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.

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