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Soup and philosophy

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W. H. Auden says somewhere — I believe in one of the essays gathered in The Dyer’s Hand, which I do not happen to have at hand — that he preferred systems of irregular measurement. In other words, inches, yards, and ells to, say, the metric system.

I share that preference, principally because such irregular systems do not pretend to a precision that is in fact unattainable.
Consider the circle.

 Its circumference is arrived at by multiplying pi by the circle’s radius squared. But pi is an irrational number whose decimal representation can neither come to an end nor repeat. It can be expressed only approximately. Given that a key factor in arriving at the circumference of a circle is itself an approximation, it would seem to follow that the circumference of a circle can only be known approximately. Just one more thing we can’t quite be certain of. (Since the ancients knew this, I wonder if that is why they thought of the circle as an emblem of perfection, its ultimate unknowability being analogous to God’s.)

Pi is also a mathematical constant. It figures in a lot more formulae than the one for calculating circumferences. Since it is, fundamentally, an approximation, it follows that whatever solution arrived at by means of it can only also be an approximation. An exceedingly close approximation, of course, but an approximation nonetheless. Not precisely accurate.
I happen to think that it is precisely because they are, however slightly, imprecise that such calculations accurately reflect reality, which I happen to think cannot be precisely grasped. In fact, it is real because it cannot be precisely grasped, which is another way of saying that it is, to ever so slightly paraphrase e.e. cummings, a world of born and not a world of made, something alive and not constructed.

No living thing can be reduced to mere quantity. That is the delusion of scientism, as opposed to science. For the scientist, quantity is a means to an end. For the scientistic, it is an end in itself.

You will no doubt be surprised to learn that these cosmic lucubrations of mine are but the prelude to a discussion of some things ostensibly much humbler — soup, stew, and meatloaf.

Recently, I posted on my blog an account of my having improvised a soup, in the course of which account I remarked parenthetically that “I have long thought there is something in common between putting together a good soup or stew and arriving at an authentic, personal philosophy.” To which my friend Lee Lowe, also a soup aficionado, responded: “… soup is usually tasty, and a great way to get kids and now grandkids to eat vegetables. But I can’t say it’s helped me to arrive at an authentic personal philosophy. Sadly.”

So I think I should explain what I meant.

When I was in my 20s, I had some time on my hands and thought I would figure out exactly what it was that I was sure of, to serve as the basis for my procession through life. I know now that this not only sounds ridiculous, but was ridiculous. But in those days, having just put college behind me, I was more enthralled with pure reason than I have been for a long time.
I got nowhere with my project, because every time I tried to decide what I was sure about doubts cropped up. The desire for precision is a correlate of the desire for certainty and both are really cravings, not simply desires, and both, I think, derive from lacking a sense of nuance. It’s sort of like wanting to be hip.

Wanting to be hip is a powerful indication that hip is what you are not. The authentically hip are never deliberately so. They’re just people who have a pretty good sense of what’s going on, have their own idiosyncratic take on it and go with it. There are, at any given time, a fair number of such people around and, since they all have a sense of the same thing — what’s going on — their individual takes on things tend to have a lot in common. So they get noticed. And the next thing you know, there are, say, a bunch of young women sporting long hair and black turtlenecks sipping espresso in coffeehouses, as was the case in the ’50s. I remember them well — if only because I lived with one for nigh on 20 years.

The next thing after that, of course, is a story about them in the Timesstyle section, by which time the style is becoming passé (one reason why people who rely on the Timesto find out what’s going on tend to be so unhip).
The thing about soup and stews and meatloaf is that they turn out best when the cook doesn’t rely on recipes and measuring cups and spoons Recipes are a fine source of ideas. I read them all the time. As for measuring, when I cook a soup or a stew, I use a glass I have that is shaped like a chalice, and I never quite fill it up. I pour an amount that looks good. I also eyeball the amount of herbs I add. I pour into the palm of my hand an amount of salt that looks about right. I gauge the texture by stirring (or, in the case of meatloaf or meatballs, from mixing the ingredients by hand). I always make sure to put in less of an ingredient than may be needed, because I can always add more. But I can’t subtract if I’ve put in too much.

These are all culinary commonplaces, and any experienced cook, reading the preceding paragraph, will probably say to himself, “Wow, no kidding?”
So what does any of this have to do with philosophy, authentic or otherwise?
Well, philosophy has come to be thought of primarily as an intellectual undertaking, an arrival at an understanding of things by rational means alone. It’s like trying to cook something by strict attention to a recipe and careful measurement of ingredients. Both techniques are too abstract.
The most important detail in what I just said about cooking a soup or stew is that bit about tasting as you go along. In cooking, as in life, it’s experience that counts. It also counts in philosophy. Experience is the only way you get a feel for things, which is what tends to be lacking in a purely intellectual understanding of them.

I almost always find myself thinking philosophical thoughts when I cook, and they tend to be among the most tolerant and humane thoughts that I have. Cooking may not make me wise, but it does give me some feeling of what it might be like to be wise, to have a sense, not of the measurement of things, but of their many and varied nuances.

And that, to conclude, is why I think philosophy majors would do well to punctuate their courses in logic by endeavoring to turn out a flavorful meatloaf or minestrone.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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One Response to “Soup and philosophy”

  1. Thank you for explaining – and a fine explanation it is. The only thing I wonder is whether pi is actually – mathematically speaking – an approximation, or whether its (apparent) inexactitude is a function of our own limitations. Perhaps a mathematician among your readers can elaborate.

    Tonight I’m planning, most definitely planning, on making another soup.

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