Friday, February 27, 2009


Philosophers love to walk. Aristotle’s school was actually named the “walking” place. Well, being philosophers, they liked the esoteric “peripatetic,” but it comes to the same thing. Nietzsche apparently could easily pound the pavement for 2-4 hours each day. Rousseau even wrote a book “Reveries of a Solitary Walker.” Most famous of all philosopher-walkers was Immanuel Kant. The punctuality of his walks around Koenigsberg was such that people would set their watches by his arrival at certain intersections.

Continuing in this tradition, each morning I head off for a day-initiating constitutional. What the more famous philosophers did during their walks is unknown to me. Being new to the village, I mostly try to notice things. This being a village in France, one bustling early-morning place is the local bakery, or, more accurately bakeries. No Provençal village worth its salt would shortchange its residents on bakeries. Mine does not disappoint. There are four of them, not bad for a place with 2700 inhabitants.

What also caught my eye right away, was the prominence of another kind of food provider: pizza places. They almost equal the number of bakeries. Still, what is it with pizza places in the village? Pizza does not feature prominently in traditional Provence cuisine. Postcards have yet to replace the beret clad man carrying baguettes, with a bermuda shorts clad individual clutching a cardboard take-out box. What is going on here?

Part of the answer may be that France is changing. People like quick and easy food. Pizza, let’s face it, fits this bill. My village is also a summer resort area. Within walking distance, there are five camping areas, one vacation village, and one vacation nudist colony. I suspect that when those areas are filled, the people who populate them, not having easy access to refrigerators or stoves, and tired of barbecue, prefer the quick phone call ordering pizzas to go.

Even the nudists, or “naturists,” as is their preferred label, need to eat. Clothing may be considered artificial rather than natural, but eating is undeniably necessary and so, natural. But, wait, here the philosophical ruminations associating with walking awaken. What exactly is “natural?” If clothing is not natural, then what about cooking? After all, eating, in a strict sense, does not require, heated, prepared foods.

We have to be careful here of a too restrictive use of “natural.” Humans, after all, are communal and mimetic. Culture and cultural practices are fully continuous with, not automatically opposed, to our nature. Recent anthropological evidence suggests that, biologically, cooking food is crucial for maximizing nutritional intake while minimizing expenditure of energy. Cooking may, in fact, be the answer to that perennial philosophical question: what defines human beings?
The longest surviving answer was the simple: man is a rational animal. We had rationality, other animals did not. In the hands of rather narrow, rather cerebral, eggheads, “rational” was understood in an eliminationist (philosophers like big words) way. To be “rational” one had to exclude emotions. To be rational, one had to be detached and disinterested, “objective” as that word came to be understood. For 19th century economic theory “rational” involved eliminating concern for others. “Rational choice” signified objective calculation to maximize one’s own interests. As all of this suggests, “rational” eliminated many of the dimensions of life we tend to cherish. It turns out to be not that flattering as a distinguishing trait. It doesn’t seem to be all that “natural” either, more an affected stance based on some ideological assumptions.

Now that anthropologists are showing the way maybe philosophers can offer a new definition: humans are the animals who cook. Cooking as that which proudly marks us off? Why not? Here is an area where we can unabashedly celebrate our uniqueness. Animals eat, we cook. Unlike "rational" which is eliminationist, cooking is inclusionist. It requires intelligence, care, the invention and use of tools, and the handing down of tradition. Meal taking is typically social, and often celebratory. Our Linnaean classification calls us homo sapiens. The sapiens, which means wisdom, is derived from a Latin verb sapere, to “taste or to savor.” It thus seems that dropping “rational animal” in favor of “cooking animal” is a return to basics, not a radically novel move. Maybe that’s why a small village should welcome various purveyors of food, even pizza places.

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