Thursday 15 November 2018

REVIEW: I Think, Therefore I Eat (2018)

Liebig Meat Extract collectible card. The philosopher, Nietzsche, experimented with many different diets, including one unwisely based on drinking this, at the time ‘very modern’, beef broth.
I Think, Therefore I Eat

 Review article by Keith Tidman
I Think, Therefore I Eat: The World’s Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question
By Martin Cohen
Turner Publishing Company, 2018
$19.99 (paperback)
ISBN 9781684421985 (paperback)
You could be excused if it hadn’t already dawned on you to make the connection between history’s deep thinkers of philosophy and food and nutrition. Yet, that is precisely what philosopher and writer Martin Cohen* does—in ways unforeseen and strikingly effective—in this book, entitled: I Think, Therefore I Eat: The World’s Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question. The main title being, of course, a play on Renée Descartes’s best-known aphorism, ‘I think, therefore I am’—which if any maxim is familiar and handily summoned from philosophy’s archives, it’s typically this one. Martin Cohen draws from his own vast knowledge of philosophy and food—itself an uncommon combination of specialty areas—to explain that nexus between philosophers’ ruminations about food (from the Ancients to the Moderns), as well as what scientists say and what the rest of us unassuming mortals presume to know about food and nutrition.

To be sure, however, just because there’s philosophy aplenty, this is not some impenetrable tome. To the contrary, the style is highly approachable throughout, and even breezy on occasion. And, I should underscore, an enjoyable read. Readers in no way need, therefore, formal prior knowledge about either philosophy or the science of nutrition. Rather, he spins a tight and engaging narrative that tells us what we need to know, in plain English—at the right time, and in just the right way. And when a topic might prove a little knottier than others, he deftly untangles it for us. It's a book that proves highly informative, while throughout maintaining a conversational, entertaining tone—at times engaging in insightful yarns to make key points all the more palpable. Often providing practical tips (like ‘Know Your Yogurt’) that one might fold into daily routines. Seeding the book with ponderable observations, such as ‘nowadays it is acknowledged that microscopic organisms are the hidden puppet masters of human health’. And suggesting the importance of Taoist-like balance and harmony in all things—including, of course, in eating.

The author suggests that ‘you can read I Think, Therefore I Eat in one sitting’. However, he’s being modest; my own suggestion would be to read the book less hurriedly, perhaps over a few days at your leisure, to properly savor what he dishes up—contextualised by his ‘holistic’ view of human health. A level of leisure that’s in the spirit of that giant of philosophy Immanuel Kant—Kant perhaps being inspired by ‘suffer[ing] from poor digestion’and whose ‘most useful bit of food-related advice’, as Cohen describes it, ‘is the recommendation—no matter how busy you are!—to have a proper lunch, ideally in company, and to eat it very slowly’. Consuming this book ‘slowly’ might likewise be more gainful as to useful takeaways.

Martin Cohen shares with us insights into the indulgences—and not uncommonly head-scratching idiosyncrasies—of the philosophers, from two millennia ago to the present, using a storytelling literary device. If you remember to keep the philosophers’ indulgences squarely in the context of history, they’ll make all the more sense—and, if I may opine, appear all the more forgivable. Both the philosophers’ eye-catching eating practices and off-the-cuff beliefs about food come to light. A case in point:
‘Friedrich Nietzsche was always obsessed with meat—his charcuterie—and drew inspiration and strength from an assortment of hams and sausages. The infamous philosophical architect of the ‘Superman,’ or Übermensch . . . also dabbled in vegetarianism but decided pleasure should come before health in such things.’
As Nietzsche himself professed, as an undisguised sideswipe, ‘anyone who is ripe for vegetarianism is generally also ripe for “socialist stew”.’

And another:
‘In a letter to a friend in 1769, [Hume] jokes of his “great talent for cookery, the science to which I intend to addict the remaining years of my life”. . . . But judging from his famous girth, he had left this interest in cooking science rather late. “Ye ken I’m no epicure, only a glutton”, he once admitted. . . . Hume seems not to have known what was good for him, since his forays into the kitchen produced mainly . . . “sheep’s-head broth”.’
A mouth-watering dish, I’m sure, to share on any occasion with family and friends. Meanwhile, Martin Cohen doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook:
‘“Oh, my fellow man!’ exclaimed [the lacto-vegetarian] Pythagoras, a philosopher so ancient that he is even older than Plato and Socrates. . . . “The earth affords you a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter”.’
Depending on how the scene is pictured, the last part—the bit about ‘bloodshed’ and ‘slaughter’ that is—might strike one as an appetite suppressor, no?

As Martin Cohen makes clear, however, Pythagoras has today, some 2,600 years later, plenty of company when it comes to food choices and awareness of nutrition: the growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans in all corners of the world—while we avoid what Pythagoras rather judgmentally blasted as ‘sinful foods’. To the larger point about food choices, the author devotes a chapter to what he dubs the ‘ethics of the dinner plate’. There, he delves into such sensitive—and perhaps for some people, stomach-turning—food choices as elephant trunks, horsemeat, grasshoppers, snakes, and dog burgers. And the unsavory list goes on—though ‘unsavory’ is a decidedly culturally subjective matter potentially fraught with preconceptions based on one’s upbringing and custom.

Such food choices should not surprise anyone, given archeological findings that revealed that the ancient Romans harvested and ate snails a couple of thousand years ago. Seemingly inspired by such consumption of sentient beings, Martin Cohen turns to a laconic aphorism by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht: First comes the food, then comes the moralizing (a line in his The Threepenny Opera, Cohen reminds us). However, in light of many people’s deep conviction in the rightness of, say, meals based on halal, low-calorie, vegetarian, organic, sacred-cow, fasting, kosher, and other moral (religious and secular) principles, the author fittingly turns Brecht’s words around: ‘first come the morals, then comes the eating’. In many cases, that seems about right. Though there are exceptions, of course, as told to us by the anecdote about how money shortages in Karl Marx’s family led to a stark diet of just potatoes and bread—here, poverty trumping the luxury of considerations of morality.

The catalyst for Cohen’s reflections on philosophy’s intersections with food is his three guiding principles: Detail matters; everything connects; and don’t mess with the ‘crystal vase’. He weaves these into the discussion, rendering each more concrete and comprehensible through example after example; you quickly get his point, and it makes sense. The first two principles seem less in need of explanation here, so I’ll leave it to the book’s readers to discover them in further detail on their own. However, ‘don’t mess with the crystal vase’ surely begs for brief explanation. Besides, as the author declares this particular guideline as the ‘most important’ of the three, let’s try to clarify it.

As Cohen explains regarding the ‘crystal’, ‘The point is that the human body is a very delicate arrangement of intricate parts’, and that it therefore ‘defies logic that people—not least experts—seek to reduce to simple rules and linear “cause and effect” explanations’. This is a central, guiding theme in this book: acknowledge complexity, and don’t ‘take a hammer to the crystal . . . by, for example, drastically restricting your diet . . . or, conversely, by indulging in just one or two favorite (or convenient) foods’.

A notable instance of ‘messing with the crystal vase’ and consuming one favorite food is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who for dinner—every dinner!—feasted on just one thing: a pork pie. That is, until he discovered and switched to dining on just rye bread and Swiss cheese. With who knows, again, what health consequences. I’m not sure what the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, would have said to the likes of Wittgenstein about this kind of single-mindedness, with Hippocrates equating food and health, much as we often do today: his averring, deceptively simply, let ‘your medications be your food and let your food be your medicine’. A nice idea, but ‘detail matters’, so how, exactly can food be our medicine and what’s the proof?

Cohen does a credible job of deconstructing the research claims and pointing out what’s spurious and what’s credible—and what’s simply not yet known, which seems to be vast.

Martin Cohen has a preternaturally sharp eye for ferreting out myths—bogus or unsupported, questionable (even absurd) ideas—advanced by researchers of food and nutrition, as well as by government regulators and (not to be too jaundiced) biased influencers within the food industry itself. That is, when claims and the science don’t pass the smell test—important in order not to be misled, either intentionally or accidentally, as ideas take on a life of their own in the public sphere, in some cases to circulate (social media enters from left stage) as modern-day memes. Tailored messaging that convinces even some well-intentioned, perfectly scrupulous physicians, who may nonetheless rely on unreliable tests for safety or other guidance such as efficacy. As a result, the public has long since become tired of the whipsawing effects of researchers’ advice about food and nutrition being put on the table one moment, only to be yanked off later. The public’s not-infrequent suspicion being that the science is ill-informed and unhelpfully in constant flux, made worse by influencers in the food industry sometimes with their thumbs on the scale.

Cohen does a credible job of deconstructing the research claims and pointing out what’s spurious and what’s credible—and what’s simply not yet known, which seems to be vast. As he encapsulates the meaning, ‘the profound implications for both how knowledge is created and defined and how it is disseminated’. Of note, the author is not at all preachy or polemical in doing so, as he concedes that no single approach to food choices, nutritional needs, and dieting fits everyone’s requirements or desires or proclivities. Among his many cautionary notes regarding myths—and the not-uncommon misdirection by researchers, industry representatives, nutritionists, agriculturists, internet sites, and regulators—relate to overindulgence or under-indulgence, depending on the food in question: fats, sugar, water, carbohydrates, supplements, salt, calories, protein, milk, soy, and on and on. (Not a spoiler: The answers aren’t obvious.) And, of course, often muddying the water are the diets galore that come in and out of favor, often guilty of confusing correlation with causation, and pushed in pursuit of profit.

It seems common wisdom can be heavy on the common and lighter on the wisdom. Take fibre (‘fiber in the US), for example: seemingly wise souls have long touted it as highly desirable—almost an elixir—leading to the false assumption that there can never be too much in one’s daily meals. But, as Cohen tells us, ‘stealth fiber’ (in the form of inulin) is put into many types of processed foods, generally unknown to consumers who have no idea how much (often too much) they’re actually ingesting. The author presses forward: ‘We have to suspect the entire edifice of nutritional advice’—advice that appears to have come down to us through the ages from the most sage of philosophers.

Martin Cohen assigns several agreeable chapters to the history and benefits—and pleasures!—of chocolate: from chocolate ganâche to hot chocolate drink and ‘Plato’s noble cakes’. (With an appendix on how to make a chocolate cake and another on chocolate’s health benefits—giving all the more meaning to the expression ‘death by chocolate’.) Cohen effuses as eloquently about the merits of bread as he does about chocolate—evoking Locke and Rousseau’s passion for bread (well, for authentic bread, anyway) as a gentle excuse and entrée to reveal his own passion. All the while, the author nimbly steers clear of excessive faith in the questionable—sometimes ‘irrational’—examples set by philosophers. That said, Cohen gives credit where credit is due. For instance, he is seemingly partial toward the back-to-nature, vegetarian lifestyle of someone like Henry David Thoreau—‘an anarchist who eked out a living by making pencils while living in a shed by a pond’—who presaged what the author admiringly describes as the ‘ecological renaissance that today’s philosophers (and diet gurus) have only just begun to talk about’.

We’re told, for example, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who himself wrote of dreading becoming ‘a bald little fatty’, nonetheless favored indulging in spicy red pork sausages and sauerkraut, accompanied by quaffs of beer, and convinced that ‘processing food was good—by making it more truly a man-made product, which for him meant therefore better’. Sartre carried this intriguing assumption over to canned fruits and vegetables, his inexplicably believing that fresh ones were somehow too natural. John Locke also didn’t shy away from playing the role of food adviser, going so far as to offer three rules for eating fruit—the rules’ basis surely being little more than intuition and hunches. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while forever admiring milk’s nutritional value, would (in arguably a bit of philosophical overreach) refer to milk’s ‘psychological properties and its ability to reconnect people with nature’. Would that it were that simple.

In sum, I Think, Therefore I Eat cleverly navigates between nourishing the mind through philosophy and nourishing the body through food—and importantly, describing their many interesting junctures. Not an easy feat, given both subjects’ vastness, but one that the author accomplishes admirably: his doing the hard work for us in teasing out what matters—the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, detail matters, everything connects, and don’t mess with the crystal vase! Although Cohen (correctly) professes that the book is ‘a course in critical thinking and skeptical science’—and, yes, ‘a bird’s-eye view rather than a narrow, partisan recommendation for this or that approach’—it is also much more than that.

Above all, per the vintage style of writing Martin Cohen is noted for, the book skirts what might otherwise have been off-putting abstractions—instead he offers focus and clarity, and provides concrete insights that readers can choose to act on in their daily lives, should they wish to do so. Also, the story of philosophy and the story of food don’t just run parallel to one another; there’s no requirement for readers to shoulder toggling back and forth between them. Rather, the two threads already cross over each other, back and forth, like a braid, each crossover multiplying the significance, effectiveness, and meaning of the other. I Think, Therefore I Eat would thus fill what is a likely gap in the personal library of anyone interested in social philosophy (in its broadest application), the ‘mindful eating’ of food, and the science of nutrition—a book one is likely to reach for time and again.

*And indeed, an editor of this Journal...

The Philosopher's verdict: The threads cross over each other, back and forth, like a braid, each crossover multiplying the significance, effectiveness, and meaning of the other!

Monday 5 November 2018

Distilling Philosophy’s Essence (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 2 Autumn 2018

 Distilling Philosophy’s Essence in a Quest for Clarity

By Keith Tidman

‘What is the meaning of these words:
“The first cause does not necessarily inflow anything into the second, by force of the essential subordination of the second causes, by which it may help it to work?” When men write whole volumes of such stuff, are they not mad, or intend to make others so?’
That’s Thomas Hobbes, quoting and chiding the Scholastics of the Middle Ages. His challenge steers me back to an old term in computing called ‘lossless’. It refers to reducing digital file size by dropping some detail for ease of handling, but with no loss of quality. The process is analogous to what Martin Cohen and Robert Arp have done in philosophy with their recent book Philosophy Hacks — that is, to ‘distill the essence’ of one hundred of the big ideas they selected from thousands of years of philosophy — but, importantly, to do so without compromising the quality of the original theories. To this point, might Hobbes have been spared the hazard of going ‘mad’ if the words of the Scholastics had been parsed, reduced, and clarified in the process of similar distillation?

So, what is the path the authors take to arrive at philosophy’s ‘nuggets of insights’? The idea of a ‘lossless’ approach to compressing philosophy’s archetypal theories down to what Cohen and Arp refer to as ‘their barest of bare essentials’ is itself worth exploring. Since philosophy entails contemplating foundational ideas about life and our world writ large — a way of reflecting on, testing, framing, and sharing a wide expanse of issues — the argument in favour of distilling philosophy has merit. First, distillation translates to a wider audience by breaking down barriers; second, the situations in life in which the ‘big ideas’ (original iconic thoughts) might apply are more evident; and third, the ideas’ place, relevance, application, and vividness in contemporary thought (informed by snapshots of historical context) are brought to life.

And their approach seems to work. But so that I don’t inadvertently compromise quality by compressing their clever three-part method, let me quote the authors: ‘Helicopter view: This offers an overview of the philosophical idea, and usually its creator too, as well as a brief sketch of the context within which the insight was created’. ‘Shortcut: This strips the idea down in order to expose and explain the core elements of the theory’. ‘Hacks: Short and to the point, this part offers a shortcut to making sense of the idea — and, crucially, remembering it’. Yet, nothing was shortchanged: the book’s scope is ambitious, starting with the Ancients (Eastern and Western), proceeding to Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, then early and late modern philosophy, and finally twentieth-century philosophy.

As philosophy has historically explored the fundamental nature of the world, of knowledge, of human conduct, of reasoning, of reality, of existence, of cognition, of values, of proof, and of truth, there has, perhaps too often, been a tendency by some of the great thinkers to default to opaque abstraction that shrouds meaning. This tendency has mattered even as philosophers have talked to philosophers, leading to interminable debates about what was meant. Interpretations abound. More to the point, dense abstraction has proved off-putting to a larger audience, disinviting many otherwise intelligent people from the philosophical table. Yet, the fog of abstraction is not always necessary — and has handicapped the democratising of philosophy by rendering it inaccessible. That’s where Philosophy Hacks, Cohen and Arp’s book, self-described as a ‘word map with 100 firmly located landmarks (iconic ideas)’, comes upon the scene.

As an example of unfortunate obfuscation, I would point to this passage — section 5.3 of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Truly, the heavily clouded passage might excusably discourage some readers who would like to learn from history’s otherwise deepest thinkers:
‘All propositions are results of truth-operations on elementary propositions. A truth-operation is the way in which a truth-function is produced out of elementary propositions. It is of the essence of truth-operations that, just as elementary propositions yield a truth-function of themselves, so too in the same way truth-functions yield a further truth-function. When a truth-operation is applied to truth-functions of elementary propositions, it always generates another truth-function of elementary propositions, another proposition. When a truth-operation is applied to the results of truth-functions on elementary propositions, there is always a single operation on elementary propositions that has the same result. Every proposition is the result of truth-operations on elementary propositions’.
To cut otherwise complex philosophical ideas to the core and, in doing so, making sense of them implies favoring simplicity of expression — all the while still attempting to organise the rich dimensions of human experience and thought, and to penetrate often-elusive reality. However, making ideas simpler — to engage in philosophy’s equivalent of ‘lossless’ file management — should not be equated to reducing the ideas to pointlessness or meaninglessness. Indeed, very much the opposite. The process of simplification in philosophy is to deconstruct deep theories, temporarily set aside what’s nonessential or merely misdirecting, and then faithfully reconstruct the kernel of the ideas’ meaning — at the crux, what matters about the theory for those edifyingly shiny eureka insights.

Besides, there’s a natural appeal of theories with fewer moving parts whose relationships and contributions to the so-called ‘helicopter view’ of a big philosophical idea are unpretentious, transparent, and obvious. Larding a theory with myriad assumptions, parameters, postulates, and what-ifs branching in head-spinning fashion in all directions risks consigning otherwise noble ideas to dusty shelves. Immanuel Kant (for example, The Critique of Pure Reason), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (for example, Phenomenology of Spirit), Martin Heidegger (for example, Being and Time), and the writings of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are just a few among the many whose philosophy has been criticised, fairly or otherwise, for sometimes being obscure and even bordering on impermeability. Let me offer an excerpt gleaned from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra to further illustrate the point here:
‘But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?’
In fact, I’ve never heard a specialist, in any field, beg colleagues for more convolution and abstraction and incoherence. Indeed, this is the very antithesis of Cohen and Arp’s book, which holds the excusable, if mildly radical, notion that philosophy’s big ideas should not only be crystal clear but also be alive, sharable, digestible, and actionable. Ready, possibly, to be set against competitive theories.

This discussion is as much about communication as it is about philosophy. Even the most competently distilled essence of philosophy’s big ideas needs to be comfortably couched in concise, clear language. Some specialists, from the humanities to the sciences, are more instinctively concerned with and skilled at that than are others. Meanwhile, what others regard as the ‘imperfections’ of the world’s thousands of natural languages — like their imprecision and uniquely different vocabularies and syntax — add to the challenge of clear communication. Clumsy language, language that is intensely abstract, incoherent, and indecipherable, can fundamentally undo the good accomplished by even the artful distillation of big ideas. So, ‘messaging’ matters, something the most effective specialists — philosophers or others — are eminently aware of as they reach out to express their ideas plainly. And, as many observers have said, clear, critical thinking and clear, lucid writing often go hand-in-hand. Since, however, some (perhaps too many) philosophers lost sight of this simple axiom of communication, there’s all the more need for books like Philosophy Hacks — to unravel philosophy’s mysteries and shed light on them through the trifecta of a ‘helicopter view’, a ‘shortcut’, and that ‘hack’.

Unfortunately, for many (including well-educated) readers, too often ‘philosophy’s mysteries’ have doggedly stayed mysteries. Not because of their presenting recondite ideas, which might be excused, but for the ideas’ laboured presentation. A.J. Ayer, in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), includes another example of a passage that risks unnecessarily marginalising prospective readers, its calling out for some kind of clarifying shortcut:
‘For, roughly speaking, all that we are saying when we say that the mental state of a person A at a time t is a state of awareness of a material thing X, is that the sense-experience which is the element of A occurring at a time t contains a sense-content which is an element of X, and also certain images which define A’s expectation of the occurrence in suitable circumstances of certain further elements of X, and that this expectation is correct: and what we are saying when we assert that a mental object M and a physical object X are causally connected is that, in certain conditions, the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of M, is a reliable sign of the occurrence of a certain sort of sense-content, which is an element of X, or vice versa, and the question whether any propositions of these kinds are true or not is clearly an empirical question’.
At the same time, it is worth remembering that philosophy has broad shoulders. By that I mean that, following thousands of years, and despite necessarily increasing specialisation, philosophy still manages to crisscross with issues of sociology, psychology, politics, literature, theology, history, anthropology, physics, cosmology, biology, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and technology, among other fields of study. The passage of time and the evolution of human thought may have prompted change in some philosophical theorising, but much other theory has endured largely intact — continuing to underlie humankind’s exhilarating forward leaps in intellectual endeavour. Philosophy Hacks reflects that observation, when and where the intersections across fields are important in order to clarify and advance the story about philosophy’s touchstone ideas.

One confounding factor in this discussion is that the available methods and metrics for determining comprehensibility in philosophy are not neatly and uniformly laid out along different dimensions, handy for anyone to pick up and wield according to a formal set of rules and criteria. Conclusions are usually not consecrated by fine-tuned granularity in comprehensibility or by reassuring consensuses. Clear-cut definitions in this process of evaluation are few. Besides, conclusions regarding comprehensibility may be hampered by subjectivity and consequential vagueness. This is the case whether we are evaluating a single philosopher or contrasting styles across multiple philosophers — philosophers being heavily influenced by immersion in different periods in history, by the natural and irresistible evolution of language usage itself, and by their own individual approach to articulating profound theories. Indeed, one might be forgiven for concluding, based on ample instances, that the bias has been toward complexity of expression, even at the discouraging expense of shackling comprehensibility of otherwise laudably big ideas.

All this said, throughout history there have been plenty of philosophers who have been able to sum up their ideas presentably, without gumming up basic concepts with lots of extraneously branching thoughts and without elaboration that requires meandering clauses piled upon meandering clauses. Here are three Ancients who have done such a nice job: Confucius’s description of the Golden Rule is an example of clarity and brevity: ‘Perfect is the virtue which is according to the Mean’. Indeed, in his Analytics, Confucius goes on to say, ‘Never impose on others what you would not impose on yourself’. And Lao Tzu, the sage credited with the original concept of yin and yang, the two elements both simultaneously opposite and yet the same, saw the virtue of simplicity, with aphorisms or axioms such as:
‘Human beings are born soft and flexible; yet when they die are stiff and hard ... thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death, the soft and flexible are disciples of life.’ 
And Thales of Miletus, often attributed with having kick-started Western philosophy and science, who explained that the single material substance underlying everything was water. Their meritorious styles are pithy, visual, clear, evocative, accessible and to the point.

In going from thousands of pages of the original classic works of the philosophers to an approachable, accessible — and ‘lossless’ — distillation of some of the more iconic ideas, multiple potential audiences are served: there are those who may be satisfied in treating the curated shortcuts as endpoints, the latter offering enough philosophical grist to ponder further. And there are those who may be inspired by the shortcuts to venture deeper into the waters by either picking up more expansive descriptions of select topics or, even, seeking out some of the original, sometimes-rarefied works to laudably tackle head-on. Either way, I think that books like these serve a worthwhile purpose on philosophy’s behalf, parsing, illuminating, and bringing concreteness and contemporaneousness to some of history’s memorable, hallmark ideas about life and the world.

*Philosophy Hacks: Shortcuts to 100 ideas
By Robert Arp and Martin Cohen
(Cassell 2018)