Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

I'd like to talk for a bit about impossibility.

"Impossible" is, philosophically, a translation of the Greek adunatos. To be "dunatos" in the typical sense is to be strong, i.e. fit and able-bodied; in an extended sense it means to have a capacity, to be able to do something. Dunamis is "power," but not power in the general sense. It's always a power of a very specific sort: the power of a shoemaker to produce shoes, the power of a seed to grow into a tree, the power of 3 to become 9 when squared. But that same 3 cannot become 4 or 16 when squared, and to this extent it is adunatos - incapable. It cannot support the possibility, it cannot bear it. The seed too, will not support ever being-at-work growing into a castle or a dinosaur; the situation, as it were, cannot be borne by the entity. And when Aristotle famously states the single most basic principle (archē) of philosophy, he uses this very term: "To gar auto ama huparchein te kai mē huparchein adunaton tōi autō kai kata to auto." (1005b) This is a difficult and controversial passage to translate ("huparchein" is extremely ambiguous), but I submit: "for the same thing is incapable of both being and not being in a single moment, for itself and according to itself." But despite this being Aristotle's "most firm principle," I think we have to consider it as grounded in something even more basic - namely, the very concept of dunamis and the dunaton developed in Metaphysics IX. I won't try to deal with that discussion here, but suffice it to say that I consider it probably the single most important text in the history of Western philosophy.

Aristotle's statement has come down to us, of course, as the principle of noncontradiction, and although there have been subtle and important shifts in the content (many of which would have puzzled Aristotle, I think) it retains its status as something fundamental. Capacity has become possibility - now defining less what entities can do, and more whether and which entities can be at all. And the principle of noncontradiction quite often defines the space of possibility as such - "whatever is self-identical is able to exist." It usually defines the space for logical possibility, at least, i.e. it defines which propositions may concievably be true and which not. But of course, over the years philosophers have added additional limits to possibilities. Things may be impossible as willed by God, impossible by reason of a lacking cause, impossible by natural law, and (in Kant) impossible by the conditions of possible experience.

Let us consider this last one, what Kant calls "The Highest Principle of All Synthetic Judgments": "every object stands under the necessary conditions of synthetic unity of the manifold of intuition in a possible experience." (A158 B197) Since the project of the Critique of Pure Reason is famously to establish how it is possible that we know and experience objects at all - which turns out to amount to the question of how a priori synthesis is possible - then then this little stretch of text is fundamental to that project. The conditions of experience - whether that experience be concrete or an imagination of sorts - determines what and whether an object of experience can be. It's the chief work of the Transcendental Doctrine of Elements to determine what those conditions are. By doing so, one can precisely establish the limits of experiential as well as epistemic possibility.

Here one runs into a problem, especially obvious in Kant but (I think) probably common to everyone who attempts to determine the limits of the possible. How is it possible to establish what is possible? So far as I can tell, there are two available roads (Kant uses both). The first is to set down a law a priori from which one can derive various consequences. The second is the process that we now call "transcendental argument."

A "transcendental argument" is not, strictly speaking, an argument. It does not present premises from which one can derive consequences - or, at any rate, if it were then it couldn't do the sort of work Kant needs it to do. This "argument" consists rather in a curious form of projection, of the fantasy of a certain sort of experience. (I suspect it is finally no different in kind from what Husserl names as "eidetic variation.") We project ourselves into an experience and, as it were, attempt to determine the limits of the experience itself. We ask ourselves whether it is conceivable to experience in certain ways at all. The "argument" of Kant's second analogy, for example, does not conclude that experience is bound by the laws of causality because of some feature of the concepts involved. The point, brutely put, is: "Look, you can be skeptical all you want, but imagine yourself in a real situation watching the manifold sequence of events involved in billiard balls hitting each other. Now try to imagine that there is no succession at all. Not that the individual perceptions occur in a new order, but that there is simply no order. There is nothing wrong with the mere concept of this, but does it still make sense to think of these as events at all? Can we meaningfully think of perceptions without succession as experience?" The answer is supposed to be "no" - thus we admit temporal succession, i.e. causality, as a necessary condition for experience.

But if this is the method of transcendental argument, then it is open to an extremely simple criticism. In the end, there are quite a lot of things which we fail to "conceive" before the fact - falling in love, drinking an extraordinary Scotch, witnessing the collapse of Lehman Brothers - but this does not keep them from happening. And they do happen; they throw themselves at us despite our never seeing them in advance. And if impossibility here is tantamount to inconceivability, then one must conclude that the impossible happens every day. (One might establish "gradations" of impossibility, but that would be all.) Of course, one could counter that the inconceivability of non-successive experience is not the same as the inconceivability of a financial disaster. One might argue that there is a difference between what has not been thought by one person, or even by anyone, and what cannot be thought at all. But it is utterly questionable whether this is a distinction any of us could legitimately make. After all, it is me who participates in transcendental argumentation, not some grand overmind: if I cannot conceive something, I also cannot establish in advance which sort of non-conceiving I have run into. If we are to set down this distinction nevertheless, then we must turn to another method. We must take it as a principle.

There is, so far as I am aware, no serious criticism of the first Critique more common than: "Where exactly does the Table of Judgments come from??" That is, where does Kant get the source from which the deduction of the basic categories of experience is supposed to proceed? It's a very good criticism; Kant himself admits that he does not know (it's the mark of an uncommonly honest philosopher that he does this). In the end he simply lifts it from the tradition he's supposed to be critiquing and, thus, dogmatically takes the whole basis for the Transcendental Logic for granted. And I suspect one runs into the same question anytime one wishes to establish a law that will decide, once and for all, what is and is not possible. One can always just turn the quid juris back against the very thing that's supposed to establish the right in the first place. To be sure, dogmatic presuppositions of this sort can do quite a lot of work and they can be quite plausible, but ultimately they shall remain somewhat unsatisfactory. They will always be questionable, even if one has never heard of the epochē or Husserl's principle of principles.

Let us go back and reconsider Aristotle. His archē reads, once again: "The same thing is incapable of both being and not being in a single moment, for itself and according to itself." Is this a principle, asserted dogmatically? Initially it may look that way, but I think this is inaccurate. For one thing, Aristotle musters considerable phenomenological evidence to support his case, especially in Metaphysics IV.4. But it can also be seen simply from another line that closely follows the principle and, as it were, anchors it: "adunaton gar hontinoun tauton hupolambanein einai kai mē einai," "for it is unbearable to believe that the same thing can be and not be." Aristotle's entire proof of the principle amounts to demonstrating that this cannot be "believed," i.e. that one just cannot experience matters in that way. It thus amounts to a kind of transcendental argument - the same sort as before. But if that's so, then it is ultimately vulnerable to precisely the same criticisms as any other such "argument." Even noncontradiction, then, must run up against our inability to firmly draw a line between the absolutely impossible and the individually (or even universally) inconceivable.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not saying that everything is possible. This is exactly the reverse of my conclusion. There are possibilities, and there "are" impossibilities. This line is drawn by what is thinkable. But if I erase the second line between inconceivability and absolute impossibility, I do so not only on the basis of a good argument which is, however, entirely negative. I also do so because there are important, positive phenomenological consequences. The extraordinary thing is this: if impossibility is indeed tantamount to the unthinkable, the inconceivable - i.e., if we cannot justify any distinction between the two - then we will indeed experience the impossible to the same extent that we experience the unexpected. Perhaps this only happens for a moment, or even less; perhaps in the same instant that the impossible happens it retroactively inscribes itself into the field of the possible so that, as in Kant, there is an unbroken succession of reason. Nevertheless the impossible does happen. If that seems outrageous to common sense, I agree, but I think it's phenomenologically accurate nevertheless. The real work is to try to describe exactly what happens in those moments - as it were, to articulate how it is that the impossible gives itself to us. But that's work for a whole lifetime.

Now, all of this brings me to Dogfish Head.

If impossibility has a friend in the world of brewing, that friend is surely Dogfish Head. As a brewery, it's experimental to a fault and beyond. They are constantly pushing the edge on what we think beer can be, and depending on your taste this can be a good or a bad thing. Me, I love them. I love them more than I love other breweries that, overall, make better beer, precisely because I know these guys will always surprise me. Beer made with raisins and peaches? SURE. A stout pushing 40 proof? WHY NOT. A recreation of something we scraped out of 2700 year old steins? DAMN RIGHT. One gets the sense that they won't be happy until they break out of beermaking entirely and end up in some other kind of medium. The results probably fail more often than they succeed - but they're also never boring.

This here is Punkin, a brown ale brewed with pumpkins which is apparently the first beer they ever made. From the website: "Punkin Ale made it's debut as it claimed First Prize in the 1994 Punkin Chunkin Recipe Conest - yes, that was a full 6 months before we even opened our doors for business." As such, it seems like a good subject for a first review of their catalog. I'd almost forgotten that I had one of these until yesterday; it's getting on a little agewise (they brew this stuff at the beginning of fall), but I'm looking forward to trying it. My only other experience with a pumpkin ale is the Ichabod Ale by New Holland, which I found decidedly "meh."

Well, it pours a funky orange-amber with a finger's worth of fairly thin white head (no lacing from this sucker - that stuff is strictly carbonation). Good God, I can smell the aroma from here. And "pumpkin" isn't the first thing that comes to mind, although as I stick my head in - whew! - I can certainly detect it. The initial impression is more of a sharp, penetrating fruitiness, mellowed out by good old fashioned ale malts. It's like a pale ale that's been shot through with a cross-section of supermarket produce. And I can also detect a goodly bit of spice in here - mainly nutmeg, although the bottle informs me that there's also allspice and cinnamon. This is definitely not something I've smelled before - I'm not sure if I like it, but it's surely unique.

Wow, that's different... hmmm. Hmmmmm.

Well, first off, the beer is quite a bit thinner than I thought it would be. I was expecting more of the usual touch of brown ale creaminess, but it's actually rather watery. Second off, it's surprisingly boozy. This brew is a seven-percenter, which is high for a "brown ale" but pretty mild by my standards. The problem is that it doesn't hide it at all. Subtlety is not this beer's strong suit; if you're trying to get someone drunk on the sly, this is not the beer to do it with.

As for the taste itself, it's a bit of a rollercoaster. A fun one, no doubt, but one that will end in seasickness for a few among the riders. I admire this taste, but I don't think I like it. On the front end it seems like any other amber or pale ale - you get a sweet kiss of malt with a little bit of sour thrown in. Towards the middle things start to get weird. The usual caramel flavors are there, but a massive streak of herby dry bitterness rides right on top of them. That would be the spices, I expect. By the swallow said spices have taken over completely - there's a yeasty snap in the aftertaste, and then all that's left is a rather vegetable-like bitter mouth coating. Funny as hell, I don't actually taste any pumpkin here. I taste your regular run-of-the-mill ale malts, your crazy spice rack contents, and that's about all. No real fruit character through the entire thing.

If you like, you can divide Dogfish Head beers into four categories. The first is the standards; the second is the beer styles that they haven't drastically fucked with, but maybe tried to improve; the third is the radical experiments that succeeded; the fourth is the experiments that failed, but remain interesting. Punkin falls squarely into the fourth category - more of a Raison D'Etre than an Immort Ale or an India Brown. It's special enough to try once, but now that I've done it I don't think I'd bother a second time.

So, not a great beer, then. Is it going to put me off of Dogfish Head? Hell no. If I want a good solid beer that's going to coddle me for the night, well, there's lots of other breweries I can turn to. But if I want something that gives me a glimpse of impossibility - well, by that measure they're the best in the business.

Grade: C+
Summary: A very boozy amber ale and some fall spices meet up and cohabitate. Not very good, but try it anyways.


  1. The old dog lay in
    The summer sun lit the grouse
    Tuck everlasting

  2. I couldn't ask for a better first comment than that.