The Philosophy of Food
Philosophers have a long but scattered history of analyzing food. Plato famously details an appropriate diet in Book II of the Republic. The Roman Stoics, Epicurus and Seneca, as well as Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Marx, and Nietzsche, all discuss various aspects of food production and consumption. In the twentieth century, philosophers considered such issues as vegetarianism, agricultural ethics, food rights, biotechnology, and gustatory aesthetics. In the twenty-first century, philosophers continue to address these issues and new ones concerning the globalization of food, the role of technology, and the rights and responsibilities of consumers and producers. Typically, these philosophers call their work “food ethics” or “agricultural ethics.” But I think they sell themselves short. Philosophers do more than treat food as a branch of ethical theory. They also examine how it relates to the fundamental areas of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, political theory, and, of course, ethics. The phrase “philosophy of food” is more accurate. We might eventually come to think of the philosophy of food as a perfectly ordinary “philosophy of” if more philosophers address food issues and more colleges offer courses on the subject—or at least that is my hope.
But why is this subject - a footnote to Plato just like the rest of the philosophy - not yet fully entrenched as a standard philosophical subject? Why do philosophers only occasionally address questions concerning food? The subject is obviously important and the scholarship on food has real pedigree. Some have argued that food is eschewed because of the perception that it is too physical and transient to deserve serious consideration (Telfer, 1996). Others have argued that food production and preparation have conventionally been regarded as women’s work and, therefore, viewed as an unworthy topic for a male-dominated profession (Heldke, 1992). Still others argue that the senses and activities associated with food (taste, eating, and drinking) have traditionally been seen as “lower senses” and are too primitive and instinctual to be analyzed philosophically (Korsemeyer, 2002). These are all plausible explanations.