Toward a Reflective Gastronomy
Symposion Journal was born of the vision of a ‘reflective’ gastronomy. We envisioned an analog of a symposion where food professionals, thinkers and scholars will sit on SJ’s ‘table’ to reflect and discuss about food ‘philosophies’ and practices, about standards of taste, about culinary trends and identities, about the aesthetic, moral and political issues raised by food. And a lot more. After all, food is also a reflection—a mirror—of our time.
On Symposion Journal’s launch we ask: “Is it really important to think about food? And why?” We are fortunate enough to have Professor Dwight Furrow, an inspiring thinker who also ‘knows’ food and wine, to kickstart the discussion. His answer is "Yes", food needs philosophy. We need philosophy to examine the values and economic imperatives that have driven our food system badly adrift: we produce too much, we damage the environment and hunger persists.
According to Professor Furrow, philosophy points the way out of our predicament through more effective management of desire and a new conception of happiness that emphasizes authenticity and quality over quantity. He also makes an inspiring defense of an everyday aesthetics of food and cooking against the imperatives of our market society, food haters and anti-pleasure moralists. Professor Furrow generously discussed with us most main philosophical issues about food: why we need a philosophy of taste, whether cooking is an art, whether art can survive in the cooking labs of avant-gardists and science geeks, as well as the moral issues about GMO production and cultured meat. Enjoy!
Interview by Symposion Journal
SJ: How did you become interested in food and wine as a philosopher?
DF: I’ve been interested in food since I moved away from home and had to feed myself. Once I achieved some distance from graduate school and was settled into an academic career, the personal dimension of philosophy—the sense that philosophy is as much a way of life as a professional discipline—became more important to me. And with that comes an interest in understanding the “tissue of little things” that make up the substance of life—one of which is food. If philosophy is a way of life, then it should have something to say about how we go about sustaining our material existence. Carolyn Korsmeyer’s wonderful book, Making Sense of Taste, was a catalyst. It demonstrated that food could become a source of serious philosophical reflection. Yet it is still an underexplored area of philosophy and we still lack an aesthetics of flavor.
My interest in wine is the direct consequence of consuming my first bottle of quality pinot noir and the recognition that the aesthetic experience of wine can be as deeply engaging as that of music or the visual arts. The issue then is to try to understand and make sense of that engagement.
SJ: In your writings you defend the importance of thinking about food and wine. Why is it important, then, to think philosophically about these subjects?
DF: The great challenge of our time is to cope with the pressure our way of life puts on the sustainability of resources, which of course implicates our food supply. Meeting this challenge will likely require we manage our desires and reform how we experience pleasure by restructuring the possible field of action with regard to food, among other things. Food represents a kind of focal point in light of which we can consider alternative ways of living. Philosophy, in its inception in Greek and Roman thought, was a way of refining desires and attending to their moderation in the name of achieving a good life. I think we need to get back to that conception of philosophy. Some of Foucault’s later work emphasizes how power relations operate on internalized conceptual frameworks and norms that entice us to experience pleasure in ways that reinforce prevailing institutions. The kind of critical analysis that philosophy encourages can help understand these norms and how they work to our detriment. In addition, I think philosophy can aid in the task of reformulating conceptual frameworks to expose new possibilities. But the whole domain of flavor is under-theorized and difficult to get a handle on conceptually. So it is ripe for philosophical reflection.
SJ: Food and drink have always been a source of moral concern. Religious beliefs and moral values have shaped people's dietary habits in various cultures. Moralists have condemned overindulgence in the carnal pleasures of eating and drinking; certain kinds of food and drink have been thought to help the cultivation of certain virtues or vices; and today there is a lot of concern about the ethics of food production and its consequences for the environment, animal welfare, world poverty, and so on. Which do you think are the main ethical issues concerning food and drink in our days? How can philosophy contribute to the relevant debates.
DF: The main problem we face is utterly unique in human history—we produce too much. The lifestyle of the advanced countries, including our food consumption, is unsustainable. Of course, it is a scandal that people still go hungry despite our productive capacity, but as they emerge out of poverty the problem of the sustainability of resources will only get worse. So the moral and political issues go beyond questions of distributive justice and involve questions about how we can feed the planet while producing less or producing differently. Unfortunately, the world economic system is based on an insatiable need for constant growth, and our moral norms support that system by extolling the virtues of wealth creation, accumulation, and the work ethic. Meanwhile the rise of the machines seems inexorable which will make much human labor irrelevant in the future. To cope with this situation of overproduction, we must fundamentally change our production and consumption patterns and our attitudes toward growth. But to do so we will need new norms and a much revised conception of human happiness. Philosophy, at least as traditionally conceived, is the discipline that takes how to live as its central theme. If it is not philosophers who bear some responsibility for creative thinking about how to live, then who?
It seems to me the first necessary although not sufficient step is to turn towards quality rather than quantity, to learn to sort through the excess to discover what is of genuine value. So the main ethical issue with regard to food is a turn towards aesthetics and a recognition of the power of aesthetics to shape how we think and feel.
SJ: Do food and drink have aesthetic value as well? Is cooking a form of art?
DF: I think philosophers largely agree that food and drink have aesthetic properties. The question is whether these aesthetic properties matter. Are they sources of only momentary, private enjoyment, superficial and without any larger significance? Or are they bearers of meaning and essential components of a good human life?
I think everyday pleasures, such as food and drink, are terribly important to us. They provide us with moments of grace that resist the increasingly standardized world of bureaucracy, quantitative assessment, and instrumental reason. Some thinkers, Adorno in particular, have argued that only art provides this kind of resistance to what he called an “administered world”. While I’m sympathetic to his argument, I doubt that the gallery or symphony hall is the site of such resistance. It must emerge within our private lives, in the home, where individual self-expression is free to tell the corporate masters to bug off. So the world of food and drink have special significance because they are the primary (although not the only) locus of everyday aesthetics. It is here where the turn towards quality rather than quantity must occur. This is in part what the local food and slow food movements are about.
But if everyday cooking and eating are to maintain a focus on quality rather than quantity there must be standards of excellence at which they aim. And so professional chefs have an important role—to provide virtuoso performances to which we amateurs can aspire. The work of the finest professional chefs certainly has the complexity, structure, and meaning to qualify as art. All the reasons traditionally given for excluding fine food from the realm of art do not stand up to scrutiny.
SJ: In one of your essays you defend the importance of artistic creativity and aesthetic enjoyment for human well being. How do food and drink fit into the picture? What is their importance for human well being? Do they need defense against critics who may question their worth?
DF: Artistic creativity and aesthetic enjoyment have non-instrumental value. We find the exercise of these capacities inherently meaningful. As such they are the principle way in which we resist the norms of efficiency and imperatives of the market place that crowd out every other source of value. I think everyone needs a way to resist those demands. Everyone needs a place in their life where beauty, pleasure and attention to things that have intrinsic value occupy their attention. But we can’t leave creativity up to the professionals; everyone can benefit from exercising their creative capacities. Not only do we get satisfaction from it but such activity reminds us that some things have value that is not reducible to their price or function. That respectful attitude toward things, activities, and persons, assuming it is deserved, is at the heart of ethics but it often rests on an aesthetic attitude, a fascination that begins with appearance. Because food and drink are pervasive in our lives if we don’t attend to their beauty we miss a substantial portion of what ordinary life has to offer.
SJ: Have philosophers paid sufficient attention to the aesthetics of food and drink?
DF: No. There are occasional references in Plato, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche to food and drink but no sustained discussion. Nietzsche in Ecce Homo asserted their importance to one’s life but he doesn’t take them up explicitly. The emergence of women in philosophy has given the aesthetics of food a bit more prominence but it still is a minor topic. In fact aesthetics itself is devalued in Anglo-American philosophy because our notion of meaning is mistakenly limited to truth-functional propositions and language and our concept of reason so bound up with the instrumental. That view of meaning excludes much of the realm of sensation and emotion including our response to food and beverages. We are only beginning to extricate ourselves from those mistakes.
SJ: Which, in your view, are the main ideas that should inform the aesthetics of food and drink?
DF: That is a hard question to answer since this area is so under-developed. I think the concepts we use in aesthetics generally—representation, expression, beauty, imagination, etc.—can usefully be applied to food and beverages in some contexts. Because food comes to us via food traditions that help to define genres of cooking, I think particular dishes are exemplifications of food traditions. So an aesthetics of food would rely heavily on food traditions as basic categories.
I tend to think art can best be understood as a symbol system is which the symbols exemplify features of our affective and perceptual experience. And these symbols are best understood as metaphorical. The metaphorical meanings that attach to food and beverages are more extensive than commonly thought and can be deployed to give us a better understanding of the whole realm of flavor.
The newly emerging discourse on everyday aesthetics is also promising, in which lower level concepts such as “fun”, “delicious”, “sensuous”, “elegant”, etc. play a role. I think a focus on food and beverages reveals continuity between everyday life and the artworld. Through a focus on cooking and flavor we find what is extraordinary in the ordinary, to borrow a phrase from Thomas Leddy. Much of art is devoted to a similar project of finding inspiration in ordinary things.
SJ: You have also written on the question of good taste, a traditional philosophical topic. What is good taste as relates to food and drink? Which are the main ideas guiding your approach to the issue?
DF: We have to get away from the idea that the appreciation of flavor is something that happens in the mouth—a simple and immediate sensation. The science and social science on taste show that taste is very much an idea that involves complex cognitive processing and is influenced by a variety of environmental factors. Neither Kant nor Hume quite got this right, yet their influence continues to dominate.
A person of good taste is not someone who merely recognizes what is conventionally acceptable. “Good taste” involves discovering new patterns to explore, finding unexpected avenues of meaning, and responding with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something. It is being receptively open to sensation. It is neither a simple pleasurable response among experts to stimuli as Hume would have it nor an ultimately failed but pleasurable search for a principle as Kant thought.
SJ: Overall, how do you find the current state of play in the philosophy of food? Which are the main issues occupying philosophers in the field? Do you identify any major trends and developments?
DF: I think the dominant trend is to see the philosophy of food as a sub-discipline of applied ethics, preoccupied with environmental and sustainability issues, distributive justice, animal rights, etc. That is fine as far as it goes but is rather limiting. I really haven’t noticed a surge in interest in the aesthetics of food among philosophers (in contrast to the general population which seems preoccupied with flavor). My impression is that the philosophy of food is not an area being swept up in new developments. It hasn’t helped that attacks on the Humanities in general have taken root in our intellectual culture; aesthetics is increasingly marginalized even though as a culture we seem to be thoroughly aestheticized.
SJ: Contemporary science and technology bring important changes in the way food is produced and processed. Some of these changes are thought to have important moral implications. For example, there is a lot of concern about the ethics of GMO production. On the other hand, some believe that cultured meat could provide a way of addressing the moral concerns raised by meat production and consumption without endorsing vegeterianism or veganism. Which, in your view, are the main ethical issues raised by food-related scientific and technological developments?
DF: As I noted, the sustainability issues are paramount. Our technology has contributed to the problem but we chose to go down this road a long time ago and there is no going back. It makes no sense to be anti-technology whatever that would mean. We have to deploy technology that helps solve the resource and sustainability problems. The jury on GMOs is still out. The science appears to show they are not directly harmful to human health so some of the objections to this technology seem irrational. The environmental costs are still not fully known but building drought resistance through this technology may be crucial to our future. Moreover it is a technology controlled by huge corporations who never have our interests in mind, and so the anti-GMO folks are right to be suspicious of the business side of it.
I think the cultured meat phenomenon is interesting although I suspect it will take longer to reach the market than its backers assume. I don’t have any moral objections to it; I just hope it tastes good.
SJ: You have also written on the relevance of science and technology for the aesthetics of food. What are your thoughts on the issue? What consequences may science and technology have for food aesthetics?
DF: Food science has opened up new flavor and texture avenues to explore. Flavor and texture can be severed from their traditional sources and recombined in fascinating ways through science. Food preparation, analytically understood, is nothing but applied chemistry, so being able to manipulate the chemistry gives us more control. But analysis is only one way to understand something. The meaning of food is not reducible to its chemical constituents and it isn’t clear that this “modernist” approach to cooking will resonate with the public who may prefer their food to remain embedded in traditions. Because science gives us more control and expands the imaginative possibilities for chefs its influence will be significant despite the ebb and flow of popular taste.
SJ: Finally, a more personal question. What are your future plans as a philosopher of food? Do you have any specific projects under way? Would you like to say a few things about them?
DF: I’m shopping a book proposal about the significance of food especially as an art form and I’m continuing to work on developing a conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetics of food, one that would be useful to non-philosophers who want to think more deeply about their relationship to food. And I plan to do some non-philosophical writing on wine as well. The United States is sprouting new wine regions at a rapid rate so I want to explore these emerging regions and write about them.
Copyright, Symposion Journal, a trading name of COGNEA Ltd. May not be reprinted without permission.
"...The aesthetic experience of wine can be as deeply engaging as that of music or the visual arts. “
"The main problem we face is utterly unique in human history—we produce too much. The lifestyle of the advanced countries, including our food consumption, is unsustainable."
"Some thinkers, Adorno in particular, have argued that only art provides this kind of resistance to what he called an “administered world.” ... I doubt that the gallery or symphony hall is the site of such resistance. So the world of food and drink have special significance because they are the primary (although not the only) locus of everyday aesthetics."
"Of course, it is a scandal that people still go hungry despite our productive capacity..."
"Because science gives us more control and expands the imaginative possibilities for chefs its influence will be significant despite the ebb and flow of popular taste."
"To cope with this situation of overproduction, we must ... turn towards quality rather than quantity, to learn to sort through the excess to discover what is of genuine value"
"Because food and drink are pervasive in our lives if we don’t attend to their beauty we miss a substantial portion of what ordinary life has to offer.”