January/February 2011

Philosophy Regains its Senses

Written by Ray Boisvert

Ray Boisvert describes the disdain which many philosophers down the ages have had for food and the other appetites of the body

Richard Watson was a trailblazer of sorts. In 1985, the Washington University professor published a book which combined dieting tips with ruminations on the big questions of life. The combination was not as far fetched as it seemed. The very word ‘diet’ is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘mode of life.’ Since a proper mode of living involves good nutrition, the word soon took on connotations associated with food.

Watson called his book The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and change the World. If his title played on the original meaning of ‘diet’ his philosophical colleagues would probably not have noticed. For them, food and food practices were alien and unwelcome intrusions into a rarefied atmosphere where people could debate forever on whether a brain in a vat, suitably wired to stimulate sensation, might think that it was actually a complete human being roaming about the world.

Dismissal of food as a proper subject for philosophical inquiry is well rooted in the history of thought. Food, food preparation, and the appetite that drives them have been thought to be too mired in the body to be of any philosophical interest. Plato set the tone in his Phaedo by complaining that food was a distraction from higher things. He went so far as to write another dialogue, the Symposium, which is about a banquet at which no one eats. Plato’s contempt for

appetite goes hand in hand, as feminist’s tend to remind us, with another sort of contempt. Not only is food missing in the Symposium, but women are banished as well. There is a central ‘female’ in the dialogue, but she is an imaginary goddess who celebrates escaping the body as the best way to speak of love.

Philosophy’s towering early figure [Plato] thus bequeathed a triple exclusion as part of his legacy: love without the body, men without women, and banquets without food.

Popular culture was still echoing Plato in 1951 when John Huston’s film The African Queen was released. Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn), disgusted with Charlie Allnut’s (Humphrey Bogart) weakness of the flesh, reproaches him with a philosophically sweeping statement, “Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.” Such a ‘rise above’ attitude has been prominent in philosophy from the beginning.

The denigration of food has been one consequence of this prominence.

Aristotle needed no more than a comparison with cooking to dismiss music’s role in education. “If they must learn music, [then] on the same principle they should learn cookery, which is absurd.” Arthur Schopenhauer, although separated by the Greeks by two millennia, echoed two familiar ‘rise above’ themes: banishing food and denigrating females. His essay ‘On Women’ stands out as the great European exemplar of philosophical misogyny. His disdain for food is no less palpable. Aesthetics was an area where Schopenhauer made important and lasting contributions.

When he discussed still-life paintings, he couldn’t help dismissive comments about the food/appetite connection.

Still-Lifes are fine, he claimed, unless they contain food. Fruit still on the vines was an approved subject. It could then be contemplated by reason for it’s beauty. Depicted as food though, the same fruit would act as a stimulus to the appetite which makes us prisoners of the objectenslaved will.

When it comes to actual eating practices, philosophers hardly fare better. Wittgenstein, his biographer tells us, “did not care what he ate so long as it was always the same.”

Sartre was philosophically annoyed by the body’s regular cry for nutrition. When questioned about his food preferences, he admitted that they were few. He rarely ate vegetables or fruits unless they were mixed into something like pastry.

Seafood of all sorts revulsed him, along with tomatoes. Sausages, sauerkraut and chocolate cake were among his favourites. The most striking thing about Sartre’s daily ingestion was the quantity of non foods with which he contaminated his body: two packs of especially strong cigarettes, interspersed with constant puffing on a pipe, many glasses of wine, beer, distilled alcohol, tea and coffee, alternating with amphetamines and barbiturates. His special enmity for seafood came back to haunt him one day when in mescaline induced state, he imagined himself being stalked by a lobster.

While this disdain of food is overwhelming in philosophy’s history there are a few exceptions. For a philosopher to be an exception, it seems advantageous to have a name containing a ‘u,’ an ‘h’ or both.

Heraclitus once surprised visitors by greeting them in an unusual room. ‘Do not fear,” he said from the kitchen, “for the gods are here also.” David Hume, late in life, dedicated himself, as he put it, to “display my great talent for cookery.” Hume’s girth (Edward Gibbon referred to him as “the fattest of Epicurus’ hogs”), may provide the simple explanation for his anomalous attitude. He and Aristippus, the Hellenistic proponent of hedonism, are the only two philosophers known to have been chefs. To find another exception, we have to leave the Western tradition. Lin Yutang, keeping the spirit of Confucius alive in the 20th century, referred to humans as “stomach gifted.”

“The Chinese spirit” he declared, “glows over a good feast...From this well-filled stomach suffuses and radiates a happiness that is spiritual.”

These are minor exceptions in a constant parade of philosophers for whom philosophy means focusing exclusively on mind and leaving stomach in the shadows. The last century, though, may have sown seeds for change. John Dewey, as early as the 1920’s, urged philosophers to pay attention to that dimension of human experience concerned with “direct enjoyment” in “feasting and festivities,” an area sorely lacking the attention “from philosophers that it demands.” His challenge was not answered until the last decades of the century. Watson’s “diet and deep thoughts” book was the first in the U.S. In France, Michael Serres and Michal Onfray have taken reflection on food seriously, Serres in technical and difficult works like Le Parasite (1980) and Les cinq sens (1985), and Onfry in more accessible works like Le ventre des philosophes (1989) and La raison gourmande (1995).

Britain’s contribution has been Elizabeth’s Telfer’s Food for Thought, issued in 1966 and the promise from Roger Scruton of a forthcoming philosophical cookbook, “which will take in the nature of food and our relationship to it.” In America, a number of books have followed Watson’s Philosophers Diet. Lisa Heldke and Deane Curtin broke important ground with their anthology Cooking, Eating and Thinking in 1992. Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight followed in 1993. Leon Kass brought out The Hungry Soul in 1994. The century closed out with Carolyn Korsmeyer’s; Making Sense of Taste, whose subtitle points explicitly to the new area for exploration: Food and Philosophy.

Is this just a fad, or is it a trend which can move philosophical life forward? What impact