- Philosophers at Table: On Food and Being Human by Raymond D. Boisvert and Lisa Heldke
Raymond D. Boisvert and Lisa Heldke. Reaktion Books, 2016.
Raymond Boisvert and Lisa Heldke begin Philosophers at Table with a simile. Following Mary Midgley, they suggest that philosophy is like plumbing. We post-industrial urbanites and suburbanites rely on plumbing to bring us water and dispose of our waste. We rely on it daily, but we rarely think reflectively about it. In like fashion, we all rely on philosophy; ideas, concepts, values, and guiding principles structure and organize the way we perceive and experience the world. Philosophy lies undetected, out of sight, tucked neatly in the walls and under the floorboards. We typically suffer its dripping faucets, its low water pressure, its slow drain as long as we can because these almost always involve unwieldy, labor-intensive repairs. Like plumbers, philosophers—the good kind—roll up their sleeves and work to ameliorate problematic situations. Boisvert and Heldke, in this book, are unclogging conceptual toilets and cleaning up philosophical messes in the philosophy of food.
Boisvert and Heldke write: "[T]o live (and thus to eat) in the contemporary world is to negotiate a treacherous set of conceptual sinkholes, some of which threaten to drown you, others risk only damp feet" (20). They prod us to confront and reconsider particular conceptual presuppositions and commitments that hinder us from taking food as a proper object of philosophical inquiry and reflection. For example, Boisvert and Heldke suggest that philosophers need to recognize the self-inflicted wound that is the mind-body problem. In this case, philosophers are prodded to recognize (1) that we are "stomach-endowed creatures," and (2) that being explicit about the necessities of human persistence does influence how we approach philosophy (41). Some philosophers approach philosophy like the geometer; that is, they model philosophical method on the type of abstract inference-by-inference logical proof one finds in Euclid (45). Boisvert and Heldke argue that the stark distinctions between mind and body (postulated by geometer-styled philosophers) are problematized once we recognize that filling our stomachs is an undeniable feature of human life. We are not mere spectators, cogitating from a God's-eye-perspective. Human values, human knowing, and human well-being are, in many respects, influenced by our bodily pursuits of tasty, hygienic, or nutritious sustenance within the natural environment. And this, in turn, supports the idea that food/eating is a legitimate topic for philosophy. In contrast, they suggest that we approach philosophy like the [End Page 108] farmer (46–48, 75). Philosophical method is then modeled on the non-ideal, embodied, contextual, attentive practices that bear fruit in some extrinsic manner.
In chapter 2, Boisvert and Heldke point out that conventional ways of conceiving art and aesthetics often preclude food and dining from philosophical consideration (70). They suggest that we (i.e., the philosophically afflicted) need to recognize the philosophical baggage we bring to aesthetics when we isolate art objects as the proper objects for aesthetic judgment. In aesthetics, it is common to separate art from craft. As Kant would have it, aesthetic judgement should be rational, disaffected, and universally shared by all competent judges. Thus, art is often conceived as a practice or field in which proper art objects are set apart from lived experience (in galleries and museums) and ideally assessed by disinterested, disengaged judges (79). Notice, by this light, a delicious bowl of soup would not qualify as a proper art object. Our need of sustenance makes food merely instrumental. None of the countless food items we consume daily then would count as a proper art object. This approach to the philosophy of art and aesthetics precludes the consideration and aesthetic judgment of food and eating. This, Boisvert and Heldke tell us, is a philosophical mess.
To the contrary, Boisvert and Heldke redirect our focus to the aesthetic experience of eating, paying close attention to context and the concrete situation. Following John Dewey, they suggest that we shift the discourse to the ways in which aesthetic experiences are had (by embodied, enculturated human beings...