Aristotle and the Pleasures of the Table

by Dwight Furrow: It might strike you as odd, if not thoroughly antiquarian, to reach back to Aristotle to understand gastronomic pleasure. Haven’t we made progress on the nature of pleasure over the past 2500 years? Well, yes and no. The philosophical debate about the nature of pleasure, with its characteristic ambiguities and uncertainties, persists often along lines developed by the ancients. But we now have robust neurophysiological data about pleasure, which thus far has increased the number of hypotheses without settling the question of what exactly pleasure is.

Part of the problem is that we have this word “pleasure” that seems to apply to any positive affective state, and we therefore think there must be something common to all the diverse experiences designated by the word. But that unity may be an illusion. There is a vast experiential difference between the pleasures of basking in the sun and the pleasure one experiences from having run a marathon. I doubt that Aristotle’s theory can explain the former; the latter seems more amenable to his focus on activities which would include the pleasures of the table. And so I will set aside attempts to define pleasure in general and focus on the pleasure we take in our activities, specifically the activity of eating.

Aristotle’s first substantive discussion of pleasure defines it as the natural accompaniment of unimpeded activity brought to completion. When we exercise fundamental human capacities and that activity proceeds without impediments or obstacles, we experience pleasure. Since eating, tasting, and savoring are all activities that have pleasure as their natural culmination, Aristotle’s theory seems in the right direction.

In thinking about the pleasures of the table, we need to cast a very wide net. Although tasting is one activity included within the larger activity of eating, we also must include the social dimensions of eating, the role of the environment in influencing what we taste, the regulative role that eating plays in structuring everyday life and supplying nutritional needs, and the importance of eating as part of an occasion or celebration all of which contribute to the general topic of gastronomic pleasure. Taking all of this into consideration, then, according to Aristotle’s theory of pleasure, when the activity of consuming a meal proceeds without impediment, we will find it pleasurable. Read the whole entry »