Cathie, this one's for you:
On Chocolate, Phenomenological Existentialism and Assessment: A quiet brain-fart
From the series "Food for Thought"
Chocolate is chocolate, or is it? Does it have an essence or do we merely perceive it as being chocolate? Or, perhaps, instead of a chocolate-or-no-chocolate dichotomy, we may employ a scale on which to assess an extent of "chocolateyness."
If we could shut off all our senses and if we were to then, without our knowing more than the fact that we would simply be given an item of food, be fed a piece of chocolate, would we (be able to) perceive that which we were consuming as chocolate? Most likely not, but would that fact make that piece of chocolate any less a piece of chocolate? If, by divine intervention or a freak physics accident carried out hundreds of thousands of years afterwards by a crazy scientist (with, it must be said, a distinct dislike of chocolate) tinkering with a new wormhole technology, a Neanderthal had come across a piece of chocolate and thought it was simply a nice-tasting (albeit rather oddly-shaped and -textured) turd, would it inherently still be a piece of chocolate or only become a piece of chocolate once we identified it as being so?
Some may argue that chocolate does not have an essence in the first place, as, firstly, it is not sentient (though I refuse to believe that chocolate stains are purely an accident!) and, secondly, because it is formed of several different inanimate components or ingredients. In other words, we are "in ourselves;" we have a transcendental Selbst, but chocolate does not. But, is this necessarily the case? Are we, too, not also a conglomeration of different components that very conveniently act together to enable us to perceive and palatably interact with a given square of chocolate? Perhaps so, but a piece of chocolate cannot define or transform itself while we, on the other hand and according to existentialist holdings, can; we can choose what is that makes us essentially human.
Or can we? Humanists would beg to differ. They would argue that essence precedes existence, i.e. that we are innately X, Y and Z and that is those attributes which make us quintessentially human. But, consider a Mowgli'esque figure (who, I'm sure would have loved to have chowed down on a nice, big bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk Caramel chocolate) who had wolves as parents and the wild forest as a home, entirely divorced - geographically, socially and linguistically - of the outside human world. While, at least by most, he would still be considered as a member of the human species, would he still be considered human? Is it our human traits which make us human or are we essentially human? Is it the characteristics of a piece of chocolate that make it a piece of chocolate or is it essentially a piece of chocolate? If the former is true, is there a presupposition of the existence of a sentient being of some sort which can perceive and interact with a given object before that object can, in fact, be uniquely identified? Does existence presuppose perception?
We divide objects and aspects of reality (or what we perceive to be reality) into discreet categories. We all know what we mean when we say "chocolate" and we would all be able to give a similar definition of chocolate or identify certain "sacrosanct" characteristics, much like German beer, for example. But, the further we move away from those characteristics, the less familiar that object becomes. If we added caviar and Brussels sprouts (both of which, incidentally, I hate with a passion!) into the chocolate mixture, would the end product still be chocolate? Some may say "good grief, of course not!" while others would contend that it would simply be a very foul-tasting example of chocolate, but chocolate nonetheless.
Perhaps assessment (or "Assessmentology") holds the answer. Assessment may generally be defined as the evaluation of the nature, quality or ability of someone or something. Whenever we are confronted with an object (such as...oh, I don't know, chocolate!) and perceive it, we automatically assess it - a process which normally only lasts a few milliseconds. If the object has a familiar shape, texture, taste, etc. which correlates with a previously-learned image and/or description in our mind, then we identify that object in a particular way. Although I'm not a scientist and have neither research nor references to back this up, I think we can assume that this process is neither direct nor instantaneous - there is another stage juxtapositioning existence and essence or noumena and phenomena: assessment. "Chocolate" is an assessment because we must first decide whether what we have in front of us is, in fact, a piece of chocolate. And, as assessment goes, it does not have to be dyadic either. We can make an assessment as to the level of "purity" of a particular object, i.e. to what extent that object conforms to the definition of the object it appears or is supposed to be - a particular object may be a piece of chocolate or it may be a turd, OR it may be a bit of both and thus, either a very foul-tasting piece of chocolate or a very nice-tasting turd.
The dilemma we are left with is the criteria on which we base a conclusion as to the nature of a particular object. To some, a particular object may be more closely related to what it's supposed to be than to others. Normally, this is not a problem. Can you imagine two old ladies chatting over an afternoon snack, commenting on how "tea'ish" the tea is or how "scone'ish" the scones are? However, in the case of educational assessment, this is very much an issue. Most students are neither good nor bad; they may sit anywhere on the spectrum between those two poles, and it is the job of educational assessors to evaluate them and reach a conclusion as to where exactly on that spectrum they sit. The same applies to, for instance, professional food tasters. One such person may be asked to judge the quality of a piece of chocolate, i.e. how closely it equates to that person's preconception of what a (good) piece of chocolate should taste like, but not whether or not it is a piece of chocolate.
And so, it seems that, what exactly something is or purported to be, is not important. I would gladly eat a turd if it had the appearance, smell, taste and texture of what I have commonly experienced to be chocolate. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and raid the sweets cupboard and hopefully find something which says "chocolate" on it!