The fuel of philosophers

The fuel of philosophers

Coffee has been much maligned. Some have claimed that drinking it increases your risk of heart attacks; others that it is associated with a range of cancers. It turns out, according to research published in the British Medical Journal last week, that it may well be good for you. Based on meta-analysis of numerous studies, the authors of this paper suggested that drinking three to four cups a day is associated with health benefits over a range of diseases and conditions. Correlation isn’t causation, of course: there may be some other common factor at play making coffee-drinkers healthier. But at least moderate coffee-drinking doesn’t seem to be causing ill health. Coffee could even turn out to be a health drink.

That’s the good news, but here’s the bad. Coffee rust. This is a disease caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix and it’s spreading rapidly. Infected leaves of the Arabica coffee plant become covered in a rust-like powder. Eventually the weakened plants lose all their leaves, and can no longer produce berries. Pessimists are suggesting that coffee rust could wipe out Arabica coffee production.

For several hundred years Western philosophy has been fuelled and stimulated by caffeine.

This wouldn’t just be terrible for coffee drinkers in general. For several hundred years Western philosophy has been fuelled and stimulated by caffeine. It’s hard to imagine philosophy being done without it. Take just a few examples. Voltaire drank somewhere between 40 and 50 small cups of a chocolate-coffee mixture a day. Immanuel Kant, as an old man, would take coffee after dinner, and became desperate if his manservant delayed bringing it to the table. Søren Kierkegaard used to pour sugar into his cup until it reached above the brim, and then dissolve this white pyramid with incredibly strong black coffee. No wonder he was up all night writing. More recently, Derek Parfit, was so eager to continue his philosophical work, that he would fuel himself with instant coffee mixed with warm water from an ordinary tap rather than waste time boiling a kettle. He was busy, but not so busy that he could neglect his stimulant.

Without coffee would we have had Voltaire, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Parfit?  I doubt it. It’s true that Ancient Greek philosophy flourished without coffee and its rituals. But since the early Enlightenment it’s been the fuel of choice for almost every major Western thinker.

Who would have imagined that a fungus would end up being the bogeyman of Western philosophy!


Andrew Park