Summertime musings: Philosophy takes on grilling

The age old debate – charcoal vs gas – takes on a philosophical tone (I am borrowing all concepts from Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology):
Does charcoal grilling help us “learn to think”, while gas grilling frustrates the true essence of thought?
In other words, does gas grilling necessarily involve technological thinking? Is it guilty of “enframing” and “challenging-forth” the fire, wherein we make “unreasonable demands” on the flame? While charcoal grilling, on the contrary, exemplifies the kind of “listening” and “shepherding of Being” that Heidegger is after?

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

8 thoughts on “Summertime musings: Philosophy takes on grilling”

  1. Hah! What a topic! I think even charcoal grilling frustrates thought, in this sense, especially if you use lighter fluid. True outdoor cooking is with wood that you yourself have chopped (maybe even wood you have grown… and planted?). And matches? Well, flint or rubbing sticks might be better, or praying for lightning. Tending a flame, encouraging it in its being, is something left out of any charcoal experience, and it’s the only way of preserving the otherness of fire – we dance with it, seduce it, coax it in ways to serve our purposes, but without ever forgetting that we do not ever have full control over it. And when it blossoms into fullness, we sit back to enjoy it for what it has become, taking pride in the role we played in its genesis, without taking ourselves as creators.


  2. I typed up a long response and it vanished! Stupid technology! I’ll try to redo it here:

    Great post Huenemann. Glad someone wanted to take up this important topic. After 15 years of exclusively working the coals, I just bought a gas grill (this after making this Heideggerian argument to gas grilling friends for years now). Ever since I have been hearing the Heideggerian call – “Guilty!!”

    Huenemann’s argument is not uncommon. There is a tendency to read Heidegger’s critique of technology in this way (Hans Jonas’ Imperative of Responsibility comes to mind) and the feel of the Question Concerning Technology certainly invites such an interpretation.
    But I must admit I am hesitant about this reading. I think there is a real danger of turning Heidegger into a mere Romantic here. Huenemann’s interpretation is essentially this: since technology is bad, the less technology one uses the better. In other words, the more primitive one’s experience in the world, the better. Rubbing sticks together is better than using matches. Even better – waiting for lightning.
    I am hesitant about this reading since I don’t think it can make sense of an important assertion in the text. Heidegger says:
    “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological.”
    We might rephrase that in this way:
    “The essence of technology [which is a mode of thinking] is by no means anything technological.”

    It is, in my view, imperative that we remember this. And remembering it totally disrupts the Romantic/Huenemanniac reading of Heidegger. Heidegger is not calling for the reversal of the industrial revolution or something of that sort. The danger of technology is nothing technological! The real danger has nothing to do with particular technologies, it has to do with a mode of disclosure. In other words, one might have an enframing/technological disclosure of the most primitive tool (a rock) while hearkening/shepherding to the more sophisticated technology (a computer). Remember that we can technologically disclose non-technologies (rivers, mountaints, etc). It is also worth noting that the real danger of technological thinking is to Dasein – that Dasein falls into radical forgetfulness by only disclosing himself technologically.

    So I think we should avoid this reversal to primitivism. The danger of technological thinking is that we only disclosively encounter the world, ourselves, and others in an enframed technological mode.
    Still, there are several issues at hand:
    1) Is technological thinking, in itself, bad? Or is it just the tyranny of technological thinking that is dangerous? Reading Heidegger on Aristotle’s NE VI (the section on the different modes of knowing), I am inclined to say that Heidegger wants to make room for several different modes of disclosure without any one of them precluding others. Of course, this is precisely the danger of technological thinking (we might also call it “productionist metaphysics”), that it is quickly becoming the only disclosive encounter with the world. (It is worth noting that Heidegger is optimistic though, “where the danger grows, so grows the saving power.”
    2) If technological thinking has a place in a family of disclosive modes, are there any entities that ought not be disclosed technologically? Ought we never disclose others or ourselves technologically? (Paper idea alert for students: a potentially interesting connection with the means-ends formulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative here).
    3) Back to the important issue – grilling. Are there some entities that somehow can only be disclosively encountered technologically? In other words, do gas grills refuse “hearkening” or “shepherding”? If so, what is our criteria for drawing the line on particular technologies – especially in light of the fact that the essence of technology is nothing technological?

    Sorry for the long post here – but this is important!!


  3. Since hearing about this cooking monstrosity in our European class, I wonder why I did not see this coming. Dammitall Harrison, I understand the empowering and “awesome” feeling of such a thing, but still, you go too far! When I see these massive machines in a store I wonder when they will simply have mechanical arms to skin a fresh carcass, and then throw the entire thing onto its massive grill, with no need to even remove the legs.

    I think another approach to consider here is not simply the matter of the fire. Certainly the fire and heat are being demanded, whereas in our early histories and for long after that we were ‘asking’ more than demanding. Like the weather on a farm, we may be able to channel the energy for our purposes, but it is far outside of our control, as Huenemann has stated. We find our selves more begging for it, humbling ourselves before it so that it may allow us the necessities to survive. This humility I think is key in regards to technological fire starting(in the modern sense of fluid and batteries). We forget to remember that we are reliant upon this magic of nature, like electricity humming through our homes, we forget its origins, its power far outside of our capacity. I might be wrong in this, but I interpret demanding as a loss of that humility, as feeling ownership over something we didn’t create and seeing it as ours to slavishly control. A good hunter can conjure a fire at will through skill and perhaps some tools, just the same as turning on the switch. However, the hunter might need the fire for a night meal, warmth in the cold, or protection. The gas grill can do these to some degree, but much more. I suppose it isn’t unreasonable to expect to cook a bit more easily. That is why you make a fire instead of cooking the meat by sunlight or something ridiculous. It is important to be able to eat properly, especially as a father. However, if Harrison were to come to class with his hands totally destroyed because he wanted to see if turning his burners up full blast could melt steel, it is obvious his demands and desires are a bit different. Also the ease and speed of the cooking presents the other problem. If you can cook a steak in record time with immediately on-demand fire, what is to stop you from expecting the animal itself to be ‘on-demand’ as well? You no longer see the meat as another creature that was taken down for survival with skill and work, nor do you appreciate it as another necessity for yourself that is part of an interconnected wider scheme. Like the gas fire, it is another easy solution, another technological luxury, blocking you from the sincerity of the hunting craft. What meaning would we give to beautiful woodwork if we could order it from a machine, or an epic melody if it was crafted by synthesizer programs and drum triggers alone? It would still be beautiful to be sure, but something else is lost. We have lost the connection, the soul of the touch and the craft, something we cannot explain to simple minded others who are less questioning of such easily constructed and digestible product. What do the greater minds think? I am somewhat correct or merely the babbling alleyway messiahs from Rome ala Life of Brian?


  4. Is it a matter of the “frame of mind” one has while using the grill? Blood and Ashes’s point may be that the problem with gas grills is the sort of expectations it builds — “meat on demand.” If so, then gas grilling is ok so long as one holds close to the heart a complete understanding of the more difficult task that is being “shortcutted.” Kleiner’s last question is more severe, though: what if we can’t possibly use a gas grill without falling into forgetfulness? But how, in this respect, is normal charcoal use any better off? Isn’t it just as much technologically enframed — store-bought coals, grill, deck, etc? I had thought it had something to do with the amount of care required to get the coals to the right temperature – so I thought the more care required, the better (and so not exactly the less technology, the better). But now I’m thinking that some romantic who routinely chops the wood, assembles it just so, rubs the sticks just so, etc., might be just as forgetful as someone who simply presses the “start” button.


  5. I don’t think Huenemann is wrong to suggest that the level of “care” involved is relevant here somewhere along the line.
    But what we are really asking – in asking about grills – is a question about thinking. Let’s say this in Heideggereese: ‘The essence of grilling is by no means anything grilly.’ Instead grilling is a kind of thought – if by thought we have in mind Heidegger’s notion of truth as aletheia (disclosure).
    So if the issue here is about different modes of disclosure, then I am not sure we should say that it is just “a matter of the frame of mind one has”, to use Huenemann’s words. To make it dependent on the frame of mind makes thought too much of an activity of a subject standing over and against an object.
    “Calculative” (or technological) thinking may work this way – it is a kind of human activity that leads to an enframed understanding of the object.
    But Heidegger is after a different kind of thought, one that is not so merely human. It is worth noting that his dialogue ‘Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking’ has as its setting “a place far from human habitation.” This other sense of thinking refers to something beyond the human, something that transcends merely human affairs. It involves waiting, listening, hearkening. In that sense, “meditative” thought is not really something I do – it is rather something that I get enfolded in. I am called to it and it calls me, and I must be released to it by being willingly non-willing. (See Heidegger’s ‘What Calls for Thinking’ and ‘Conversation on a Country Path’). Dasein has a very mysterious – and profoundly important – place in this story.
    “To the extent that man is in this draft, he points toward what withdraws. As he is pointing that way, man IS the pointer.” (‘What Calls …’)
    So thought is not simply the activity of man, though it does need man. It is, Heidegger says, “beyond the distinction between passivity and activity.”
    Back to grilling: Are some entities – like gas grills – incapable of calling us into “meditative” thought? Or, on the other hand, can we meditatively hearken in our disclosure of anything – even particular technologies? It seems that, since thought is neither passivity nor activity, that we cannot look for the answer by simply looking (a) at the status of the entity or (b) at the status of the thinking subject. Instead it is all about the relation. The disclosive thought occurs in relation – or, better, IS relation – beyond the subject-object dichotomy of old.
    (For those that attended my Kierkegaard talk, notice that he has his imprint all over Heidegger’s “later” thought here).


  6. This helps me understand what’s going on. So, acc. to Hd., there are some activities that simply don’t allow us to “get lost in meditative thought.” Is that the essence of technology — namely, the sort of stuff that, if we engage with it, denies us the possibility of getting lost in thought? If so, then I can sort of see why normal grilling is better than gas grilling. There’s the time spent watching the coals get to the right temperature, beer in hand, getting lost in thought. Indeed, that’s why I drop the kids at school, drive home, and walk to campus — since walking, not driving, is more likely to encourage thinking in me. Am I on the right track?


  7. Does anyone else find it scary how Huenemann is looking at us with that eye in his new photo?
    Good post, Huenemann. I think we are making progress.
    I am inclined to say this: the essence of technology is a mode of disclosive thought that is “willful.” It “challenges forth” the entities it discloses in such a way that they are disclosed not on their own terms, but are rather “enframed” in terms of the conceptual (metaphysical) structure hoisted on them from the thinking subject. Levinas calls this “egology”. Some call it “productionist metaphysics”. Heidegger sometimes just calls it “Erkennistheorie” (epistemology). This is because thought has traditionally be understood to be a function of either (a) an agent intellect (Platonic/Aristotelian tradition) or (b) a kind of einbuildung (imagination) that ‘builds up’ (Kantian tradition). Either way, Heidegger suggests that “what is most thought-provoking is that we have not yet learned thinking.”
    Having proposed a provisional definition for technological thought/disclosure, now we turn to “meditative” thought – a thinking where the entity is disclosed in relation to man but, so to speak, on its own terms. We need to, Heidegger says, “let beings be.”
    Regarding grilling, Huenemann has helped refine the question. Are there some activities (or perhaps entities, like gas grills) that somehow refuse the meditative relation? Or can we meditatively disclose / hearkeningly disclose even the gas grill, and let it be in its own being?


  8. It is worth pointing out the ramifications of some of these reflections. We are really talking about the possible locations of the immanent encountering the transcendent.
    To use Levinas’ language, we are asking: what kinds of things have “faces”? Do animals have a “face”? What about inanimate objects?
    To use Derrida’s language (borrowed from Levinas), we are asking: what kinds of things qualify as “Others”? Merely other persons? What about animals? What about nature?
    To use Marion’s language, we are asking: what kinds of entities can function as icons as opposed to idols?
    What we conclude will have all sorts of interesting ramifications on the status of the tradition. For instance, if many things have faces, then we might be able to recover a robust natural theology. Or we might call it a robust “sacramental theology” (I am using the word sacrament in the broader ancient sense of incarnate sign of the transcendent, rather than in the sense of the ‘7 sacraments of the Church’).
    Of course, I am still interested in the status of my gas grill. Even if I make an afternoon of grilling, allowing for the proper leisure and adult beverages, will it still pull me into inauthenticity?!


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