Why Digby probably shouldn’t give cooking advice

Given my ongoing obsession with seventeenth century world, it might come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve started looking to the cookbooks of the era for some recipes I could make myself. After all, I could probably make a convincing case that cooking 17th century recipes is studying. Especially if the author of the cookbook is one of the philosophers relevant to my thesis – Kenelm Digby. His The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby (year) is a trove of wonderful and bizarre recipes.

For starters, the first 130ish pages of the book comprises recipes for meath and metheglin (both types of mead, if I’m not wrong), various wines, ciders, ales… I think you get the picture. Digby was certainly a fun-time guy as a party host.

What I was looking for, though, was something heartier. Something, to feed the soul, not just make it lighter. What I found instead was Tea with Eggs. Digby attributes this recipe to a Jesuit who brought it back from China around 1664, and who then gave it to Digby’s friend, Mr. Waller. Here’s the recipe:

To near a pint of the infusion take two yolks of new laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine Sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of Liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your Tea upon the Eggs and Sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot.

Frankly, I feel this isn’t too far from stirring a raw egg into hot soup, which I think is pretty delicious. But, tea? I’m not sure I’d be game for that. Digby goes on to outline the circumstances and benefits where such a dish might be beneficial:

This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently difusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, and flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating.

That’s a strong pitch. Ultimately, I think I’ll just order some pizza.

Descartes’ Invitation to Bologna

To lay readers of Descartes’ work, the fact that he’d worked on medicine might not come as a complete surprise, unlike the significance and depth of this work. Though he’d not published any of his works devoted exclusively to the study of human bodies in his lifetime, the posthumous publication of Treatise on Man (1664) and Description of the Human Body (1664), indicate that Descartes felt he had acquired sufficient expertise in the topic to devote the time it took to write these texts. What is particularly curious about Descartes’ engagement with medicine, though, is the reputation he had developed as a doctor, even before he’d published anything.

In a somewhat recent paper titled Descartes and the Bologna Affair, Gideon Manning, reports on an invitation Descartes received to take the chair of medicine at the University of Bologna [1]. Manning traces this invitation to either late 1632 or early 1633, which places it about 5 years before Descartes published his Discourse on the Method (1637). What makes this even more interesting is that the earliest evidence we have of Descartes’ interest in medicine is in a letter to his friend Mersenne dated 18 December 1629, when he asserts he had begun studying anatomy.

By 1632, Descartes must have becomecomfortable with the typical concerns of both practical and theoretical medicine. In a letter to Mersenne from either November or December 1632 he mentions having read William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis. He claimed that it “differs slightly” from his own view, but he had only seen it after he’d finished writing on the topic. Given that Harvey was at the greatest medical innovator of the time, Descartes’ familiarity with the text, and perhaps more importantly, his feeling that he could argue against some of Harvey’s assumptions and claiming that he had arrived at some similar conclusions, it seems clear that his studies were robust enough to equip him with the mental apparatus to argue with the most learned physicians of the time.

Perhaps it is a loss that Descartes refused this invitation. It certainly was consistent with his character. In the Discourse he remarks that he was more grateful to those who offered him leisure to think than those who offered him honourable positions. Manning notes that it’s unclear whether Descartes was referring to the “Bologna Affair” here, but nonetheless, we know Descartes’ frequently avoided his friends, and he sought solitude. Nonetheless, it remains as a curious and relatively unknown part of his biography.

[1] Manning, Gideon. “Descartes and the Bologna Affair.” British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 1 (2014): 1-13.


Review of How to be an Academic by Inger Mewburn

Those of you who know who Inger Mewburn, aka the Thesis Whisperer, is, can leave now, because you already know that you need to have read this book and why you ought to follow her blog. Those of you who don’t should probably just go to the blog and see for yourselves. Or, better yet, have a look at the book.

How to be an Academic: The Thesis Whisper Reveals All is a collection of Mewburn’s blog posts set into thematically organised chapters. While I’ve been a long time follower of the blog, and have read most (if not all) of these entries before, I found the book to be a sobering read which I couldn’t put down for a day-and-a-bit.

The book touches on several topics close to every graduate student’s heart, with chapters organised around academic life, productivity, writing, and employment. The Thesis Whisperer lives up to her moniker – her advice is always poignant, apt and usually extremely practical. Some of these things I already knew; I’ve already done the hard yards of learning a lot about how to make sure my time as a graduate researcher isn’t wasted when I did my MA. However, I’d probably have had a much easier time if I’d known these things before. And this is where a book such as this one would have been invaluable.

How to be an Academic, I think, should be required reading of every undergraduate thinking about a postgraduate degree, and reading many postgrads would benefit from. Mewburn doesn’t sugar coat the reality of being an academic. It’s a hard, difficult, and in many ways precarious career path to go down. And yet, I left the book feeling somewhat hopeful. Not about academia though, but definitely about doing my PhD and about what I can get out of it.

I’d like an academic job when I finish, even though that is a quixotic dream. The Thesis Whisperer, however, shows that there is hope if we open ourselves to other possibilities, and that academia, if we let it, can still be made into a welcoming and nourishing place for us to be in.

Radical Philosophy archives available for free

via Open Culture

Radical Philosophy, which has been one of my favourite journals for a long time has opened it’s archives to the public. Having published some of the most exciting philosophy of the last 45ish years, this archive offers a fun excuse to revisit some great articles.

I’ve not yet had much of a chance to look through the full archive, but there are many texts that look like good reading. Immediately, the standouts are Judith Butler’s Adorno Prize lecture, Antonio Negri’s On Rem Kolhaas, Pauline Johnson’s Feminism and the EnlightenmentGenevieve Lloyd’s Masters, Slaves, and Othersand Michele LeDoeuff’s Women and Philosophy

I apologise in advance for how my thoughts on some of these papers (and others, as I make my way through the archive) might take over the blog for a while.

5 great books by women philosophers to check out this International Women’s Day

I know I don’t post here as much as I should, or even as much as I’d like to. I hope to change that – and what better opportunity than International Women’s Day?

There are so many wonderful books on the history of philosophy written by women, that any attempt at writing an exhaustive list is beyond my capacities on a Thursday afternoon. Instead, I thought I’d keep my list to philosophers currently working in the history of philosophy, and in particular those whose texts I’d read or re-read relatively recently – so these are all books that are somewhat fresh on my mind, or which had a big impact on the course of my own PhD studies in some way. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so the list is in no particular order.

1. Genevieve Lloyd – The Man of Reason

the man of reason - cover


I don’t know if Lloyd’s book should count as a “history of philosophy” book – the point it makes is very meta-philosophical. It is however one of the formative texts for my approach to the history of philosophy, and it gives us an important reminder of the way our conceptions of gender have shaped our thoughts.

2. Jacqueline Broad – Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century

women philosophers cover

This book introduced me to a several figures I’m now working on, and is brilliantly clear and lucid in presenting and contextualising these womens’ ideas.

3. Lilli Alanen – Descartes’ Concept of the Mind

alanen cover

There is a longstanding caricature of Descartes that analytic philosophers of mind like to bring out in week one of survey courses on their topic to pose him as a boogeyman who had terrible ideas. Alanen is a strong and powerful opponent of that caricature, and this book is an excellent study of Descartes’ philosophy of mind.

4. Susan James – Passion and Action

passion and action cover

This is the single best book on early modern philosophical theories of the passions. It’s so good that it’s worth reading and rereading frequently to catch all of the nuance.

5. Catherine Wilson – Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity

wilson cover

This was one of those books that shifted completely the course of my education. I got it somewhat on a whim – my, then, honours supervisor was reading it and said it was good. I bought it, because he seemed a good model to emulate. Wilson’s philosophical prose set a new standard for what I expect of myself in terms of detail, clarity and persuasiveness. And frankly, it’s just a really great topic.

The Younger Pliny’s fantastic reply to a friend who stood him up for dinner

Pliny the Younger was a prominent statesman in Rome in the early days of the Roman Empire (during the so-called “Silver Age” of the Empire). Today, he’s probably best known for his published correspondence. They are literary in style, and organised according to the order “they came to hand” (I.1).

Pliny was definitely a kindred spirit to those of us who value literature and art. In his letters he praises Rome for allowing the arts to flourish, while at the same time chastising people from not adequately taking note of the genius of the writers living in their city.

The best letter, however, is one he wrote to a man named Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and friend to Suetonius. Clarus, evidently, accepted a dinner invitation and then didn’t show up:

Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? Here’s your sentence and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous. Instead you chose to go where you could have oysters, sow’s innards, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancing-girls. You will suffer for this – I won’t say how. It was a cruel trick done to spite one of us – yourself or most likely me, and possibly both of us, if you think what a feast of fun, laughter and learning we were going to have. You can eat richer food at many houses, but nowhere with such free and easy enjoyment. All I can say is, try me; and then, if you don’t prefer to decline invitations elsewhere, you can always make excuses to me. (I.15)

Is he overreacting? Perhaps slightly. But who of us hasn’t felt those same sentiments when dealing with a thoughtless friend?

The extract is taken from the 1969 edition of The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, London.

New book day

Descartes collected works (or as much of them as has been translated to English), Rodis-Lewis, and Robertson in anticipation of my PhD project. Montesquieu for fun.