In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Raymond Boisvert of Siena College explores how philosophers have treated the human relationship with food.
Ray Boisvert is a professor of philosophy at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. He is currently interested in the intersection of food practices and philosophy and recently completed the manuscript, Food Transforms Philosophy. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University.
Dr. Raymond Boisvert – Philosophy and Food
Food and philosophy: an odd pairing. That’s what Plato, father of Western philosophy, thought . Philosophy was exalted. Hunger was annoying. Plato dismissed Sicily, land of great chefs, as the place “where people eat all day and no one sleeps alone at night.” Subsequent philosophers actually came to think of mind as separate from body. Humans were said to be split into “rational” and “non-rational” components. Food, tied to the body, suffused with emotional associations, source of physical pleasures, could have little to do with pure reason. By the 18th century, philosophy had sort of banished flesh and blood humans. They were replaced by “rational agents.” The era was dominated by oppositions: mind versus body; individual versus society; man versus nature; spiritual versus material.
20th century thought, especially Existentialism and Pragmatism, challenged this framework. Why sharp separations, oppositions, bifurcations? Why not think in terms of integrated selves? Here is where food can not only be rehabilitated, but can bring philosophy back to its senses. How? First, reverse Plato and celebrate our status as stomach-endowed. Then, following a trend in anthropology, discard “rational agent.” Instead, embrace the more integrative “cooking animal.”
The cooking animal seeks to be “thoughtful,” not coldly “rational;” is concerned with blendings and mixings, not purity; favors educated taste, not abstract norms.
Its animating slogan, undoing the “this versus that” approach, comes from George Santayana: “everything ideal has a natural basis and everything natural an ideal development.”
Its preferred image is Judaism’s Friday evening meal. Welcoming the Sabbath, the ritual embodies continuities between the natural and the sacred: connections to the natural world and its bounty, to those who cultivated, raised and prepared the food, to children, to ancestors, to those not yet born, to strangers for whom there is always room, and to transcendence.