Book: The Philosopher’s Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World by Richard Watson
Publisher: The Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: 1985
Source: Library (I used to own a copy. I wonder where that went.)
Summary: Here are the chapter titles:
- How to Live
- How to Die
I’m finding it difficult to summarize this slim volume. It invites short, pithy, smart-aleck summations like, “Life’s a beach and then you die” or the more conventional and less optimistic version. Or something much longer — but it’s a short book, you might as well read the book rather than my summary.
Possibly the most important thing to note about this book is that Richard Watson is a bona fide philosopher. In fact, he was a Professor of Philosophy at my alma mater and my most recent place of work, Washington University in St. Louis. He is an expert on the work of Descartes. Possibly, though, he is most famous as a speleologist (an explorer of caves), contributing to the exploratory efforts that proved that Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s longest cave and co-authoring the book that tells that story, The Longest Cave by Richard Watson and Roger W. Brucker.
Thoughts: I read this for the first time in the mid-80s. I rarely re-read books but this is at least the third and maybe the fourth time I’ve read this one. In the midst of all the healthy lifestyle books I’ve been reading, I wanted to revisit this one to see how it influenced my approach. There was much I remembered, much I forgot that I remembered, and some that seemed all new — apparently I didn’t get it the first time around.
I had forgotten, but apparently this book is where I got the notion to read books on dieting. I am surrounded by people, including readers of this blog, who are disdainful of self-help books in general and diet books in particular. But I’ve somehow managed to stick to my personal perception that they are useful to me, while not taking them too seriously. Perhaps that happened because this passage was lodged somewhere in my brain:
You must modify your eating behavior. You begin by reading inspirational literature. I’ll provide my share in these pages, but I can’t begin to provide enough. So the first thing you must do is go out to buy or borrow some books on dieting, calories, fat, salt, fiber, sugar, exercise, fasting and natural foods. It does not matter which books you get — go for quantity not quality….You will read these books over and over again. It feels good to read them, even when you are off your diet. Inspirational literature assures you that somebody cares, that there is a way, and that you can be saved. pp. 14, 15
What makes losing weight and keeping it off a relevant target for philosophy is that it’s hard. It’s hard to buck the trends of your own culture. It’s hard to think for yourself, to experiment on your own life, to find what really works in your life from the plethora of options available. It requires being very conscious of what’s important and what isn’t and continually questioning assumptions.
Don’t be embarrassed at the seeming unimportance of your goal. What is important at this point is not your diet, but your commitment to it. People can’t know what a project of exerting willpower is like or what it leads to until they commit themselves. At this point it is not the content of your act that counts, but that it is a difficult and long-term project freely chosen; not the seeming silliness of working so hard on such an ultimately minor matter, but how damnably hard it is to do, and that you manage to do it; not the content, but the form of the thing. For if you can do this, you can complete other difficult projects, the content of which may be far from minor. p. 76
The program in this book forbids white sugar and white flour and, as such, eliminates processed foods. I never have managed to completely eliminate either, but I suspect reading this book in the 80s was why I was so open to the local and natural approach to eating that have been so popular in recent years.
He made the case long before Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Mark Bittman that eating healthily is a radical, downright subversive, way to live in modern America. It runs counter to the consumer society. In 1985, he nearly predicted the current upswing in Farmers Markets explaining that to get good-tasting varieties of vegetables and fruits they “must be nurtured by hand on small truck farms.” I’m really quite surprised to see this passage in a book written in the mid-1980s:
If you eat less, if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grain and range-fed meat, you will be raising a cry against agribusiness and the processed-food industry that have an iron grip on the world’s food production and distribution. Food is the foundation of all power over human beings, for every day every one of us must eat. Your cry will be one drop of water in the wide, wide ocean, but if there were enough dissenters, a tidal wave would sweep the world. p. 113
I wouldn’t have known where to get range-fed meat in the mid 1980s!
Appeal: I read and re-read the first edition of The Philosopher’s Diet from 1985. There’s since been a revised edition but from the reviews on Amazon, he didn’t make many changes. The core of his prescriptive plan apparently remained the same — 900 calories for women and daily 4 mile runs. It’s easy to poke holes in that advice from current notions on what is healthy behavior. That’s not at all the approach I took when I finally did lose the weight. Still, I remain more surprised by the things that it appears he got right, reading nearly 30 years later.
Challenges: This is book six of nineteen for my Foodies Reading Challenge for 2012. There are some memorable descriptions of food in here that any foodie will love, not to mention an amazing description of an ideal kitchen.
Check the Weekend Cooking post at Beth Fish Reads for more posts about food and cooking.
Have you read this book? What did you think?