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Philosophy & Food

Are we what we eat? Feast your mind on the next few articles, says this issue’s editor Jeremy Iggers, philosopher and restaurant critic.

“Know Thyself.”
inscription at the oracle at Delphi.

“You are what you eat.”
American proverb.

The inscription at Delphi challenged philosophers to explore the mystery of human identity, but several contributors to this issue address another mystery: why have philosophers devoted so little attention to food, cooking and taste? “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,” notes Ray Boisvert in his essay, ‘Philosophy Comes to its Senses.’ The hierarchy of the senses is a theme taken up by Carolyn Korsmeyer in her recently published book Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, reviewed for us by Erin McKenna. Placing taste, touch and smell below sight and hearing is part of a pattern of dichotomies that includes “the elevation of mind over body; of reason over sense; of man over beast and culture over nature. It also lines up with another ranked pair of concepts not yet mentioned: the elevation of male over female and with ‘masculine’ traits over those designated ‘feminine’.”

This denigration of food and cooking can be traced as far back as Plato, as Lisa Heldke shows in her exploration of Plato’s Gorgias, ‘Do You Really Know How to Cook?’ For Plato, cooking was a mere knack, as opposed to a genuine art like medicine.

The problem with this denigration of the physical isn’t simply that food and eating fail to get the attention that they deserve; rather it is that philosophy itself goes astray. Detached from their bodies, philosophers have become, says Boisvert, “a class of remote thinkers who can only speak to each other,” preoccupied with problems that have no relevance to daily life. By contrast, 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.” “…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.”

The view that food and taste have been ignored because they have been mistakenly regarded as unimportant is widely held. But what if the opposite is true – what if the real reason for their neglect is that food and our habits of eating are too important to us to jeopardize with dangerous philosophical rumination?

One often cited bit of American folk-wisdom counsels us, (readers with delicate sensibilities will forgive the barnyard terminology), “Don’t shit where you eat.” The connection between philosophizing and elimination may not seem obvious, unless you recall the lament of St Thomas Aquinas, at the end of his extraordinarily prolific philosophical career. He proclaimed that all of his philosophical work added up to a “pile of straw.” It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine that St Thomas had in mind straw that has passed through a horse.

The wisdom in the barnyard proverb, though, is this: food and eating are vital interests, and any philosophical inquiry that calls those everyday practices into question can be dangerous. That is of course precisely what Australian ethicist Peter Singer has done, throughout his career. His book, Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, is widely credited with having launched the animal rights movement. His graphic descriptions of the ways that animals are treated, in research and especially in meat production, combined with his powerful arguments in support of the view that animals deserve our moral consideration, forced millions of readers around the world to confront the contradiction between their values and their eating habits. In our interview with Professor Singer, currently DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values, he explains his views, and discusses the impact that the animal rights movement has had over the past quarter-century.

Food as a topic for philosophical investigation may be especially timely today. Although philosophers traditionally have believed in a timeless human nature, there is growing support for the view that we are to a very large degree, the products of our culture, and that different cultures produce different kinds of selves. Today, food and eating occupy a role in our culture that only a few decades ago was occupied by sex: food has been eroticized and problematized and made the source of enormous anxiety. I would suggest that in contemporary western societies, this is because there has been a fundamental shift in how we define our selves: a generation or two ago, our individual identity was much more defined by our social roles and relationships – hence the emphasis on sex; today our identities are much more strongly linked to what we consume.

© Jeremy Iggers 2001

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