Comedite Ergo Sum

By Patrick J. MurrayJuly 9, 2015

Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food by Michel Onfray

PRESENTING PHILOSOPHY in ways a general reader can understand is no easy task. To translate a specialized subject, philosopher, or philosophical discourse for a general audience entails a particular literary adroitness, most especially the ability to produce an accessible style of prose. Philosophy, having evolved over centuries, has understandably developed its own particular nomenclature, toponymy, and linguistic paradigms that often defy lucidity.

Consider the following, randomly chosen extract from Jacques Derrida’s magisterial work on the interfaces of philosophy, linguistics, and literature Of Grammatology

To produce this signifying structure obviously cannot consist of reproducing, by the effaced and respectful doubling of commentary, the conscious, voluntary, intentional relationship that the writer institutes in his exchanges with the history to which he belongs thanks to the element of language. This moment of doubling commentary should no doubt have its place in a critical reading. To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism.

Philosophical writing like Derrida’s, with its litany of abstractions and complex sentence structure, is often characterized by an esoteric and intangible narrative voice. To “translate” for non-philosophy specialists requires a readable literary style that modulates the worst excesses of philosophical terminology while also remaining faithful to its source material. Indeed, the very practice of language as a means of social and cultural interaction has been the fundamental subject of established branches of 20th-century theoretical thought, such as analytical philosophy and deconstruction. Derrida himself found this of interest: in an extreme, but nonetheless instructive, illustration, he produced a lengthy essay on the contrasts in the differing usage of the same three-word phrase in a parable by Franz Kafka.[1]

As a result, clarity and concision can be priceless commodities when writing for a reader unaccustomed to the intricacies of philosophy’s jargon. “The technical vocabulary [philosophers] employ,” writes the great scholar of German philosophy R. J. Hollingdale in his introduction to an edition of Schopenhauer’s essay and aphorisms, “makes them harder to understand until that vocabulary is understood, and their employment of it often produces an atmosphere of impersonality and objectivity foreign to the world of the novel or the poem.” If ease of access is imperative in engaging with a general readership, the abstraction and methodological objectivity attending many aspects of philosophy can be off-putting. As Hollingdale also observes, the approachability of philosophers can vary:

A very intimate knowledge of Hegel, for example, is required to penetrate the ‘scientific’ outworks and gain the personality within: yet that personality determines the structure and the nature of The Phenomenology of the Spirit just as surely as the personality of Dickens determines the structure and nature of Our Mutual Friend. But not every German metaphysician conceals himself so thoroughly as Hegel who in any case suffered from a genuine difficulty in expressing himself and who struggled consciously but in vain against an inadequate literary technique: the philosophy of Schelling is already more obviously the outcome of subjective attitudes in the individual who has framed it, and that of Schopenhauer is very clearly so.[2] 

Hollingdale may be presenting a problematic contrast between overtly literary works and their philosophical counterparts, but his overall point is a persuasive one. French philosophy in particular has a complex history with regard to engagement with general audiences, most obviously through its overwhelming egoism. While Michel de Montaigne’s literary style is superlative in its accessibility, the Aquitaine sage made the whole basis of his thinking an analysis of himself. Writing in the “Address to the Reader” contained in the first book of the 1595 edition of his influential essays, Montaigne asserts, “I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. […] I am myself the matter of my book.” Similarly, Cartesian epistemology extrapolates from its fundamental tenet of the self: “Cogito ergo sum.” 

If the proponents of Renaissance philosophy evinced a clear focus on the ego, making it the center of their thought, the writings of later French philosophers are often marked by an abstruse style, rendering them almost inaccessible to any but the most learned philosophy scholars. Influential Francophone figures of postmodern thought such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard often articulate their philosophical analyses in dizzyingly opaque terms, partly by necessity and partly by design. 

London-based publisher Reaktion has produced a succession of books that attempt the challenge of introducing a general readership to the complexities of philosophy. Similar to Oxford University Press’s wide-ranging A Very Short Introduction series, authors such as Peter B. Lewis, Edward Kanterian, David Macey, and Wolfgang B. Sperlich summarize the life and work of leading Western philosophical thinkers including Schopenhauer, Kant, Marx, and Foucault. In the process, they elucidate the perplexing world of philosophical discourse for the lay reader. 

In addition to these personality-centered books, Reaktion has published philosophically inclined studies of particular topics. Titles like A Philosophy of Pain (2009), A Philosophy of Sport (2011), and A Philosophy of Freedom (2014) showcase the work of a number of eminent contemporary philosophers, including Lars Svendsen and Arne Johan Vetlesen, proffering readable overviews of long-standing debates surrounding their subjects. Philosophical epistemologies as diverse as dialectical materialism, Epicureanism, and logical positivism are arrogated to analyze a number of topics in the interests of discovering, in the tradition of Socratic philosophy, the underlying assumptions, systems, and seeming truths motivating them. Steven Connor’s The Philosophy of Sport is emblematic of the series. While acknowledging that “sport and philosophy do not, on the face of it, have a very natural affinity with each other,” Connor shows how the two subjects can imbricate, most obviously in the personal predilections of esteemed philosophers: “Ortega y Gasset wrote a book on hunting; skiing makes a remarkable and extended appearance in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; Jacques Derrida was a goalkeeper, and dreamed in his youth of becoming a professional footballer.” Connor aims to use philosophical tools to “try to make out what sport means, […] ask what sport is […] [, and] use some kinds of philosophical analysis to capture more of the systematic strangeness of sport.” 

The latest in Reaktion’s line of titles to plough this furrow is Michel Onfray’s Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food. The aim of the project is to analyze the work of seven prominent European thinkers through their eating habits. The premise, according to its blurb, is straightforward: “Appetites for Thought offers up a delectable intellectual challenge: can we better understand the concepts of philosophers if we look at their culinary choices?” Onfray “guid[es] us around the philosopher’s banquet table with erudition, wit, and irreverence, […] offer[ing] surprising insights on foods ranging from fillet of cod to barley soup, from sausage to wine and coffee.” In doing so, he endeavors to explore what conclusions, if any, may be gleaned from a philosopher’s writing on dietetics regarding their overall ideas. 

Onfray is that most enigmatic of figures: the public intellectual. A prolific writer, his pronouncements on contemporary affairs reach both academic and general audiences. He has featured on popular television channels and newspapers, including Le Monde, where he is a regular contributing columnist. The followers on his Twitter feed — perhaps the key signifier of audience in the digital age — number in the thousands. Like his Swiss contemporary Alain de Botton — who airs his opinion on subjects ranging from art's relationship to therapy, the demerits of Scottish independence as a political ideology, and how to think “the right way” about sex — Onfray utilizes philosophy’s rich heritage of thinking to engage with contemporary debates beyond the cloistered world of the philosophical symposium. 

In choosing food as his subject, the author follows an established subgenre of philosophical writing. The book’s concentration on the victual has precedent, most recently in the form of The Philosophy of Food (2012). In this anthology, edited by David M. Kaplan, associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas, prominent contemporary thinkers from a range of ideological backgrounds such as Roger Scruton, Lisa Heldke, and Jeffrey Burkhardt interrogate the “the most basic questions about food: What is it exactly? What should we eat? How do we know it is safe? How should food be distributed? What is good food?” Attesting to the receptivity of questions of consumption to a philosophical analytic, The Philosophy of Food showcases topics attending this seemingly simple subject. (For similar reading, see also the ongoing scholarly publication Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies for critical inquiries into the socioeconomic, cultural, and political dimensions of the production, presentation, and ingestion of food.)

More broadly, the practice of consumption has received substantial attention in philosophical literature, especially in the Western tradition. As one of the few commonalities across human experience, eating has understandably emerged as a recurring theme among those who practice the science of wisdom. From Socrates onward, philosophers and thinkers have ruminated on the meaning and the whys and wherefores of what we ingest.

For example, humoral theory drew particular impetus from the notion of physiological as well as psychological equilibrium. As such, nutrition was a central concern for writers such as Hippocrates and Galen. Hynek Bartoš’s recently published exploration of such a subject Philosophy and Dietetics in the Hippocratic “On Regimen”: A Delicate Balance of Health (2015) demonstrates how diet recommendations for the ancients drew deeply on philosophical sources such as the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Empedocles. Similarly, in Christian tradition the practice of the sacrament, as well as the notion of Christ as the bread of life (hoc est corpus meum in the Vulgate) attests to the practicability of food as a metaphor in religious teaching. Many of the major figures of Renaissance philosophy also maintained an interest in dietetics, as evidenced in Montaigne’s essay “On Experience” — which details the French philosopher’s fondness for fish, as well as his tendency to eat so quickly he almost inadvertently chews his fingers off — and Francis Bacon’s detailed description of the ideal nutritive regimen for establishing and propagating colonial communities (tellingly, the putative founder of the empirical “New Science” of the Royal Society supposedly succumbed to the ill-effects of a failed experiment into that most crucial of modern food preservation techniques: refrigeration). Even the writings of the famously hermetic Dane Søren Kierkegaard have engendered a ludic cookbook entitled Philosophical Food Crumbs: A Kierkegaard Cookbook (2013). Characterizing itself as “a fun and alternative way into the works of Kierkegaard,” this whimsical book “through food history, historic and modern recipes, quotes and anecdotes […] tells a small piece of the story of the man, the times, the thoughts and the culture that made Kierkegaard a human being and a world known philosopher.”

Philosophy’s attention to food is most forcefully embodied in a particular aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Writing in Ecce Homo, the German thinker asserts, “I am much more interested in a question on which the ‘salvation of humanity’ depends far more than on any theologian’s curio: the question of nutrition.” This maxim serves as the inaugurating epigram of Onfray’s thesis. The opening chapter commences with a lyrical portrayal of a feast of the philosophers, entitled “The Banquet of the Omnivores.” The introduction postulates a culinary meeting of his subjects at the behest of the great Cynic of Sinope, Diogenes. In an opening paragraph rich with rhetorical marinade, Onfray writes:

Diogenes — farter, masturbator and cannibal — has invited to his banquet the most emblematic of dining companions: Rousseau, paranoid herbivore and champion of plebeian tastes; Kant, the austere hypochondriac, trying to bring together drunkenness and ethics; Nietzsche, the Germanophobe who champions Piedmontese cuisine in order to purify Prussian nutrition; the nebulous Fourier, who wants to be the Clausewitz of nutritive warfare; Sartre, the viscous thinker, comfortable with lobster à la mescaline; and Marinetti, the experimental gastrosopher, who combines the most unexpected flavours.

There is many a culinary-inflected bon mot in this exordium, not the least in its description of the philosophers themselves. “Sartre, the viscous thinker” evokes a figure marked by the deliquescent and the tangible, a suitable oxymoron for an intellectual whose work was concerned with the tension between essence and existence. Similarly, the cacophemistic triplet attending Diogenes — “farter, masturbator and cannibal” — conveys the fleshiness of one of ancient Greece’s most corporeal thinkers, an avowed atheist who lived in squalor, copulated in public, and scorned the intermediary of a cup to drink with his hands.

Onfray makes a telling move of contrasting nutrition with religious teaching, or the “theologian’s curio.” Many, if not all the thinkers Onfray analyzes, share a deep skepticism in the face of established theological thought, from Rousseau’s deism to Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God. Indeed, the host of the Appetite for Thought’s imaginary banquet, Diogenes, famously declared, “When I look upon seamen, men of science, and philosophers, man is the wisest of all things. When I look upon priests, prophets, and interpreters of dreams, nothing is so contemptible as a man.” This contradistinction between the man of science and the man of religion, like Nietzsche’s comparison between theology and nutrition, has at its heart a continuity in the shape of the human; it is precisely this continuity which is central to Onfray’s book. The author, in collecting together a range of philosophers whose attitude toward a godhead veers from the skeptical to the openly hostile, indicates that the real subject here is not merely food, but rather the human — or, more exactly, the ingesting human who devours and delectates, munches and masticates, ingests and digests. 

So what does the author ultimately glean from his approach? And is it, in the end, worthwhile? The volume is slim, at just over 130 pages. Given the broad range of thinkers Onfray examines, from ancient Cynics such as Diogenes to 19th century French socialists like Charles Fourier to the Italian futurist and polymath Filippo Marinetti, the fast-paced and dilettante style is understandable. However, the primary material with which Onfray is dealing is variable, and it shows. Sartre’s dining habits in particular prove an intriguing, if ultimately unsubstantial subject for a project that seeks to elaborate, from attitudes to food, wider attitudes toward human society. Detailing the existentialist’s “ritual meals at La Coupole” in later life is all very well, but what certain nugatory facts tell us — such as “he ate nuts and almonds, although they hurt his tongue, and he admitted to liking pineapple — though a fruit — because it seemed to him to be like something cooked” — about the underlying themes of works such a Nausea and The Age of Reason is hard to discern. In a similar vein, Immanuel Kant is limited on matters alimentary, forcing Onfray to infer (sometimes precariously) from the German philosopher’s dining habits more substantial, if not substantive, insights into Kantian thought. 

However, where there is an obvious prominence given to dietetics in a philosopher’s output, Onfray draws some interesting conclusions. Fourier, for example, writes extensively on nutrition in his utopian manifesto The New Industrial and Social World, and so provides the author with ample primary material over which to chew. The intention to “organize general voracity” — as articulated in Fourier’s utopian manifesto Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux (1816) — has obvious implications for his thoughts about the human consumption of food, and allows Onfray to develop an analysis of the philosopher’s overall system of thought:

[Fourier’s] ‘new hygienic wisdom’ aims to elevate the ‘appetite of the people to such a degree that they can consume the boundless quantity of foodstuffs which the new order is providing.’ It is an ‘art of increasing health and vigour.’ If Civilization is characterized by an economy of scarcity, lack and deficiency, Harmony, for its part, is rich with an economy of superfluity, excess and abundance. Penury is dismissed in favour of a production relevant to the needs of the Social Order.

This expansion on Fourier’s writing shows how his attitude to food was emblematic of his wider thought. Careful management of resources within utopian society leads to superabundance, whether that be in comestibles or sexual gratification — famously, Fourier advocated the promotion of bisexuality, gerontophilia, and the abolition of constrictive constructs such as marriage.

In such cases, Onfray’s thesis of “better understand[ing] the concepts of philosophers [by] look[ing] at their culinary choices” is on more solid ground. In figures like Fourier and Diogenes, we can see how attitudes to food may serve as a helpful gauge of philosophers’ wider thoughts on life and enhance our comprehension of their ideas. Where cogitations on consumption are few and far between, however, the book often lapses into long passages of mere description. Nonetheless, Appetites for Thought is an interesting and entertaining read for the most part. It proves once again that food is a continuous feature of the philosophical as well as the biological world.


[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘Before the Law’ in Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 181-220.

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, selected and translated with an introduction by R. J. Hollingdale, (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 10.


Dr. Patrick J. Murray is a researcher at the University of Glasgow.

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Dr. Patrick J Murray is a researcher at the University of Glasgow.


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