Consolations of the Latke
by Ted Cohen
Listen to the audio mp3 of Cohen's lecture.
When first invited to this symposium I nearly declined, for I was not aware of how superbly qualified I am to speak on the question. Appearances to the contrary, I do not have a particularly strong Jewish background. But when the high purpose of the colloquy was explained to me, I could see that this is no trivial empirical topic, but rather that it is the categorical inquiry in which data are certainly an annoyance and probably an embarrassment. Being without any facts is an obvious qualification for successful investigation. In short, this is paradigmatically a philosophical issue. Indeed it is an a priori, transcendental question. I will dispatch it in two passes: first, from the standpoint of transcendental doctrine of taste (known vulgarly as finding the proof in the pudding), and second, from the even more sublime aspect of abstract metaphysics (known popularly as what’s what, if anything). No need to delay announcing the conclusion: better to have it clearly in view from the start, for in philosophy it is often unclear from the argument itself what its conclusion is.
True philosophy leads to the latke. I shall not be showing that the latke is, in a simple sense, “better” than the hamantash. That cannot be done, for the latke and the hamantash are not commensurate. The hamantash is a very, very good thing of its kind. The latke, however, is a perfect thing. Now that I’ve laid the conclusion out, perhaps its transparent correctness is already evident to you. But perhaps not: it takes some practice and a little chutzpah to get these things straight; and so I will help you through the dialectical critique which leads to the celebration of the latke.
I. Doctrine of Aesthetical Taste: The Latke as Pure Nosh
A perfect object of taste, a thing than which there can be no tastier, must appeal directly. Appreciation is not perfect if in order to enjoy an object fully you must take into account of what kind of thing it is. (This profound truth was first glimpsed in the eighteenth century by Solomon Maimon, who published a sketchy account under the pseudonym “Immanuel Kant.”) That is how it is with hamantashen.
What is a hamantash? A cake. Not just any cake is a hamantash. It must be made of a certain kind of dough, it must have a specific shape, and it has to be folded around one of a few specified fillings; and it and its name are associated with a long, rich tradition. Of course we all know these things, but the point is that the essential experience of a hamantash—wonderful though it is—is predicated upon this prior conception. Most modern art is like this: you must know in advance what the artist thought he was doing if you are to make sense of his art. The realization that the hamantash is a form of aestheticized, proto-post-modernist art was first achieved by the dean of American philosophers of art, Monroe Beardsley, who made the point in the classic 1954 paper: “The hamantashen of the artist are neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of the cakes” (written with Wimsatt, and widely reprinted: The Hamantashenal Fallacy).
As Beardsley saw, rigorous criticism forbids reference to these hamantashen-in-prospect. Thus it is a strict logical point that the delight in a good hamantash is not a matter of pure taste.
Not so with the latke. We all know latkes. Do not let a false empiricism persuade you that we had to learn this. It is innate in all rational fressers (gluttons): the form of the latke is indeed the form of oral intuition. The pleasure in a latke is the condition of all pleasures of taste. Think of it: a latke need have no particular shape, no required color, no conceptual preconditions (potato is best, of course, but even this is not of essence). The latke is the emblem of taste and art itself. And so: there can be no taste where there is not taste for latkes (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the end).
II. Metaphysics of Being: The Latke as Substance
Here we are concerned with the proposition that not only do latkes exist, but that they must exist, that there could not not be latkes. Our problem here is not with the proof. The proposition is astoundingly easy to prove. The proposition, however, is impossible to say. There is no way to formulate precisely in words the necessary existence of latkes. We are grappling with an Idea of Reason, which has no adequate verbal expression. Wittgenstein once faced this problem and turned away, saying, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber, muss man schweigen.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the end.) Or, in strict literal rendering, “If there’s nothing to say, sit down and have a knish.”
We, however, must be bolder. Let us take a number of imperfect formulations as ways of getting the inexpressible proposition across by analogy and suggestion.
- Latkes necessarily exist. (Classical metaphysics.)
- Whatever there are, some of them are latkes. (Free metaphysics.)
- In every possible world there is a latke, though perhaps not the same latke. (Modal semantics.)
- Necessarily, there is an x such that x is the square root of 2, and there is another x which is a latke. (Technical modal mathematical logic.)
When you see that these are but four ways of saying the same thing you will see what unsayable proposition I am saying. Now that we have the proposition—it is necessarily true that there are latkes—we can go for a proof. With necessary truths it is customary to say that they are self-evident and let it go at that, and that would be enough here for formal correctness; but we can go a bit farther. These proofs are not likely to be more perspicuous than the self-evident proposition itself, for those with metaphysical vision, but they may help others.
Why must there be a latke? Because the latke is an absolutely and perfectly simple thing, as is revealed in the fact that the idea of a latke is a clear and distinct conception of the mind. When we have such an idea (which is rare) we know that the thing of which the idea is an idea, must exist. If there were no latkes, the idea of a latke would not be so simple.
You are reminded, no doubt, of so-called ontological arguments, especially those meant to prove the existence of a supreme being. You are right: such an argument can be given for the existence of latkes, and I will return to this logos presently. First let us consider the treatment of this necessary truth in philosophical semantical ontology: the theory of possible worlds.
In every possible world, there is a latke. How do we know this? By discovering that it is impossible to imagine a world in which there is no latke. Try it.
First, imagine a world. Put in everything you need for a world; this is to be a whole world, not a fragment.
Now add in a latke.
Now take that latke out. It cannot be done, can it?
Some slower wits may suppose that you have imagined out the latke, but this is merely a misapprehension. When you took out the latke, where did you put it? Everything must go somewhere. Wherever you put it, it’s still in the world: you didn’t get it out of the world, you just shuffled it around. Thus every possible world has a latke. (You will notice that metaphysics is not so hard, once you get the hang of it.)
For a final proof of this metaphysical proposition, that there must be latkes, let us inspect a more classical mode of argument. Some of the most beautifully simple metaphysical proofs have been devised by the great Christian philosophers as ontological arguments for the existence of a supreme being. It is probable that you are most familiar with the arguments given by Saint Anselm. One of them is easily adapted to prove the necessary existence of the perfection of edibility.
This argument goes fast, and so you must be on your toes. The insight needed to follow the proof is simply the fact that just because something can be said it doesn’t follow that the sayer can mean and think it. Sometimes we mistakenly suppose that something is possible because we can say that it is possible. But as the exemplary contemporary philosopher Dean and Professor Stanley Bates has said, “You can say anything; but not everything you say makes any sense. For instance, you can say 'It’s possible that a prime number has many divisors,’ but you couldn’t really think that.”
It was Anselm’s genius to concentrate on the question of whether one can say—and mean—that there is no supreme being. It is an obvious adaptation to ask whether it can be supposed that there is no latke. Consider, “The schlemiel has said in his heart: There are no latkes.”
The schlemiel can say this, but he cannot think it, for it makes no sense. What sense is there in a nonexistent latke? How can the perfectly edible be absolutely inedible? That makes no sense.
A world without hamantashen would be a wretched world. A world without hamantashen might be unbearable. But a world without latkes is unthinkable.
שׁ ה ג נ
“Consolations of the Latke” was delivered at the 1976 Latke-Hamantash Debate. The audio version differs somewhat from the text as it appears in The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate. Ted Cohen is currently professor in the Department of Philosophy, the Committees on Art and Design and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, and the College, University of Chicago.