Thinking With the Stomach

the thinker and wineQuestions about how one should live animated the early days of philosophy. From the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers through the Middle Ages, questions about what it means to live a good human life were at the center of philosophical concerns.

And then philosophy took a detour. From the 17th Century continuing into the present age, questions about how to live in the world were supplanted by questions about whether the world, or oneself for that matter, existed at all.  Open any introductory textbook today and you will find undergraduates badgered by worries about how we can prove the existence of the table in front of the room.

But it isn’t hard to understand why such questions gained prominence. As human knowledge developed through advances in mathematics and science, we increasingly focused on the mind and its powers. The power of the mind to deceive becomes a central concern which made such peculiar questions as “how do I know I exist?” seem urgent.

But what if those philosophers had understood how much life, as well as the life of the mind, depends on their stomachs? It seems to me that simple insight might have discouraged philosophy from this detour.

People guided by their stomachs cannot waste time with such questions as whether the table is real. They’re much more concerned with what’s on the table and who they’re sharing it with.

Hungry people must deal with what is in front of them and let their senses guide them. Their questions are real questions and their doubts are well-founded doubts about what nature will provide. They are busy hunting, farming, gathering, processing, storing, cooking, and eating. It can always go wrong and then disaster sets in. Their doubts are real doubts; they have no need for the manufactured doubts.

What would philosophy be like today had Descartes, who deeply mistrusted the senses, hired a cook who could light up the table.

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