Sunday, February 21, 2016

How Are We to Eat? Philosophers at Table

Photo: Art Institute Chicago

Almost everybody is familiar with the phrase: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are", which the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously included in his Physiology of Taste. The idea, later expressed by the German thinker Ludwig Schopenauer as "man is what he eats" (much more effective in his native language: Der Mensch ist, was er isst) reminds us of how much our food choices have an impact on who we are. Over time, the old adagio has had subsequent incarnations, pointing to various aspects of our relationship to food. One of the best known is Wendell Berry's statement that "eating is an agricultural act," and that as a consequence we are co-producers through our decisions regarding what to buy, consume, and dispose of. Lately food designer Pedro Reissig has turned the assertion on its head: "You eat what you are," highlighting on how ideas and values about who we think we are influence our eating behavior.

In their book Philosophers at Table: On Food and Being Human, Raymond Boisvert and Lisa Heldke (whom I had the pleasure to meet for the first time many years ago during a conference on food and philosophy at Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS) extend the conversation to "How are we to eat?", turning the spotlight on the undeniable fact that "food is a fundamental source of meaning and value in human life. Indeed, food is a fundamental source of human life itself."

The book is delightful, deep but never pedantic. The great philosophers of the past are widely considered and their theories analyzed, but the goal is not to provide a historical excursus on what thinkers of the past wrote about food. The authors compare their work to plumbing, in the sense that they try to understand the nuts and bolts of how things work, and above all how ideas and values - often taken for granted and never fully discussed -- greatly shape the way we understand and interact with the world. There is no more immediate perspective to do this than by looking at food, an experience that everybody, one way or another, shares.

Boisvert and Heldke reflect on everyday occurrences, rather than on abstract theories. A discussion about hospitality and whom we invite to our table leads to tackle larger ethical issues, such as the difference between being rational and reasonable, and the inevitability of interdependence among human beings. The topic of taste and pleasure takes us to a critique of theories of knowledge that peg us as detached spectators rather than active participants in our environment. As a matter of fact, the authors point out how "food reveals the inadequacy and inaccuracy of time-worn dichotomies like objective/subjective, mind/body and theoretical/practical."

Food reminds us that we cannot maintain the fantasy of being self-sufficient and self-contained. Food enters us and more importantly becomes us. Our digestion is the result of the interaction between our organs and the host of microbes and bacteria that inhabit us (and that we stubbornly try to destroy). As Boisvert and Heldke suggest, "appetite re-emphasizes our continuity with the natural world. It makes aware of our multiple connections and interdependencies: with the sun, soil, ants, bacteria, earth-worms, plants as well as with other humans that grow, harvest, deliver and distribute foodstuffs." If we let ingestion guide us in understanding our relationship with reality, we may embrace our lived experience as interactive creatures that need others, admitting that we constantly and uncertainly depend on external factors to survive. Rather than scaring us, the authors propose that this approach should lead us to discover ways of eating "experimentally, thoughtfully, wisely, judiciously. By tasting."

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