My familiarity with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is mostly centered on Critique of Judgment, in which he explores the roles beauty and aesthetic pleasure play in the life of the mind. In the first section,”The Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” Kant shows no great esteem for food or flavor as a meaningful aesthetic experience–as I have previously noted. So I was rather surprised to read that Kant was a fan of dinner parties.
Do not mistake him. Kant definitely writes that the body’s appetites and pleasures do not serve the mind’s need for beauty and goodness; he also writes that the inclination to pleasure and inclination to virtue are at odds. But the body nonetheless has its needs, and as I have often remonstrated my own colleagues: scholars gotta eat. Better for them to eat together, according to Kant: intellectual labor is exhausting and dining alone does not restore your powers, but dining companions can stimulate the mind with new ideas and a refreshing play of thoughts. Dinner parties done correctly can be a moral as well as a physical good.
The list below is adapted–really, quoted almost verbatim–from transcribed and translated lectures for an anthropology course Kant taught at University of Königsberg. Adjunct friends might like to know that for a long period of his life, Kant held an unsalaried lecturer position; in other words, he was paid per student, so he taught just about every course he could (philosophy, anthropology, theology, minerology??). No wonder he was so interested in sitting down and refreshing his mind with a good companionable dinner now and then!
Kant’s Recipe for the Highest Ethicophysical Good Dinner Party
- A dinner party should not only supply physical satisfaction–which everyone can find for himself–but also social enjoyment for which the dinner must appear only as a vehicle.
- A dinner party should have at least 3 guests so that the conversation is not too intense, but at most 9 so as to avoid breaking into smaller groups.
- Choose your guests carefully; i.e. by the four humors. The best dinner companions are those with sanguine or phlegmatic temperaments: they tend to be jovial and easygoing respectively. Choleric diners will be polite guests, but don’t invite two of them, as they are likely to argue. Try not to invite melancholic guests if you can help it.
- Eating together presupposes a covenant of security. Your guests assume they are safe at your table, and it becomes a duty of the host to guarantee it.
- Mind your manners. Good etiquette at the table promotes a virtuous disposition by at least making virtue fashionable.
- Since, unlike animals, we have the ability to choose what we consume, it is crucial to eat well and appropriately to our bodily needs. Excessive ingestion of food or drink hampers the judgment and goes against the duties to the self.
- However, wine loosens the tongue and opens the heart. So, for the sake of sociability, it is permissible to cross the line of sobriety for a short time. Just with wine, though. Beer makes guests rude and brandy turns them silent.
- There should be three stages of dinner table conversation to refresh the power of a man of learning: narration (sharing the news of the day), debate, and jesting. Reasoning is a kind of work, and it becomes more difficult after eating copiously; thus, as the dinner winds down, the conversation will naturally turn to play–and laughter, in turn, will aid digestion.
- The duty of secrecy is incumbent on both guests and hosts; indiscretion and gossip are not permissible in the context of dinner parties.
- Discuss topics of common interest. Your personal life and business are inappropriate topics. Anthropology, arguments about moral worth, and current affairs are okay.
- Invite women. Without them, social intercourse is unrefined, turbulent, and unsociable. In a society of nothing but men, one degenerates into conflict, a know-it-all attitude, and quarrelling, but that is not the case in the society of women.
- All of the above is effective only if the dinner is not adulterated by entertainments which preclude sociable conversation and promote the opposite of virtue: music, dance or–worst of all–games.
- Cohen, Alix A. “The Ultimate Kantian Experience: Kant on Dinner Parties.” History of Philosophy Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, October 2008.
- Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.
- –. Lectures on Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.