Reading Popper and Boulud
April 10, 2010
I love Popper, and it is really fun reading his Unended Quest along Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef, because sometimes they line up in unexpected ways. Unended Quest, by the way, is an intellectual autobiography and brief overview of Popper’s ideas, and Letters to a Young Chef is exactly what it sounds like, written by a very famous chef, Daniel Boulud.
One of the things I find so great about Popper is his humanity, which both means a compassionate outlook as well as a commitment to some kind of process of reason, messy though it may be. While I have particular political ideas about what policies and goals we should pursue, I also have a set of ideas about the general way in which society should function, which I might regard as “higher” conceptually because they are compatible with a wide range of specific policy ideas, and are mostly a framework in which those decisions can be made. These mostly seem to line up with Popper’s.
Anyway, in the below passage he sums up what is so great about this general attitude toward knowledge and society, in a way that I could scarcely have summarized it myself. And he addresses directly the fact that some moral and political differences are irreconcilable, which is why agreeing on a framework in which goals can conflict is so important.
"In the Open Society I stressed that the critical method, though it will use tests wherever possible... can be generalized into what I described as the critical or rational attitude. I argued that one of the best senses of 'reason' and 'reasonableness' was openness to criticism - readiness to be criticized, and eagerness to criticize oneself... Implicit in this attitude is the realization that we shall always have to live in an imperfect society. This is so not only because even very good people are very imperfect; nor is it because, obviously, we often make mistakes because we do not know enough. Even more important than either of these reasons is the fact that there always exist irresolvable clashes of values: there are many moral problems which are insoluble because moral principles may conflict. There can be no society without conflict: such a society would be a society not of friends, but of ants."
Yes, exactly. So conflict is OK. In fact, people having their own ideas is part of what makes us human. (This idea is also a decisive blow against totalitarian philosophies as far as I am concerned.) Anyway, right after reading that, I read this in Daniel Boulud’s book.
"As I explained before, you may salt before you cook, while you cook, and as you plate... A chef, you will have noticed by now, seasons and re-seasons, slowly adjusting the balance of taste. It used to be, when I started out, that the chef banned salt and pepper from the dining room, the implication that the dish came from the kitchen perfectly seasoned. This may have been pleasing to the ego of the prima donna chef, but in fact all of us have different thresholds of taste, and what is undersalted to me might be just right for you. So, if asked to, we offer a little sea salt at table so that diners can make a final personal adjustment."
I thought that was a really neat example of exactly what Popper was talking about. Salt is an absolutely critical ingredient in cooking, and goes a long way to determine the final taste and texture of food. There was a time when the chef was the all-knowing arbiter of taste, even down to the salt.
But in today’s more enlightened society, we recognize that there may be many tastes. Sometimes, these will conflict. It was wonderful to see Boulud, this masterful and devoted artist, acknowledge that and then say “yes, so we let the individual diner make their own adjustments if they wish”. Wonderful.