Philosophy of Food

Something different.





Food and Philosophy



Are there any hitherto undiscovered branches of philosophy? There must have been a time when no branches of philosophy had been discovered, back in prehistory, and then gradually the field formed and spread itself. Now we have numerous fields and sub-fields of philosophical enquiry, from the basic curriculum to philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of art (painting, music, architecture, literature), philosophy of religion, philosophy of sport, philosophy of sex and love, philosophy of film, philosophy of society, philosophy of logic and mathematics, philosophy of history, feminist philosophy, and many others. Is there anything that there is no philosophy of? There is not (yet anyway) a philosophy of geography or geology or botany or bottle washing or haberdashery. But for there to be an undiscovered branch of philosophy three conditions would need to be met: (a) it must be undiscovered, (b) it must be genuinely philosophical, and (c) it must not be already subsumed by an existing branch. Condition (c) is the important one: there must be new and distinctive issues raised by the field in question—not just the same old issues restricted to some specific subject matter. Thus it is hard to see how geology and botany could give rise to a new branch of philosophy, since they are already subsumed by philosophy of physics and biology. Some overlap with existing fields is to be expected, but there has to be something new and exciting about the candidate field. It must also, presumably, be important or central in some way (so not like stamp collecting or orchid raising—though these can be important to particular individuals).

It is extremely difficult to identify any such neglected field of philosophical enquiry. The ground seems remarkably well covered. Of course, each area may contain many undiscovered truths or arguments or issues, but there don’t seem to be any obvious candidates for an undiscovered branch of philosophy. The tree of philosophical investigation seems to have a complete set of branches. This itself is an interesting meta-philosophical fact: we have achieved full philosophical coverage of reality, after a steady expansion of the philosophical mandate. We have completed the map. But wait: there is one area hitherto undiscovered: the philosophy of food.[1] This subject is sufficiently important, distinctive, and unexplored that it may reasonably be added to the list of branches of philosophy. In what follows I will explain why the philosophy of food deserves our attention and outline the kinds of issues that are raised by this nascent field.

Let us begin with some semantic and definitional matters. Semantically, “food” is a mass noun, as are many words for the different varieties of food: “sugar”, “meat”, “flour”, “bread”, “gravy”, “curry”, “butter”, etc. These words denote types of stuff, like “coal” or “snow”. The word “meal”, however, is a count noun, which is why we can say we have three meals a day (but not “three foods a day”); similarly for “breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner”. The word “eat” is a verb of action and so can be adverbially modified (“eat slowly, at midnight, etc”). Much eating is intentional but some may be sub-intentional (like absentmindedly sucking on a sweet); and some may be involuntary, as in forced feeding. One eats (action) a meal (entity) that is made of food (stuff) of various types: so far, so straightforward.

But how is “food” to be defined? The OED says: “any nutritious substance that people eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth”. This is not circular because it is possible to eat things other than food: one might eat sand or cement. It sounds a bit iffy to say that people can drink food, but one sees the point of talking that way. An objection may be raised from intravenous feeding: here food may be ingested, but it is not eaten (the OED defines “eat” as “put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it”). What if there were a species that only ingested food in intravenously, never by orally eating? The addition of plant absorption indicates the need for a broader definition than just oral consumption: sunlight and water can be plant food because plants absorb these “nutritious substances”. If animals did the same, not using their mouths at all, they would still be ingesting food. The key idea is that food is a nutritious substance that is taken into the body in order to sustain growth and life. One might also quibble about the dictionary’s use of “nutritious”, objecting that people often eat food that is not nutritious (“junk food”); but here the meaning is not that the alleged food is not nutritious at all—it certainly contains calories—but rather that it is not good for you if eaten to excess. To count as food a substance has to be in some measure nutritious.

The word “meal” is not so easy to define. The OED has “any of the regular daily occasions when food is eaten”. But can’t you have a meal at an irregular time during the day, or in the middle of the night? Does this definition imply that the only meals there can be are breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What about a person who works the night shift? What about someone who eats nuts and raisins at hourly intervals and nothing else? Do animals have meals according to this definition? A meal is best understood as a portion of food that is consumed at a particular time—so you have no meals if you graze continuously all day (unless this is viewed as one long meal had before going to sleep). And how do we define “breakfast”? Not by the type of food consumed, nor by the time at which it is consumed (a person on the night shift may have breakfast at 7pm). Rather, as the word suggests, breakfast is best defined in terms of proximity to sleep, during which one is effectively fasting. Lunch is then defined as the meal one has following breakfast, when hunger has built up again, and similarly for dinner. We could just as well speak of “meal 1, meal 2, and meal 3”. Nothing is to stop you from eating roast turkey for breakfast at 11pm and cereal for dinner at 10am, semantically speaking.

What about the metaphysics of food? Here one can envisage two schools of thought—the objectivists and the subjectivists. The objectivist holds that food is an objective mind-independent category—the stuff consumed considered in its intrinsic nature. The subjectivist, by contrast, holds that food is constituted by its relation to the organisms that consume it—food is what is consumed as food. The latter school insists that nothing counts as food unless it is eaten by some organism, so the flesh of a deer is not food if there are no predators around that eat deer. Other food metaphysicians might maintain that a kind of stuff is food if and only if it is potentially edible: but they run into problems specifying what kind of potentiality they have in mind—isn’t everything potentially a constituent of food for some conceivable organism? Then there may be those who think the whole notion of food is confused or unscientific, so they propose to eliminate it from their conceptual scheme. There might also be food projectivists who subscribe to the slogan, “food is in the eye of the beholder”. Thus disputes in food ontology will rage as elsewhere in philosophy.

There are also metaphysical conundrums such as whether any proper part of a meal is itself a meal, or whether the elementary particles that compose food are themselves food, or whether the Sorites paradox can be applied to the concept of a meal (a crumb isn’t a meal, and the addition of one crumb to something that is not a meal will not produce a meal, so there are no meals). What should we say about Martians who eat only rocks and acid, finding what we call food quite indigestible and vile? Are they eating food or not? Should we say that what counts as food is entirely species-relative? That sounds reasonable enough, but then what do we say about a species that eats rocks with gravy on, where the gravy has no nutritional value for them (but rocks do) and serves only to enhance taste—is the gravy food for that species? Also: is the color and shape of the food part of the meal, or the plate the food is on, or the way the food is arranged, or the waiter who serves it? These are certainly aspects of the gustatory experience. If you re-heat a meal, is it the same meal you had yesterday? What if you combine it with some new ingredients? What are the criteria of identity for meals? Are different courses really separate meals eaten in quick succession? When does a meal cease to exist—once it is inside your stomach or when you start chewing it or when you excrete it? Is a meal an artifact, like a table, or a natural object, like a tree? Those fascinated by such conceptual questions could have a good time discussing them and arguing vigorously with their metaphysical opponents. I envisage symposia and special journal issues. Debates could be punctuated with actual eating.

Other philosophers might wish to focus on normative questions relating to food. Here there is a rich field of enquiry that I can only gesture at. Are there any foods it is morally wrong to eat (e.g. animal products)? Is the eating of humans always wrong? Is gluttony really a sin? Are some foods inherently more virtuous than others? Is natural food always better than artificial food? Should one use food as a source of comfort? Is obesity a moral failing? Is bulimia necessarily unwise? When is dieting excessive? Is it OK to love food? Is it a good thing to be a foodie? What is more important, taste or nutrition? Is cookery an art or a science or a practical skill? Is it possible to describe a meal as beautiful? How often should one indulge oneself when eating? Do some foods have an intrinsically superior taste that everyone should try to cultivate (oysters, asparagus, truffles)? Is it better to eat alone or in company? What constitutes the perfect meal? What is the role of disgust in eating? How much should we be concerned about the hunger of others? Is fasting morally uplifting? Is it good to have food taboos? Should the good life center on food? Is the value of food like the value of sex? Is there anything spiritual about food? Should food be spicy or bland? What is the right way to appreciate food? What should we expect from food–health, happiness, or just absence of hunger? How much of our income should we spend on food?

These questions are specific to food, so they meet one of our conditions for being a bona fide branch of philosophy. They are also not easy to answer, which is another desirable feature in a philosophical question. They are about the role of food in living a good human life, both morally and prudentially. Given that people often have a problematic relationship to food, it would be useful to be able to think more clearly and articulately about it. Rational reflection is power. Food can make people feel conflicted and confused, and philosophy might help with that. One needs to eat with a clean conscience, but the pleasure of eating should not be compromised by doubt. We obviously care about food, for all sorts of reasons, but food is difficult territory. So this is a branch of philosophy that can be expected to have clear practical applications.

Lastly, what about the language of food? What are our food-related speech acts about? We say things like, “You should try this” or “This tastes good” or “Mm, delicious!” These are clearly evaluative utterances, and hence invite the usual types of philosophical interpretation. Are they fact stating or expressive or prescriptive or something else entirely? They resemble moral utterances with respect to the theoretical options. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the words have a solid basis in the objects in question: foods have certain objective features that determine them as good or bad. It is not that we merely imagine them as objectively good or bad, or project goodness or badness onto them. Foods are good for us or they are not. So this is a type of evaluative discourse that seems firmly anchored in hard fact. It would be difficult to be a relativist about the value of food, since food either nourishes or it doesn’t: if for some reason you arrive at the belief that coal is good food, you will soon learn the error of your ways. So “This food is good” has a strong claim to objective truth (at least once we specify an eater); it is not a matter of debate or disputation. It can be verified by straightforward experiment.

Food is clearly central to human (and animal) life, it is conceptually intricate, and it raises challenging philosophical questions. It overlaps with other areas of philosophy, but it has a sufficiently distinctive identity to lay claim to being a branch of philosophy in its own right. One can see how a university course on the philosophy of food could be constructed, and it might be more engaging than the standard fare offered to students. It supplies ample “food for thought”—and that phrase too raises interesting philosophical questions. Is philosophy itself a type of food for the intellect, to be absorbed and digested by the mind? Does it nourish thought and give it life? If so, philosophy itself is a sub-field of the general philosophy of food. There is food for the body and food for the mind, and philosophy is a type of mental food. Thus there can be philosophical feasts as well as thin philosophical gruel, and a hunger for philosophical knowledge, indigestible philosophical arguments, and philosophical theories that are hard to swallow. A question in the philosophy of food is therefore whether we can conceive of philosophy as food. If we can, is it a different type of food from that associated with other fields of learning? I look forward to some interesting dining experiences.


Colin McGinn

[1] Since writing this, I have learned that I have been scooped, by David M. Kaplan in The Philosophy of Food (2012), and possibly by others. I take this as confirmation of my thesis that the philosophy of food is a bona fide branch of philosophy, to be recognized as such. Of course, philosophers have written about food over the centuries in one connection or another, but the philosophy of food is not generally recognized by mainstream philosophy as a genuine branch of the subject. One can write a book entitled The Philosophy of X without that amounting to a serious branch of the subject, to be set beside the branches already recognized. I contend that the philosophy of food is such a branch, not merely a subject matter to which philosophical reflection can be applied (as in the philosophy of wine or the philosophy of fashion or the philosophy of flowers). No doubt those who write about the philosophy of food seriously would agree (and would chide me for being late to the party, or dinner). In any case, the field already exists, if only in marginal and fledgling form. My question then would be whether we have now exhausted the subject of philosophy: are there any undiscovered branches left? I rather doubt it.

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