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Philosophy Regains its Senses

Ray Boisvert describes the disdain which many philosophers down the ages have had for food, and the dire consequences this has had for their philosophy.

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 so 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, now lost, sense 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 in 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 feminists 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 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 pronouncement, “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 from the Greeks by two millenia, 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 its beauty. Depicted as food, though, the same fruit would act as a stimulus to appetite which makes us prisoners of the object-enslaved 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 favorites. 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 a 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’s 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 1920s, 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 US. In France, Michel Serres and Michel Onfray have taken reflection on food seriously, Serres in technical and difficult works like Le Parasite (1980), and Les cinq sens (1985), and Onfray in more accessible works like Le ventre des philosophes (1989) and La raison gourmande (1995). Britain’s contribution has been Elizabeth Telfer’s Food for Thought, issued in 1996 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: Lisa Heldke and Deane Curtin broke important ground with their anthology Cooking, Eating, 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 [see review on p.46], 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? With no crystal ball in hand, that is a difficult question to answer. What impact philosophical reflection on food should have, however, is more fertile ground for speculation. Two immediate impacts come to mind. The first is an altered self-understanding. Philosophers who took food seriously would respond to the admonition ‘know thyself’ in a different way than those who do not. The other change would be to banish once and for all a long-favored opening question for introduction to philosophy texts: how can we know anything?

The first change would undermine one important and seemingly inexorable direction in 20th century philosophy: the move from philosophers thinking of themselves as public intellectuals to professionals specializing in arcane disputes. The harvest of such specialization was underscored at the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy in Boston. A journalist covering the event asked a seemingly simple and obvious question: “What have we learned from philosophy in the 20th century?” The answers, or rather nonanswers, rang out like the noise from a hollow drum. Increased specialization and narrowness of focus has created a class of remote thinkers who can only speak to each other, and whose output represents, in the words of Dickinson’s George Lucas, “a record of largely unintelligible solutions to problems of interest to virtually no one.”

The leading academic philosophers seem to have forgotten that they are embodied, social creatures, not hermetically sealed minds. Lin Yutang’s reminder that we are all, even philosophers, ‘stomach-gifted’, offers a wonderful corrective. Letting this corrective chart its own trajectory would help bring back to prominence the claim of William James that philosophy is the “dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.” Such a sense of what life honestly and deeply means requires paying attention to the concrete, everyday world, which is, after all where we spend most of our time. This is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset tried to re-assert when he made the word ‘circumstance’ (those surroundings within which we are immersed) a central term in his philosophy. Disregarding “everything immediate and momentary in life,” he complained, was once the vogue. Such a climate, not surprisingly, cuts professionalized thinkers off from the sort of wisdom that ordinary people think of when they hear the word ‘philosophy’. Here, then, is the first important difference that consideration of food brings with it. Stomach-ignoring philosophers can spin themselves into a restricted area of intricate mind puzzles. Stomach-affirming philosophers pay more attention to ordinary experiences and seek to articulate a philosophy devoted to what Richard Shusterman of Temple University calls ‘artful living’.

Along with a novel response to the challenge of ‘know thyself’, a philosophy that took food and its practices seriously would occasion a major shift in textbooks. John Dewey wanted philosophers to spend more time working on the “problems of men” and less on the “problems of philoso-phers.” Stomachs and their hunger make a mockery of the opening question that has dominated so many philosophy textbooks for so long: how can we know anything? “We know plenty” say the stomach-endowed, otherwise we would starve or be poisoned. The counterfeit attitude of universal doubt is sport for the leisured elite who enter a fictitious world: they ignore their bodies, and, in so doing, they surely ignore their stomachs.

Stomachs don’t waste time with universal doubt. They begin with inherited cultural wisdom which they seek to further. Bodies and stomachs immerse us in the world, engage us in all sorts of interactions, and blur rigid boundaries between ourselves and our surroundings. They also give rise to real doubts and questions, for example, is this mushroom safe to eat, how important are good habits, what is the most appropriate diet (in both senses of the word) for 21st century humans? Detachment and universal doubt are far from the ordinary attitudes of hungry selves. Why should philosophy which is about real people living in a real world and worrying about real questions, begin by spinning itself off into a makebelieve world of isolated selves cut off from the world? Philosophy should admit the obvious: those selves are already involved in the world. They have learned the habits of their ancestors. They have to hunt, sow, harvest, process, store and cook in order to eat and survive.

The great edifice of modern post-Cartesian philosophy was made possible by a conjunction of make-believes: a big lie, a muddled metaphor about mind, and an imaginary projection. The lie: humans are essentially isolated minds, not flesh and blood, social creatures. This disconnection of humans from their bodies and isolation from each other, occasioned the creation of a startling metaphor: mind as container. Such a container held ideas bouncing around much like molecules in a sealed vessel. Not surprisingly, philosophers began to wonder about the connection between these sealed-off ideas and, well, and what? Something new had to be invented as a contrasting term. Thus the need to project an ‘external’ world, standing over against the receptacle of mind with its ideas. This ‘external’ world, as foil for mind, should not be confused with the ordinary region of daily activity where sharp divisions of inner and outer, of mental and natural, are daily violated by gardeners, chefs, and diners alike. Can anything produced on the basis of assuming the lie, the muddled metaphor, and the imaginary projection be philosophically worthwhile? Not in the least, said the founder of American Pragmatism, Charles Peirce. The real enemies of constructive work, he claimed, were those who proposed that “philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is.”

Stomach-affirming philosophers can finally put an end to reflection which has selected an unreal, fantasy state as its starting point. They can begin to concern themselves with real worries, genuine concerns, the problems of humans, not the problems of philosophers. They can approach the world as live creatures in a live world. Stomach-gifted creatures are constantly asking questions, not only what is for dinner, but how can we articulate a philosophy devoted to ‘artful living’.

© Ray Boisvert 2001

Raymond Boisvert teaches at Siena College, just outside of Albany New York.

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