The ball of wax and the bitten apple

The wax argument is a classic rationalist exemplar from Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes describes a ball of wax recently taken from a hive: it still smells faintly of honey or flowers, it is hard and cold, and it makes a sound if you strike it. But if you approach a fire while holding the wax, all of its sensory attributes will change: it softens, the size and shape of it loses fixity, its scent diffuses and disappears. The only qualities the two forms of wax share is changeability. Yet, he still knows that both forms are wax. The waxness of wax is perceived not through the senses but through the intellect–through the mind alone.

According to Descartes, contemplating the wax makes the workings of his mind more apparent–similar to the way doubt makes the existence of a self apparent. If I can ask “do I exist?”, my mind’s capacity to doubt proves that I do.  Knowledge of the world as perceived through the senses is liable to be “imperfect and confused;” the imagination is limited; only reason can approach the truth of what is and is not.

But while cogito ergo sum demonstrates the primacy of intellect over faith–which is why Cartesian rationalism is so foundational to non-theological philosophy–the wax argument is intended to illustrate the primacy of the mind over the body, a dichotomy that Descartes inherits from Plato and forwards on to his rationalist successors. Mind-body dualism is a conviction that the mind exists apart from the body, and that the mind alone possesses the capacity to learn and understand, because the body is easily fooled by appearances and appetites.

But suppose the philosophical exemplar of rationalism was not a ball of wax, but an apple?

That is one of the questions of “I eat an apple: on theorizing subjectivities” by Annemarie Mol, a Dutch philosopher and ethnographer. This is a wonderful short essay that I stumbled across early in my foodcentric research, which I was well-steeped in rationalism and newly acquainted with feminist epistemology, and unsure how to reconcile the two. Mol does not call out Descartes explicitly, but her use of the apple as a philosophical exemplar reminds me of Descartes tapping and sniffing the ball of wax.

So imagine that you pick up an apple. But before you can start examining the apple for your philosophical exercise, you have to realize that the apple exists in a specific point of time and space. “Philosophers used to dream of universality,” Mol writes; many exemplars that have endured in philosophy either purport or appear to suppose a general human mind, floating apart from the particularities of culture or geography or history. Certainly when I first read Descartes, I didn’t stop to think about where he got that beeswax, what he planned to use it for, what kind of flowers scented it–although in retrospect I am now interested in the answer to all of those questions. But Mol writes that an apple is much better understood in its historical and geographical context: apples belong to a cooler climate but may be shipped elsewhere, trailing commercial and cultural implications; they carry certain connotations in the languages where apples were grown (Mol herself is from the Netherlands and gives a Dutch idiom as an example). This argument made quite an impression on me: growing up in a warm climate, I always assumed that apples were universally mealy and bland, and that the apples we were supposed to give to teacher or eat to keep the doctor away were grainy, healthful necessities. Then I moved to a region that prides itself on crisp, tart heirloom cultivars. The apples we associate with classrooms, with Johnny Appleseed, with autumn, and with health have come to mean something quite different to me now.

So, okay, you’ve picked up an apple, and acknowledge that (for example) you are standing in your neighborhood farmer’s market, and the apple was grown in an orchard in Pennsylvania, and its name is Empire, and you picked it up because it is neat and round and red, like a cartoon of an apple. Perhaps you inspect it like Descartes inspected his wax, taking note of its color, size, shape, and scent. But instead of carrying it toward a fire, you bite it. “I eat an apple: bite, chew, swallow.  Where has it gone?” Mol asks. Like the ball of wax, it has changed shape; not only did you perceive the change with your body, but you caused the change with your body. The body in which the mind is said to be seated must respond to the apple: it digests, absorbs, energizes with the apple inside. And Mol points out that this process unseats the conceptualization of the mind or self as a conscious, active principle: she notes wryly, “I may eat many apples, but I will never master which of their sugars, minerals, vitamins, fibers are absorbed; and which others I discard.” If the apple represents how the mind works, we can extend the metaphor to claim that the mind is also not a master of which narratives, ideas, or beliefs one absorbs; often enough, what the mind ingests is dependent on time, place, and situation. (This is, in fact, the argument of feminist epistemology.)

So eating apples shakes up the belief in a mind that operates both separate from and superior to the body; eating apples questions the possibility of objective knowledge since so much knowledge depends on systems and forces beyond our individual reason; and, of course, eating apples gives pleasure. Or displeasure, if I imagine the mealy waxen grocery store apples. “As an eater I cannot even separate knowing my apple from enjoying or disliking it,” Mol writes. “Knowing and evaluating is intertwined and this is no disinterested evaluation either.  Look at my face while I eat.  It shows pleasure. Or distaste.” This is a playful response to philosophy like Kant’s aesthetic judgment, which (as I’ve written before) is inclined to dismiss taste and enjoyment as experiences that distract.  For Kant, liking apples may cloud objective thinking about apples; for Mol, liking apples is part of understanding them. (Gertrude Stein would agree!)

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