Intellectual Traditions as Sites of Tension

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Carrying on an intellectual tradition is a Janus-faced enterprise. Like Janus, the Roman god of transitions, one must look both forward and backward. To start, a tradition must have a causal continuity with its past. The texts and debates from its crucial figures must be carefully preserved and interpreted; distinctive themes must be kept alive, insights appreciated, habits and approaches refined, and founding arguments clarified.  Yet living intellectual traditions are not museum pieces. A viable tradition must be applicable to contemporary circumstances. Contemporary practitioners must demonstrate the relevance of their tradition by importing its characteristic principles, practices, and arguments into the fray of current debate. Naturally, this will occasion new challenges and problems for the tradition. Contemporary critics of the tradition will have innovative lines of objection, and material arrangements will change in ways that the founders did not anticipate.

Thus, a tradition’s distinctive insights will need updating and revision. Sometimes, more drastic measures are necessary. Given that any tradition will have internal debates at its founding or in its early development, those who seek to carry on that tradition must be open to the possibility that there are errors in the tradition’s inception – if the tradition’s founders disagreed, at least one was wrong; and maybe all were.  The formative moments of a tradition are animated by debates over how the program’s most worthy insights can be developed and perfected. And what can be discarded. Accordingly, those who seek to keep a tradition alive must engage those debates anew, by answering challenges from external critics and by addressing internal disputes among fellow practitioners. Without this forward-looking face, one open to transitions and revisions, the tradition degrades into dead dogma. Read more »

Habits and Heresies: Authenticity, Food Rules, and the People Who Break Them

by Dwight Furrow


Chicken Tikka Masala

Dishes are a representation of the food tradition from which they emerge. But what counts as an authentic representation of a tradition and who decides?

All of us come to the table with a history of eating experiences that have left behind a sediment of preferences, a map of what goes with what, an impressionistic bible of what particular ingredients should taste like and how particular dishes satisfy. Food is the constant companion present when love emerges, deals are made, and sorrow weighs. Thus, food memories meld with emotional cues and are appended to the minor and major ceremonies that constitute the routines of life. Flavors acquire an emotional resonance and symbolic power that enables them to express the style of a culture and provide some of the prohibitions and taboos that signify social boundaries and status. There is a right and wrong way to eat and woe to those who get it wrong—you cannot be one of us.

Just as linguistic meaning is encoded in physical inscription (writing) and phonemes (speaking), food meanings are encoded in the flavors and textures with which people identify, a semi-consciously held template that says Italian, French, or low country. This template cannot be fully articulated in a set of rules; one knows the taste of home even if one can't say what home tastes like. Although the original association of flavors with identities is arbitrary, conventional, and driven by accidents of geography, once established they are no longer arbitrary but consciously perpetuated via resemblance. Cooks working within food traditions create dishes that replicate that template because their patron's map and bible generate those expectations.

Thus, the relationship between flavor and meaning is not merely an association but a synthesis. Moral taste and mouth taste become one.

When a server puts a plate of food in front of you, the dish confronts your map and bible. The dish may or may not represent your tradition, may or may not represent your map and bible, but it represents some tradition or other, and expresses someone's style, and thus poses a question about where and how it fits. The dish refers to other dishes as an imitation, interpretation, challenge, or affront. Is it an authentic extension of the tradition or a violation worthy of scorn?

Read more »