Saturday, July 24, 2010

Immanuel Kant's Guide to a Good Dinner Party

On Kant's view dining alone is bad for a philosopher: it encourages 'intellectual self-gnawing' that leads to a lack of vitality. Eating with at least one other companion, on the other hand, allows for a good interchange of ideas. New material for thought flows into the mind in a natural way, without any of the forced effort required in tracking down new topics on one's own. As Kant puts it in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, the life that harmonizes best with our humanity is the life that involves, on a regular basis, good meals with good conversation. In such a life our need for nourishment, without being harmed or curtailed in any way, becomes an instrument for social enjoyment and philosophical thought: rest and reflection united as one. In light of this Kant gives us some tips to hosting a good dinner party (you can find them all in Anthropology, if you think I'm joking):

(1) The number of guests should follow Chesterfield's rule: no fewer than the Graces (i.e., three), no more than the Muses (i.e., nine).

(2) The dinner party must exist not merely for physical satisfaction but also for social enjoyment. (This is the reason for the bounds on the number of guests.)

(3) Anything indiscreet that is said at the table stays at the table: there is a moral sanctity to the dinner party, and a duty of secrecy, because without the trust made possible by these it is impossible to have enjoyable culture. This is not a mere matter of taste; it is a matter of the fundamental preconditions that allows free exchange of ideas in social interaction.

(4) When the dinner party is a full one, and there is plenty of time, the conversation during the dinner party should go through three stages:

(a) Narration, i.e., exchange of news
(b) Ratiocination, i.e., lively discussion of the diversity in judgment at the table
(c) Jest, i.e., play of wit

Thus the conversation should always begin with raising pertinent and personal material then move into lively discussion until, tired from the hard work of arguing and reasoning, everyone settles down into lighter talk that leads to laughter. According to Kant, with his nineteenth-century German skepticism about how interested a woman could be in heavy intellectual conversation, when women are present the last stage is especially important, so that by being given a chance to respond to teasing they can show their own intellectual merits.

(5) No dinner music whatsoever. Kant regards it as one of the most absurd innovations in his time.

Obviously, liveliness is the key to a successful dinner party. Fortunately, Kant gives us guidelines for that as well:

(6) Choose topics of conversation in which everyone is interested, and always give people the opportunity to add their own topics, if they are appropriate.

(7) Never allow an extended silence. There can be momentary pauses in conversation, but no more.

(8) Do not change the topic unless necessary and especially do not keep jumping from one topic to another. The conversation should flow naturally and exhibit an organic unity of its own. The reason for this is that in a symposium, as in a drama, the mind occupies itself in part by reminiscing over what has previously occurred and tying the various phases together. A conversation that keeps changing topics is as disconcerting as a play that keeps changing topics and themes.

(9) Dogmatism is to be forbidden absolutely, whether it be on the part of the host or on the part of the guests. When people get too serious and insistent, start making jokes to divert them back to play rather than business.

(10) When serious conflicts arise that really and truly cannot be resolved, self-discipline is essential so that passions do not run too hot. Tone is absolutely essential; even if very serious topics are broached, every effort should be exerted to avoid any estrangement of the guests from each other.

Kant concedes that these laws of refinement are insignificant in comparison with serious moral laws, but he insists that anything that promotes reasonable sociability is conducive to virtue. In his eyes, the cynic's purism and the anchorite's mortification are both easily seen to be distorted forms of virtue because they make virtue ugly and uninviting. The real philosopher is at the dinner party.

The implications of this are, of course, somewhat larger than dinner parties; the point of talking about dinner parties at all was to make points about the role of sociability in the reasonable human life. Human beings cannot simply rest on their laurels but must to some degree make themselves rational animals by living a life suitable to rational animals. Restrained but lively sociability is precisely the sort of thing that contributes to this, and Kant in his own (very bachelor!) experience knows of no more perfect examples of reasonable sociability than his dinner parties -- for which, in fact, he was rather famous, and of which, one can tell, he was rather proud.

What is more, it sits well with Kant's very strong insistence that there are times when you should give hard philosophical thinking a rest. He sharply criticizes the practice of reading or trying to think through philosophical questions while dining alone; he thinks that, by forcing reason ever inward on itself, it creates pathological conditions of thought and a sort of hypochondria, whether literal or figurative. It creates disorder and pushes you toward insanity. Social eating, on the other hand, gives the intellect relaxation and room to recuperate while not letting it come to a standstill. Its benefits are not automatic, but it does allow one to find the middle way between the minimum healthy amount of thinking and the maximum healthy amount of thinking. And we have a moral duty to ourselves and others not to shut ourselves up in our own minds.

Kant, by the way, at one point gives an example of a joke he apparently thought very good and that he apparently heard told at a dinner party. Countess von Keyserling was visited by Count Sagramoso, who knew only broken German; at the time a schoolmaster came by who was putting together a natural history collection in Hamburg and therefore had birds on the brain. In order to make conversation, the Count said, "I have an aunt in Hamburg, but she is dead." To which the schoolmaster replied, "Why didn't you have her skinned and stuffed?" The Count had used an anglicism, Ant, for the German word for 'aunt', Tante and the schoolmaster had heard Ente (duck) instead of Ant (aunt). Life of the party; that's Kant.