kant on food and the good

Contrasting the agreeable and the beautiful, Kant takes special issue with the gustatory. The agreeable “pleases the senses in sensation.” We want to get to a good sensation and those who do not share our tastes can be accused of “foolishness and incomprehension, but never of baseness and malice.”

Of a dish that stimulates the taste through spices and other flavorings one may say without hesitation that it is agreeable and at the same time not good…considered mediately, by reason, which looks beyond to the consequences, it displeases.

The agreeable is contrasted with the good in another aspect; the normativity which they do not share.

With regard to the agreeable, everyone is content that his judgment…be restricted merely to his own person. Hence he is perfectly happy if, when he says that sparkling wine from the Canaries is agreeable, someone else should improve his expression and remind him to say “it is agreeable to me”; and this is not only the case in the tongue, palate and throat, but also in the case of that which may be agreeable to someone’s eyes and ears.

The pleasures of food are paradigmatic in their non-normativity. Other things may be said to also be merely agreeable, based on the comparison with the patently obvious idea that what you eat has no bearing on what is good.

Except that nowadays it does. A quick perusal of the Starbucks website, for example, brings you to a page on “responsibility” which includes a narrative section on a visit to tea suppliers in Assam, a page on ethical sourcing, and a page on community relations.

Like Barack Obama, McDonald’s has a page trumpeting their transparency, something we might reasonably expect from democratically elected executives, but maybe less so from McD’s (excepting what the fries do to the napkins).

Sourcing more locally, Boston foodie spot Ten Tables includes a blurb on their philosophy, something I might know something about. It begins with an almost Heideggarian paean to authentic neighborhoodness.

Any establishment can define itself as a “neighborhood” spot by its immediate location or surroundings. But being a true neighborhood place requires that we also be good neighbors, by supporting the efforts of our local partners and by welcoming you.”

Husserl asks in his Vienna lecture “How is the spiritual shape of Europe to be characterized?” Ten Tables philosophy offers an answer: “we shop like Europeans: close to home and in our communities.”

In a more Wittgensteinian vein, the now defunct El Bulli, writes in their manifesto (manifesto: something that is only crazy to have after the shooting?) “Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.” It is interesting that there is a primeval harmony followed by poetry and magic and leading to culture. It sounds like Vico or Cassirer to me! Furthermore, echoing Brechtian techniques of alienation, the manifesto embraces “Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance” as “completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of gastronomic reflection.” Notice the focus on the legitimacy of affect, the self-conscious notions of performativity and the idea of gastronomic reflection, which would have to be defined as the process of gastronomy reflecting on itself (beginning I assume with the sense certainty of a piece of steak and ending, we assume in the oui that is an eye and the aye that is a wee of the spirit of truffles and foie gras “expressed” into a foam).

The stories, philosophies and manifestoes may differ in their appeals to lower or higher cultural registers, the various normative concepts deployed or the systematicity of their appeals, they all speak the language of reason. So why have we become used to speaking about food, the paradigmatic example in ordinary language of something completely agreeable as if it is something good?

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