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Philosophers on Coffee
by Matt Qvortrup
‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.
Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.
Coffee brings clarity, and perhaps that is why Immanuel Kant swore by the black stuff. “There were two things in life for which Kant had an intolerable liking; coffee and tobacco,” reported Thomas De Quincy in The Last Days of Kant (p.118). Philosophers disagree on many things, however. Iris Murdoch, the Anglo-Irish philosopher and novelist, did not share Kant’s obsession: “Coffee, unless it is very good and made by somebody else, is pretty intolerable at any time” (The Sea, The Sea, p.90).
Wittgenstein was a philosopher preoccupied with words and their meaning. How better to ponder this than by writing about, well, coffee?
“Describe the aroma of coffee. Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma of coffee and not succeeded?” (Philosophical Investigations, §610)
Coffee must have been a bit of a preoccupation for philosophers in England at the time, for Elizabeth Anscombe (who translated Wittgenstein, as well as being a first rate philosopher herself) used it as an example to explain why a word’s intention had to be specific: that it did not allow “pouring out coffee when I meant to pour out tea to be an action, being intentional under the description ‘pouring out liquid from this pot’” (Ethics and Medical Decision-Making, p.223).
Søren Kierkegaard’s most famous work is Either-Or. When the then twenty-nine-year-old penned this masterpiece he was pondering a very important existentialist question: to drink or not to drink coffee? It’s either-or. For, as he explained, “… when I drink coffee, my nausea comes from drinking coffee, and when I do not drink coffee, my nausea comes from not drinking coffee. And so with us humans. The whole earthly Life is a kind of malaise; in some the reason is too much effort, in others too little.” The peculiar way he drank his coffee might explain the ill effects of his habit. Kierkegaard reportedly, “delightedly…seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” (Garff, Kierkegaard, p.288).
Voltaire – him of Candide and ‘the best of all possible worlds’ fame – reportedly drank fifty-five cups of coffee a day. Which seems remarkable. And according to his physician, rather dangerous. When the doctor warned the eighty-year-old Enlightenment philosopher that it was a ‘slow poison’, Voltaire responded stoically, “Yes, I have been taking it every day for more than eighty years” (Mercure de France, October 4, 1783).
So, coffee is not necessarily unhealthy. It can even be a life-affirming thing. Simone de Beauvoir had one of her characters say, “I am going to have a cup of coffee in the bistro on the corner. I’ll be back in a few minutes” (The Mandarins, p.827). I’ll do the same.
© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2022
Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.