Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Philosophy and Dinner Parties

I was prompted to think about the topic of this posting by a conjunction of two events, one concerning activities common to the season and the other the recent re-reading of a passage in the Doctrine of Virtue. Let's take the two in turn.

Firstly, this is a season for inviting people round to dinner and being invited by others. On such occasions, conversation is a principal activity and such conversation includes general topics of interest. There are two notable features of such conversations. The first is that topics that win general favour include politics (despite or perhaps because of the controversy they bring), relationships and topics of local interest and, in addition, references to mutual acquaintances and their goings-on. What is generally absent from such discussions is any explicit mention of philosophy. This doesn't entail, however, that there is no philosophical content to the conversations in question. There frequently is such content and it comes in two general forms. One of the forms is an implied reference where beliefs that are sincerely held are defended and elaborated in more or less sweeping ways and often involving detailed statements of quasi-religious sort that verge on the metaphysical. The other form, perhaps more frequent but certainly less entertaining, are the implied references to logical or general principles to sustain, underpin or often undermine, the views of others. The second type of reference is much more covert than the first and less intriguing to examine.

So let's take the first type of reference. This is activated usually when the fundamentals really do, in some form, come up. References to such verities as "human nature" are invariably involved in such instances and such references have, of late, been given renewed support by environmental crisis which apparently permits the vocabulary of original sin to get a new outing. In addition to these appeals to the role of "human nature" we can also find on such occasions a general appeal to principles that are of real or ultimate importance with such quasi-Feuerbachian claims as the generic appeal to love or such neo-Platonist conceptions as a visible incarnation of goodness having a real role in history occasionally surfacing. This occurs, naturally, when conversing with the most idealistic of one's associates. By contrast, the more cynically minded can compete by making the "human nature" appeal count in a different direction such that the original sin contention serves to undermine the idealism of the other party. The striking element involved in such conversations remains however the lack of appeal to any general standards of evidence in argument and the instant dismissal of any attempt at sustained serious enquiry as not remotely relevant.

This brings me to the second element of my posting, the recent re-reading of a section of the Doctrine of Virtue. This is where Kant is discussing the question of stupefying oneself by excessive use of food or drink. Whilst the general considerations given here aren't immensely interesting the casuistical questions that are posed in regard to the topic are. Here Kant talks about how the use of wine "enlivens conversation" and allows people to speak more freely though he does go on to point out the problem with measuring when someone have themselves become incapable of carrying out any measurement! So the use of drink poses a moral problem since use of it does further the end of the occasion but over-use undercuts it. How to square such a problem?

The second element of Kant's casuistical questions concerns the way that banquets aim at a moral end since they bring people together for the sake of conversation. However, the number of guests should not, as Kant, following Chesterfield, puts it, exceed the number of the muses since otherwise the arrangement of the guests will then allow for only a little conversation. There is a further problem in the very nature of such occasions since they do tend to promote intemperance, something itself immoral. Such are the fine calculations that philosophically need to be considered in relation to dinner parties. Oddly enough, whilst giving these philosophical reflections on the dinner party Kant says little, as I have above, about the extent to which philosophy itself appears in the conversation at these parties. Perhaps the parties he attended involved less philosophically inclined guests than those I am encountering at present?


Tim Waligore said...

You might be interested to know that Kant also talks about dinner parties elsewhere- I have in mind the critique of practical reason, and in Anthropology.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for this Tim: must have forgotten these other references! Do you have pagination?