Friday, April 22, 2016

On eating

It’s strange: Philosophers don’t give attention to one of the basic phenomena of life, or hardly: eating. Aren’t they aware of it, just as we usually aren’t aware that we breath? So Socrates does discuss the question “What is good?” but not the question “What is tasty?” Nevertheless, unlike breathing, eating is surrounded with rules, habits and customs.
In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt distinguished three forms of human activity: Labour, work and action. Labour is, so Arendt, “the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body”. Her definition of work is a bit too vague for my purpose here. I want to describe it as a treating, processing, tooling etc. of the natural. As Arendt explains her definition: “Work provides an ‘artificial’ world of things, different from the natural surroundings.” Here we must take “artificial” in the literal sense of “instrumental”: working with instruments. Action refers to the social aspect of human activity. It “...goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter[. It] corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” (p. 7)
I think that the distinction labour-work-action is very useful to gain an insight into the varieties of eating and what they mean for human beings. When an animal eats, it has literally an im-mediate relation to what it eats. The relation is without means. An animal eats what it finds in nature as it is. It doesn’t have a kitchen garden, it doesn’t prepare what it eats. For an animal what it eats is just “fodder”.
There must have been a time that eating for man was also simply looking for fodder. And this way of eating has never fully disappeared. Sometimes we go to pick mushrooms or blackberries. But already long ago, and I think at last when making fire had been invented, man learned not only to gather what it needs to eat but also to make it. Fodder became, as I would call it – a bit arbitrary – “food”. Products of nature were collected and processed by cooking, drying, processing and treating them in other ways. Things that originally were inedible could be made edible by treating them. Food or products of nature were also treated that way that they could be stored. Even more, man learned to adapt nature so that no longer the raw material for food needed to be searched for but was provided in an artificial way by “nature”: agriculture had been invented. Using Arendt’s terms, we could say that men got no longer what they eat by labour (fodder) but by work (food). That’s still so today, although food production has become very advanced.
Again I don’t know when it happened but during the development from primitive ape to modern man also something else changed in the relationship to eating: It became a social practice surrounded with rules, habits and customs that had nothing to do with the physical production and consumption of the fodder and food. Eating became a kind of action in Arendt’s sense. What was consumed was no longer fodder or food but a “meal”. Nowadays, generally eating is not simply taking fodder or food but having a meal. It has become more than simply a matter of satisfying your hunger, but, for instance, a way of structuring your day, socializing with family and friends, and so on. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner at fixed times. We do something before or after lunch. We have a business diner in a restaurant or a meal is used for maintaining social relationships. Some pray before and after diner. We prepare our food not only for making it tastier but also for showing to others that we are good cooks. Also when you eat alone rituals are important. If you work alone at home, dinner can be the point that your working day has ended. Lunch is the time for a walk. You prepare your meal well also for yourself in order to feel better, although a simple meal would satisfy your hunger as well. In other words, eating as a physical activity becomes subordinate to its practical, ritualized, social, or whatever aspects by becoming a meal.
Much more can be said about eating, taking food or having a meal. My classification of fodder, food and meal is only a first move towards a more comprehensive philosophy of eating as a a significant aspect of daily life and not as a kind of ethics or seen as just an idea behind the way food is produced (which are the philosophical approaches of eating already practiced in a corner of the philosophical field – but isn’t it striking that the most important book on the philosophy of eating has been published 150 years ago? –). Who will deny that eating has many philosophical aspects and that it is a meaningful activity that we need to philosophize about? Bon appétit!
Reference: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958/1998.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Food for thought

In my blog last week I discussed an example used by Searle about how to make a hollandaise sauce. The essence of the case was not, of course, giving a recipe of the sauce or some practical tips how to make it, but to explain a philosophical question, namely whether there is something like a collective intention. It was just a case for analysis. Nevertheless, it is striking how little philosophers (including me) talk about one of the basic phenomena of life: food and eating. Of course, there is some kind of philosophy of food but it is a very little branch of philosophy and I think that most philosophers have never heard of it, let alone that they can tell something about it or mention the names of a few exponents. Moreover, since philosophers often use examples from daily life, it was to be expected, that at least sometimes they use cases related to food and eating. They don’t. The example of Searle is the exception that proves the rule. It seems strange, indeed, but it happens more often that philosophers ignore “trivial” events in life that are in fact very important. Also waiting is a case in point. Although we spend a lot of time on it, it’s ignored by philosophy.
Nevertheless, human as philosophers are, eating is also for them important. Somewhere in the journal of his voyage to Germany and then to Italy Montaigne wrote that he regretted that he hadn’t taken his cook with him in order to write down local recipes of the regions he passed, so that the cook could prepare these dishes, when he was home again. Wittgenstein explicitly preferred simple meals. Somewhere on the Internet I found this story, which was typical for him:

“Wittgenstein went to stay with his friend Maurice Drury in Ireland. Drury described the visit:
Thinking my guests would be hungry after their long journey and night crossing, I had prepared a rather elaborate meal: roast chicken followed by suet pudding and treacle. Wittgenstein rather silent during the meal. When we had finished [Wittgenstein said], ‘Now let it be quite clear that while we are here we are not going to live in this style. We will have a plate of porridge for breakfast, vegetables from the garden for lunch, and a boiled egg in the evening.’ This was then our routine for the rest of his visit.” (

For other philosophers it is the same, or for most of them: Food and eating are important, also for philosophers, but they don’t talk about it in a philosophical way, even not if they need an example to flesh out an interesting problem. As for this, Searle is an exception. Generally reference to the theme remains restricted to some oblique remarks, as if a philosopher can survive without eating and drinking.

Monday, April 11, 2016

How to make a hollandaise sauce

As my readers certainly will have noticed, one of my main fields of interest is the philosophy of action, so the field of philosophy that thinks about the possibility of intentional action and about what happens if we say that we act for a reason. Aristotle was the first who thought about such questions and since then the discussion has never ended. Or rather, sometimes the problem seemed forgotten but then it flared up again. However, this all is about what persons individually do. But how about groups? Do groups have intentions more or less in the way as individuals have them? Some philosophers like Tuomela, Bratman and Gilbert answer this question in a positive way in one way or another and they say that groups certainly have if we talk about small groups. Is this right? In order to examine this question let me start with a case that John Searle treats in a contribution to the debate. I have changed the case a lot, however. Here I cannot refer to individual contributors to the discussion. I simply present my view.
Smith and Jones, who work in a restaurant, are preparing a hollandaise sauce together. Jones is stirring while Smith slowly pours in the ingredients. Some philosophers would say now that Smith and Jones have a kind of collective intention to prepare the sauce. While they are busy, Baker calls Jones and tells him that he is wanted on the telephone. Since the sauce will be ruined if Jones stops stirring, Baker takes his place. Does it make any difference if the sauce will be ready before Jones returns or that he is called away for an urgent case and doesn’t return? I think that in both cases it is not simply so that there is a collective intention that makes that Baker and Smith do what they do. For I think that what Baker does is not preparing the hollandaise sauce as such but helping Smith and Jones. Baker, who is the switchboard operator in the restaurant, doesn’t know what a hollandaise sauce is. Therefore Smith tells Baker what he has to do and in this way the sauce is prepared. However, actually Baker doesn’t know what he is doing but he simply follows Smith’s instructions. He is just making physical moves and his intention is only helping Smith and Jones. By means of making the moves that Smith says he has to perform, Baker helps Smith and Jones. Helping is Baker’s intention. His intention is different from the intentions of Smith and Jones each, who wanted to make a hollandaise sauce. Therefore, even if we might have had first a group with the collective intention of making a hollandaise sauce, namely the group consisting of Smith and Jones, after that Jones has been replaced by Baker we don’t have a group with such an intention any longer, for Baker doesn’t know well what he is doing and that the result of his stirring is that a hollandaise sauce is prepared (in cooperation with Smith). Smith’s intention is pouring in the ingredients so that is hollandaise sauce is prepared, while Baker’s intention is helping Smith and Jones, or replacing Jones, if you like. Nevertheless, we get a hollandaise sauce in the end by the joint activities of Smith and Baker (and Jones, of course, who did his part, too, and maybe comes back before Smith and Baker have finished).
Now we can talk yet a lot about the identity of the group Smith-Jones-Baker, but I think that anyway we cannot deny that here we have a group of people who fulfil a task successfully together, but nevertheless not all of them know what the purpose of the group is. They simply do the prescribed tasks. The upshot is that people can work successfully together in a group and as group, but nevertheless there doesn’t need to be a collective intention for this.

For Searle’s version of the example discussed by me see his “Collective Intentions and Actions”,,d.bGg

Monday, April 04, 2016

A picture on the wall

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “we regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so on) depicted there.” (Part II, xi) Note that Wittgenstein italicized the word “regard” (“betrachten” in German). However, when you look for this quotation on the Internet you’ll see that often the italicization has been omitted. This is not correct, for there is a difference in meaning. Without the italicization the quotation seems to say: For us the photo on the wall is the same as the actual object, while in Wittgenstein’s version the quotation says: We often do as if the photo on the wall is the object represented, although we know that it’s a representation of the object. The latter interpretation is in keeping with my idea that a picture is an interpretation of the object. It makes also possible such questions as whether the picture really depicts the object as it is or whether it is an imagination of the photographer (a modern photographer might have photoshopped it; a photographer in Wittgenstein’s days might have used certain chemicals for getting a certain effect). We couldn’t call a photo surrealistic in case we didn’t italicize “regard” for then we suppose that the picture is as the landscape is and not maybe a distortion of the reality of the original landscape.
Anyhow, in practice we often behave as if the image is the same as the object represented in the image, for example because it is the most direct relation we have to the object represented. We have a photo of our dear on our desk. We place a picture of the deceased next to the book of condolence. We cry when we see a picture because it evokes memories. Could we do otherwise? Although we know that the picture is not really what it represents, it helps concretize and direct our thoughts.
That’s also why we use symbols. A symbol is actually nothing but a thing or a picture that stands for another thing, person, idea or whatever it may be. The shape or appearance of the symbol needs not to have any relation with what it is a symbol for. A road sign that tells you to stop and to give priority to the traffic on the road that crosses yours is just a sign, but every road user knows its meaning.
Symbols have an important function in life. I mentioned already traffic signs. Flags are used for symbolizing a nation, national unity or national proud. It’s so even in that way that flags are also used for arousing the idea of a nation, national unity or national proud.
Attacking or destroying symbols can hit people in their hearts. It can make people react and feel that they have to do something against the attack on the symbol. Gandhi was a master in using nonviolent symbolic actions for undermining the British rule over India. His action of breaking the British salt laws in India might not have been a factual threat for the British government, but he knew that any breaking of the law would be a challenge to the British authority and he judged also with right that many Indians would follow him in breaking just this law. This made the action, which was “only” symbolic, a great success. What is important in my context is that it shows that symbols are not simply signs but that they have sense.
A symbol is more than thousand words. It stands for something real. Even more, it is real. That’s why people react to symbols, especially when they are damaged on purpose. For we regard the symbol as the object itself that it represents, even if we know that actually it is not more than a few lines of paint, a piece of cloth or a mere handful of crystals; just as a photo is nothing more than some ink on a sheet of cardboard.