Interview with a Philosopher: Over Coffee

Why does so much philosophy take place in bars and coffeehouses? What's the relationship between drinking and thinking?
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Why does so much philosophy take place in bars and coffeehouses? What's the relationship between drinking and thinking?

Today, I'm talking to Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin, two philosophers seriously tweaked by java. Scott's a regular contributor to Rain Taxi Review of Books, and his writing has appeared in many magazines, as well as in books of popular philosophy. Michael W. Austin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University, and typically chief sage in whatever coffee establishment he happens to enter. He's the author of many books on philosophy, running, parenthood and football, among other topics.

Today we're talking about their new book, "Coffee: Grounds for Debate," available in bookstores this month.

Tom: Scott and Mike, you've put together a book about coffee and philosophy, ruminations on regular and dissertations on decaf, I gather. Now, like many, I often drink coffee while I'm doing philosophy. But is there more to the relationship than this?

Scott: One thing that's interesting about coffee is that it represents both an occasion to do philosophy and a philosophically interesting subject in its own right. All of the big philosophical concerns are relevant to thinking about coffee. In the book we group the essays in four categories: metaphysics, culture, aesthetics and ethics.

Tom: OK, the aesthetics and ethics of coffee make sense. Aesthetically, there are questions about subjectivity, taste and experience; ethically, it's important to think about environmental impact and the treatment of farmers, mostly in the third world. But the metaphysics of coffee? I sip, therefore I am? Beans and nuttiness?

Mike: Very funny. Metaphysics actually comes up in a variety of ways. In the first chapter Mark Pendergrast asks, "Is coffee puddle water or panacea?" In the history of coffee drinking, opinions about it have fluctuated wildly. Kristopher G. Phillips draws on philosopher Thomas Nagel to investigate the nature of the coffee drinker and asks, "What is it like to appreciate coffee?" Steven Geisz understands coffee addiction in terms of the Buddhist notion of samsara.

In my chapter, "The Necessary Ground of Being," I filter through a cluster of issues related to a question that many have discussed in coffeehouses around the world: "Does God exist?" This is not about the metaphysics of coffee per se, but displays the kind of robust metaphysical question perhaps best tackled with a good strong cup of joe in hand.

Tom: And I imagine the culture component looks at the lifestyles surrounding coffee these days.

Scott: That's right. Some of the essays look at the roles coffeehouses play in society as places where ideas are shared and tested. A coffeehouse is one of the few places open to everyone where gathering and lingering are encouraged, where leisure (as distinct from entertainment) is a goal. This seems crucial. In our world of endless distraction and constant surface-level attention, coffee plays an interesting role. On the one hand, it contains caffeine, and the stimulation it provides can be used to live an even more kinetic life. On the other hand, drinking coffee can be one of your most intentional and deliberate acts. You take time out of your day to do something that brings you simple pleasure. And the fact that coffee is generally served hot helps because it requires that you pay attention -- you literally have to slow down to drink it. I think focusing like this, even just for 15 minutes at a time, is critical for mental health.

One thing I want to encourage is treating coffee in this latter mode -- slowing down, enjoying it and using your coffee time for paying attention to the world--and the caffeine helps with this. Drinking coffee doesn't necessarily lead people to do philosophy, but I want it to give them a chance.

Tom: I understand the book is a collection of new essays by not only professional philosophers, but also philosophically inclined individuals representing other walks of life.

Mike: It is. We wanted the book to have a variety of ideas and styles in it, so we invited not only card-carrying philosophers to write essays, but also anthropologists, historians, journalists, coffee experts and even comedians to contribute!

James Kirkland and Dan Levy have a web series, The Coffee Bean Guys, in which they spend their days at a coffee shop trying to become celebrities. It was fun to include that and use humor to make the book more playful.

Tom: I should ask you about Starbucks, because of its prominence in coffee drinking around the world. The founder, Howard Schultz, once wrote a very philosophical book about his vision for it. Is it something you take on directly in the book?

Scott: Kenneth Davids gives an expert's analysis of three very different levels of coffee, one level being Starbucks. But the chapter that goes at it most directly is John Hartmann's "Starbucks and the Third Wave," which gives an assessment of Starbucks' contributions and shortcomings as it reconciles making money with making good, responsible coffee. One thing you notice in Hartmann's essay is that the new Third Wave's goals sound a lot like Starbucks' original goals. It remains to be seen whether the coffee roasters of the Third Wave will be able to maintain their ethical commitments as their companies grow.

Starbucks has done some real good for coffee. They've basically taken the elitist notion of quality global; they tend to treat their employees well; they've created public spaces, which are particularly important in suburban, car-centric areas, where gathering places are harder to come by. And they don't limit bathroom use to customers; this might seem tangential to their essence, but it's an important part of providing a space for all of a community. At the same time, they've been accused for wasting water, their recycling practice is insufficient, they haven't done enough to ensure living wages for farmers and their ubiquity does contribute to the flattening of our culture. So it's really a mixed bag, but on the whole I like them and think it's reasonable to hope they'll make efforts to improve their environmental and ethical practices.

Tom: Are there any other topics of note in the book that you'd like to mention?

Mike: One fun chapter is Kenneth Kirkwood's treatment of caffeine as a performance-enhancing drug. Lori Keleher's discussion of coffee and the good life, using Aristotle, is excellent. And Will Buckingham's "wasted afternoon" drinking coffee and reading philosophy is just what we hope readers will do with our book.

Tom: Have you guys always been coffee drinkers?

Mike: My first experiences with coffee were very unpleasant.

Tom: Many would say the same thing about philosophy.

Mike: Good point! And yet we can come to love both. I started drinking coffee in college, out of necessity. One of my college roommates worked in a coffee shop, and I had procrastinated to the point that I had to stay up all night to finish a paper for a philosophy class, and with the help of some good coffee I was able to do it. I've been a coffee drinker since that night.

Tom: So the connection for you was born then.

Scott: I grew up in Portland, where coffee is sort of a way of life. My parents drank good coffee when I was kid, so even though I didn't start drinking it until near the end of high school, I learned to appreciate the aroma of coffee, and to appreciate the appreciation of coffee.

Tom: Mike, you've edited several books on philosophy and popular culture now. And, Scott, I know you've contributed to several volumes. What's next for you guys?

Mike: I like these books because they demonstrate the relevance of philosophy to life's big and small questions. Philosophy relates to everything, when it is done in the right spirit. I co-edited a book that will be released at the same time as "Coffee," called, "Fatherhood -- Philosophy for Everyone: The Dao of Daddy," and I've got another book, "The Philosophy of the Olympics," in the works; it'll be out next summer in time for London.

Scott: I have a chapter in Mike's Olympics book that focuses on Steve Prefontaine, who has always fascinated me. In fact, he's an important subject in "The Joy of Running qua Running," a memoir I'm finishing up. But if I'm going to mention Pre in this interview, I should end on a note of caution: Be careful mixing coffee and running!

Tom: Funny. Too much coffee and I'm always running to find the nearest restroom. Thanks, guys, for your good work and for talking today.

Scott and Mike: Thank you, Tom, for what you're doing to bring more philosophy to the culture. Now, back to the daily grind!

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