What, if anything, do whiskey and philosophy have to do with each other?
For me, the question is easy. When I drink, I like to drink whiskey. I am also a philosopher, in the sense that I teach and write in the academic field of philosophy. Whiskey and philosophy are united in being two of my passions (though they should be combined only in moderation).
The posts on this website so far started as a set of posts on my personal homepage. It is just a loose collection of whiskey reviews and interesting little tidbits. When I decided to rearrange my web presence recently, I came up with the idea of putting the whiskey stuff on a site called “The Whiskey Philosopher,” without thinking much about what that meant.
The world doesn’t just need one more site of whiskey reviews and news, or opinions about the industry. If I am going to have a site like this, it needs to do something interesting and distinctive. It needs to be rewarding to write and interesting to read. One thing I have to offer the whiskey world is my training as a philosopher. So, what can philosophy offer the world of whiskey blogging? And what can whiskey offer to the philosopher qua philosopher?
Before we try to answer that question, we might ask: What is philosophy, anyhow? According to Sidney Morgenbesser: “You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.” Or as Wilfrid Sellars put it, “[Philosophy is] an attempt to see how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term.”1 John Dewey, who inspires much of my own work, puts it this way:
A philosophy has no private store of knowledge or methods for attaining truth, so it has no private access to good. As it accepts knowledge and principles from those competent in science and inquiry, it accepts the goods that are diffused in human experience. It has no Mosaic or Pauline authority of revelation entrusted to it. But it has the authority of intelligence, of criticism of these common and natural goods. (Experience and Nature)
Philosophy helps us clarify, unify, or criticize what we gather from science, inquiry, society, culture, and our own experience.
A philosopher of whiskey might be interested in questions of how we define whiskey, the status of judgments of whiskey quality, the ethics of drinking, or the political economy of the whiskey industry. They might investigate our experience and perception of whiskey, try to understand the foundations of the strange genre of tasting notes (as some have already done in the case of wine). One of the main focuses of my work is the philosophy of science and technology, and whiskey is surely interesting in terms of the technology of its production and the science of its constitution and consumption.
Or perhaps Eric Idle got it right:
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
“I drink, therefore I am”
To further investigate the question of the relation of whiskey and philosophy, I will be doing a read-through of Whiskey & Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas, edited by Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams. As I do so, I will post reflections here about the essays collected there. Why don’t you grab a copy and join me for the next few weeks? Perhaps there will also be some interludes of a more practical or personal nature.
Already the foreword to the book, by Scotch whisky writer Charles MacLean, contains a wonderful little gem, a long quotation from a book on Whisky from 1930 by Aeneas MacDonald:
Some might say that whisky is a Protestant drink, but it is rather a rationalistic, metaphysical and dialectical drink. It stimulates speculation and nourishes lucidity. One may sing on it but one is as likely to argue. Split hairs and schisms flourish in its depths; hierarchies and authority go down before the sovereignty of a heightened and irresistible intuition. It is the mother’s milk of destructive criticism and the begetter of great abstractions; it is disposed to find a meaning—or at least a debate—in arts and letters, rather than to enjoy or appreciate; it is the champion of the deductive method and the sworn foe of pragmatism; it is Socratic, drives to logical conclusions, has a horror of established and useful falsehoods, is discourteous to irrelevances, possesses and acuteness of vision which marshals the complexities and the hesitations of life into two opposing hosts, divides the greys of the world rigidly into black and white.” (MacDonald 1930, pp. 18-19, qtd in Allhoff & Adams, p. x)
A worthy subject of philosophical attention, indeed!