understandably excellent champagne, from your initial taste you really just don’t like it. Perhaps you simply prefer Babycham for alcoholic fizz. Reasons might change your garden variety opinion about Dom Pérignon; but your dislike for it on your tongue, your particular feeling, remains indisputably the same.

So liking appears to be knowing our particular feelings, while appreciating, more broadly understanding, is knowing general reasons. And, it seems, bad to confuse or mix the two. Although no-one can deny us our feelings, regularly they are charged with leading our understanding (sometimes dangerously) astray. Philosophy usually deals with this by having us suppress our particular feelings and look for general reasons. We are rational beings, after all.

But is this right? Do our likes necessarily mislead our reason? Conversely, while-ever reason conflicts with our likes, do we really understand it?

I suggest that genuine liking only comes from genuinely coming to know. So that seemingly definitive proclamation is ultimately a mistake, a contradiction. Instead if you do not know about it, you cannot know if you really like it or not!

‘But surely,’ you protest, ‘that Babycham drinker knows that they like Babycham, and, for all the reasons in the world, know they definitely don’t like Dom Pérignon?!’

My short answer. ‘No, they don’t.’

Now, in no way am I saying that the Babycham drinker does not believe that they like it. And rightly so — they have the taste on their tongue. Yet, this falls short of them knowing it.

Again you protest, ‘hey you said we just can’t be wrong about what we like!’

I agree — in so far as we can’t be wrong about any of our own beliefs, especially what we like. We might (and often do) have the wrong beliefs, but no-one can argue that the beliefs we have cannot, indeed, be our own. Mostly they help us get by just fine — they make it easy to choose drinks at the pub, ‘Babycham, please’. However, genuinely knowing what we like requires more than our mere beliefs. Knowing requires a proper understanding of the thing we like. We have to know about … to know we like it.

Think about it. How can anyone really come to appreciate Dom Pérignon, or Babycham? For instance, how can we really understand its ‘flavour profile’? A single taste won’t do it. Many tastes, without the wine buff guff, won’t do it either. Also the guff remains just guff without the tastes. It is a combination of learning about Dom Pérignon and progressively refined tasting of it that we come to genuinely know it. Through this practice of coming to know we can work out what we genuinely like. Cultivate a genuine taste for it.

Importantly, we now see cultivating genuine likes is no different from cultivating our garden variety opinions. That is working out the best tastes/reasons. So it needs to work both ways. That genuine understanding comes out of genuine liking.

We saw last time, like the Trojan King Priam and that wooden horse, we philosophers can be fooled by the look of an idea. Moreover, the story goes, Priam liked the idea of bringing that horse into Troy so much it blinded him to all the warnings. So we see we can be fooled by our liking or feel for an idea, fact, truth, too.

Think about it. How many opinions, ideas, facts that you hold on to — take to be true — that you also sincerely do not like? I’m guessing none. If you doubt me, contemplate your position on climate change, immigration, abortion, whatever; which reasons, ideas, or position you take to be true that you don’t also like? Any that don’t feel right?

Recall from my first discussion of mind changing that we are all prone to confirmation bias, that is, looking for evidence that confirms our existing beliefs, our likes. But unlike philosophy’s perennial solution to suppress our feelings and uphold reasons, I suggest we must learn to genuinely like alternate reasons to properly change our mind.

Yes, this makes successful imitation even harder, how do we imitate liking? However, it need not be an all out ecstatic like, simply thinking about how or why you might prefer some alternative — as in ‘I like that one over that other one’ or ‘I dislike that one least’ — is enough to get things going on the right track. In this way, to maintain philosophical integrity we not only need to think right but also feel right.

Still, it is not clear that we can ever get this completely right. What if we learn to like the wrong reasons? Or we never like the right ones? Where do I start? I think about this next time.

For now leave you with a controversial artwork I know about and know I like…


Jackson Pollocks, ‘Blue Poles’, Number 11, 1952.

Next time: Who needs an expert, anyway?


3 thoughts on “I don’t know anything about … but I know what I like

  1. Have you read ‘Being Wrong’ by Kathryn Schulz? Her main idea is that it being wrong feels the same as being right (because as soon as we know we are wrong we change our minds, but when we just are wrong of course we don’t know it). I think you are making a similar point about having mistaken feelings….


  2. Hey Kathrine: How do you think what you’ve said relates to things `growing on you’ (or indeed `shrinking on you’ if that makes sense!)? What you’ve said seems to mesh well with things that I’ve felt as my tastes change.

    Also, what place do you find for those, seemingly initially introspectively transparent, cases? The `knowledge’ there seems more secure than many other kinds of knowledge, yet you want to drive say it may well not be!

    Cool post by the way. Apologies for the brief comment (and apologies if I missed something in the text—rather a rushed read and comment).


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