Josh Dunigan |||

Dinner at Kant’s

At the end of part one of Kant’s Anthropology, he starts to discuss the virtue of sociability and additionally social gatherings. Kant is most famous for his moral philosophy and particularly his theory of (internal) freedom in The Groundwork. However, he wrote extensively as well on the contingent and unreflective parts of the human condition and how to unite them with freedom. This union of happiness limited by freedom and virtue is the highest aim for humans. The ideal form of social gathering for Kant is a good meal, not speechless activities like music or dance or games. The dinner party signifies happiness in twofold. One, each person can feel the satisfaction of a good meal which they could have done on their own, but at the same time they can enjoy the socializing about morality.

The good living that still seems to harmonize best with true humanity is a good meal in good company.

Kant references how he goes about to manage a dinner party, and practically gives a step by step guide with reasons for or against different parts of a dinner party. First, citing someone else’s phrase, the company must not number fewer than the graces or more than the muses” which puts us at 10 people. If there are too many people, then it allows for people to break off into groups and discuss there own topics for whatever reason. If there are too few people, than it allows for a conversation to die off due to the lack of people to keep the conversation flowing with different perspectives and thoughts.

A dinner with too few resembles just a dinner with your neighbor, it is not a conversation of taste” Kant says. Too large is feast or a banquet, which is altogether tasteless”. The reason I believe Kant says these is that too small a gathering does not constitute a broad enough range of people to be considered a social gathering while too large there is no way to engage in discussions of virtue. This could be one reason why most celebrities and artists resent events like the Golden Globes or Oscars. Too small resembles something like a dinner between close friends and family, one that is more of an everyday occurance of the home. Even more so, Kant says that Eating alone is unhealthy for a scholar who philosophizes”. Eating by yourself does not allow you to strengthen your thought whereas a companion with different thoughts will help stimulate yourself with new ideas that on your own would not be possible.

There should be a special agreement between the members of the dinner party to not gossip about the people or the people’s thoughts outside the event. This is not just to maintain privacy and respect, it is to allow for the members of the dinner party to trust one another that they can speak freely during the party. It is in the spirit of discourse that if you have an issue with what someone is saying to say it then and to their face in front of everyone to judge if you have a valid critique or not. Like other things, this agreement is the limiting condition on the freedom with which human beings openly exchange their thoughts in social intercourse.” This trust has analogues in all cultures, where the hospitality one shows with food and drink at the dinner table signal that you are safe here.

The conversation consists of narration, arguing, and jesting”. Narration concerns news, which for Kant was whatever domestic and foreign events streamed in from letters and newspapers. I suspect that the reason the news of the day is the first stage of conversation for two reasons. The news of the day is nothing that you need to think of yourself, it is merely regurgitation of some facts that you remembered. However, the news of the day is still full of fascinating moral, political, or aesthetic themes and questions. This is why the news of the day may help stimulate things to discuss and transition into more rigorous, deep, and interesting arguments about these particular events and stories. This helps us transition into the second stage, argument. The party goers will find some part of the narration stage to latch onto to argue about. Since each person has a high opinion of themselves and their opinions, the debate becomes livelier as each tries to assert their reasoning as better. This energy of the debate in turn, Kant observes, stirs up the appetite for food and drink and also makes the appetite wholesome in proportion to the liveliness of the dispute and the participation in it”. The argument stage does not last forever, as people become intellectually tired and more full (possibly drunk) from the intense discourse. Kant says that at this point the conversation sinks naturally to the mere play of wit … And so the meal ends with laughter.

There are some addition flight rules” for Kant’s dinner party. These rules are meant to animate and promote a tasteful feast, one that the guest will all enjoy. (a) Their should be topics picks such that everyone can participate and everyone is interested in them. (b) Deadly silences are unacceptable, while momentary pauses are acceptable. (c) The topic should not change abruptly in the conversation. An entertaining topic should be exhausted in its entirety, and only then should the topic of conversation change smoothly. (d) Dogmatism should be shut down since the conversation is merely play. If any dogmatism arises, it should be countered with jest such as to deescalate. (e) There are times when a serious clash of views may arise and each should be careful to manage their emotions and tone such that no disrespect is shown to anyone.

The parallels between fine dining and Kant’s fine conversation is to be noted. Similar to a multi-course meal, there is a multi-stage conversation. A multi-course meal starts out with lighter dishes, moves on the main dishes that pack the most flavor and enjoyment, and you finish with the sweet and delightful dessert. A longer dinner party conversation flows similarly. Rule (a) is similar to picking courses that each guest finds suitable to their pallet. Rules (b) and (c) are similar to how a good multi-course meal does not serve the next dish until you have all eaten your dish and had enough time to appreciate the dish and are ready for the next one.

Kant does not mention this, but I think there could be two more similarities between a good dinner party and a good conversation. One is the addition of alcohol. Pairing good alcohol with good food is similar to pairing good art to philosophy. Be it a novel, poetry, or a movie, I think finding the intersection between art and philosophy makes a conversation more interesting and more fitting of what a good human life is. Sometimes, people will do an espresso or coffee after the dessert course(s). Bourdain when discussing with Masa about umami, Bourdain notes the similarity between the Italian meal structure, where you have the bitterness at the end of the meal to remind you of the sadness. A full meal, just like a full conversation, cannot censor the sadness of life. Not every meal needs to include it, but to never include it would be to forget about this cruel, bitter”, world we live in sometimes.

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