Why the Philosophy of Food is Important

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophers club

Photo by Todd Lapin Creative Commons License

There are lots of hard problems that require our thoughtful attention—poverty, climate change, quantum entanglement, or how to make a living, just for starters. But food? Worthy of thought? Most philosophers have ignored food as a proper topic of philosophical inquiry.

On the surface, it seems there are only three questions about food worth considering: Do you have enough? Is it nutritious? And does it taste good? If you have the wherewithal to read this you probably have enough food. Questions of nutrition can be answered by consulting your doctor or favorite nutritionist. And surely it doesn't take thought to figure out what tastes good.

But when we look more deeply at food we find some important issues lurking beneath the surface about which philosophy has traditionally been concerned. How we farm, what we eat, and how we cook have important social, political, and ethical ramifications—ramifications so important that we cannot think of these issues as purely private matters any longer. Some of the aforementioned “hard problems” have a lot to do with food. Our food distribution networks are anything but fair leaving many people without enough to eat; and our food production and consumption patterns cause substantial environmental harm in part because of their impact on climate change. Our resource- intensive way of life, supported by an economic system that requires constant growth, is unsustainable especially because the rest of the world would like to emulate it. For example, it is estimated that if everyone in the world consumed our meat-heavy diet, we would need two planet earths to supply sufficient land, feed, and water.

We must learn to live differently, and that means, fundamentally, learning to desire differently—and to desire food differently.

How we problematize and refine desires and pleasures and attend to their moderation, balance, and harmony has been a philosophical topic since the Ancient Greeks. That discourse has never been more important than it is today and our food desires must now lie at the center of that discourse. Food is our most basic material need and ties together a vast number of issues from deforestation, to the use of fossil fuels, to the disappearance of local food markets. And all are tied to how we manage our desires. To ignore food as a philosophical issue is to ignore that foundational discourse regarding the management of desires that has been central to philosophy's history.

Unfortunately, philosophy in recent centuries has drifted away from those ancient concerns. The modern view of human beings as abstract epistemological subjects may lack the conceptual apparatus to think about the realm of contingent bodily needs, so philosophy may have to reinvent itself to learn to think critically about food.

But the the significance of the philosophy of food does not wholly rest on it becoming a branch of applied ethics or social theory, a collection of topics for professional philosophers to consider. The aesthetics of taste, a component of the philosophy of food, should receive more thoughtful attention from non-philosophers as well. After all, if we must learn to manage our desires differently, we will likely accomplish that only through modifying the personal aesthetic judgments on which those desires rest, which again recalls an ancient discourse—philosophy as a way of life.

The aesthetics of taste is important because I don't think one can live well in our world without taking an interest in the aesthetics of everyday life; and because the enjoyment of food and beverages is among the most accessible and satisfying of our everyday experiences, we should care about it much more than we do.

Why is the aesthetics of everyday life so important? This famous quote from the film Fight Club provides the experiential background:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.” (Taken from Edward Norton's character in Fight Club.)

This could have been written by Theodore Adorno, if that profound but difficult thinker had written in the vernacular.

Most Americans live lives that are highly regulated and standardized via networks of management and control, governed by norms of efficiency and profit that crowd out any other value; and these norms increasingly colonize our home life, as well, thanks to intrusive media technologies. We tend to work long hours at boring, repetitive jobs that demand our full attention, in order to make someone else rich. And we evaluate our lives according to how well we conform to these norms—that is, if one's job is not outsourced to a machine.

Everyone needs a way to resist these demands, a place where beauty, pleasure and a focus on things that have intrinsic value occupy our attention. Finding extraordinary meaning in simple things and their particularity, such as a meal or a bottle of wine, is the most accessible path to a good life in this damaged world. That ordinary things are the greatest source of meaning is not a new thought—ancient sages from the Buddha to Epicurus had similar notions. But it is more relevant now than ever in an age where the pursuit of technical knowledge and efficiency promises the systematic elimination of anything that does not conform to the demand for quantification and standardization.

Of course the character in Fight Club creates a place where men get together and punch each other to feel better about their limited lives. I guess that is “aesthetics” of a sort—a sensory experience no doubt. But we can probably do better by seeking a form of beauty not tainted by violence.

One might object that taste is both subjective and trivial, and a preoccupation with such matters is useless and without any larger significance. No one cares about what I had for dinner except me. But the fact that taste is subjective and and trivial is a feature not a bug. For it is precisely the subjective and trivial, and taking delight in such matters, that escapes the clutches of instrumental reason, that resists the encroachments of a corporate mentality that translates everything of value into a commodity with a price and uses up every resource, both human and non-human, in order to line someone's pockets.

In this case, as in so many parts of life, the personal is political. Despite being a personal matter, a concern for taste is the first step in the shaping of our desires toward more sustainable forms.

Yet, such a commitment means we must refuse to accept what is false and inauthentic, that we recognize and block the strategies of our corporate masters when they try to commodify our desires. When we outsource our practical reasoning to marketers our desires are not our own. The only antidote to such outsourcing is critical thought, conceptual imagination, and a mind sufficiently open to fully appreciate the intrinsic value of what is before us, as food and drink almost always are. Philosophy can be—perhaps must be—enlisted in this attempt to keep the question of how one should live in focus, for philosophy has always sought to discover what is of intrinsic value .

As Epicurus said “Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”


For more more ruminations of the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.