Martin Cohen seeks diet counsel from the great philosophers in his book I Think Therefore I Eat.
The British philosopher and author Martin Cohen suggests we take less food and diet advice from celebrities and more from the great philosophers, not least René Descartes whose famous proposition cogito ergo sum, is popularly translated from Latin as ‘I think therefore I am’ but might also be translated as ‘I doubt therefore I am’. In his new book, I Think Therefore I Eat Cohen takes his readers through the modern world of food trends and anxieties, applying the wisdom of the ancients and not-so-ancients and exercising a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s a book that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking and provides an intelligent way to think about one’s next meal. I recently spoke to Martin Cohen on Skype from his home in the Southwest of France.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Good Food Revolution: What was the inspiration for I Think Therefore I Eat? I know you’re a philosopher and an author by trade, but are you in private a foodie?
Martin Cohen: Foodie would be putting it strongly. I’ve always been slightly at odds with everyone around me. I am what they call a flexitarian. I just find, in real life, it’s been better for me to make up my mind to decide what to eat rather than listen to everyone around me is saying. But when I was doing straight philosophy, I kept coming up with examples of bad arguments about food, and I would put them in my philosophy books as examples. Then, I realized I had so many examples about food I could just write a book centred on food. So it really did come from the philosophical aspect originally.
Good Food Revolution: You’re not big on celebrity cookbooks and diets, are you? A fair amount of them come across my desk, and publishers seem to spend a lot of money on them, presumably because they’re making a lot of money from them.
Martin Cohen: There’s an interesting sociology to this. I noticed as a youngster that people like to buy recipe books. I have loads of recipe books, but I never look at them. But I like to have them because by having them I am saying to myself, ‘I could eat lots of interesting things’. There’s a mismatch between what we symbolize in food and what we actually do with food. It’s very human.
Good Food Revolution: What about this idea of philosophical technique when you’re evaluating food trends or diets. You have three rules.
Martin Cohen: Yes: rule number one is details matter. There’s that book based on the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking Fast and Slow, that says we’re designed to make fast decisions. it’s an evolutionary thing they claim. If you hear a noise in the undergrowth, you start running without thinking too much about what it might be. But in the modern world a lot of things require abstract thinking to understand and need to be responded to in a more careful way. You need to do a check on your first impression. For example, when you look carefully, you see the original arguments warning against salt don’t add up and you can likely sprinkle as much salt on your food as you like. My second rule is everything connects, and when everything connects it gets more and more complicated. As an academic, although I am usually summed up as a ‘philosopher’, I am actually a social scientist. Social science is a whole hodge-lodge of subjects. In my work there’s a bit of psychology, a bit of economics, and a little bit of philosophy, because when you come at a subject as complicated as food it’s no good to look at it from just one discipline. You need a broad view and a willingness to connect all the pieces to make sense of the food mysteries. My third rule is a precautionary principle: don’t mess with the crystal vase. It’s borrowed from the environmental movement and means that if you don’t know the consequences, don’t change things. We were talking about celebrity diets. They will freely offer radical diets without any real backing of evidence from science or medicine. They’ve got a theory in isolation that they will advance, but the consequences could be disastrous. So we need to be skeptical.
Good Food Revolution: I agree. One of the subjects you take on in I Think Therefore I Eat is the paleo diet. I think you quote anther author who’s studied it by calling it the paleofantasy. What’s wrong with trying to eat like a cave person? We evolved from cave people, shouldn’t we eat like them?
Martin Cohen: The problem there is that we didn’t really evolve the way that’s described. It’s an imaginary figure that they create. It’s like that film, One Million Years BC that has Rachel Welch in a fur bikini. Or the Flintstones: Mrs. Flintstone is there in the cave cooking while Mr. Flintstone goes off with a big club to hit an animal over the head. It’s possible in a cartoon, but in real life people would not have caught very much meat. And the second thing about paleo is this business about people not being allowed to eat grain. The research from what’s turned up in archeological digs indicates that people have been eating wild grains for a long time. And the other thing is that they human system is actually quite quick at adapting. It can adapt to new foods in a few hundred years, like with milk. Anyway, the bottom line is that ordinary people – and I consider myself to be an ordinary person – are really not able to make a judgement. It comes back to what Michael Pollan wrote: you might as well go back to common sense and eat what your grandparents ate.
Good Food Revolution: I agree. Another writer, who I hadn’t thought much about since my undergraduate days but who comes up in I Think Therefore I Eat, and of course is alluded to in the title is René Descartes and the whole idea of doubt. I really like your book and I hope it finds a big audience because it challenges your readers to doubt, or really to think.
Martin Cohen: It’s nice of you to say that. My impression is that people are very reluctant to think about anything, and funnily enough food appears to be on elf the areas they least inclined to think about. Maybe it’s because they think they know about it already. Or, as a society we have somehow put food out to business. At one time farmers would have been important members of the community. But they’re not now. They’re almost like a forgotten group. There’s a sort of sad quality about modern food. We seem to live on illusions with these celebrities with their beautiful dishes who take photos of and say, ‘This is what I had for lunch.’ But we don’t live like that, we eat awful food. There’s an American food researcher, John Nihoff, who’s estimated people spend an average of 20 minutes eating all of their meals in a day. It’s now down to that, and they eat a lot of it in cars. I live in France, and here people will literally take two hours to eat their lunch.
Good Food Revolution: That sounds like a better path to happiness and fulfilment.
Martin Cohen: Yes, but at the same time France is something like the second biggest market for McDonald’s. So there’s a rebellion internally against the tradition, but the tradition lives on. Go to any town and you’ll find everything closed for two hours in the middle of the day, which allows that tradition of lunch to continue.
Good Food Revolution: Vive la France!