Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Hunger and Desire: Am I Odd?

with 8 comments

Most philosophers assume that we all experience the world and ourselves in pretty much the same way. When Galen Strawson was in Istanbul a couple of years ago we talked quite a bit about this. He thinks that different individuals can differ greatly in the way they experience themselves and the world. He is particularly interested in the distinction between two opposing character traits which he calls ‘diachronic’ and ‘non-diachronic’ (which he sometimes calls ‘episodic’). He explains this distinction in the following terms:

“The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self or person as opposed to a whole human being, as something that was there in the (more or less distant) past and will be there in the (more or less distant) future where ‘more or less distant’ allows for considerable variation. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic…  If one is non-Diachronic one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (more or less distant) past and will be there in the (more or less distant) future. One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the (more or less distant) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being… I suspect that a human being’s basic position on the Diachronic/non-Diachronic spectrum is likely to be a matter of brain chemistry, and that marked differences in ‘temporal temperament’ will be found across all cultures, with the same general spread in a so-called revenge culture, with its essentially Diachronic emphasis, as in a more happy-go-lucky culture.” (“Narrativity and non-Narrativity“, see also his “Against Narrativity”)

Galen claims that he is highly non-diachronic – and I suspect he is. And I agree with him that human experience is quite varied, and philosophers tend to ignore this variety and that most treat human nature (and the nature of subjective human experience) as pretty much homogeneous. In this post I will try to describe my subjective experience of hunger, which I think is quite different from that of the majority of people – and affects the way I read a lot of philosophical discussions of desire.

As far as I understand how others experience hunger, it is a feeling in their stomach and involves a desire for food, which they immediately recognize as such. For me, when I am hungry I just feel a bit dizzy and am irritable. If I had to locate the feeling somewhere in my body, I would locate it as behind my forehead. It is not obviously directed towards food. Until my late 20s I was not very good at recognizing when I was hungry and when I needed to eat. I had a girlfriend at the time who noticed a correlation between my irritability and my not having eaten. And she slowly taught me to correlate my feeling of dizziness and light-headedness with a need to eat. And so now I’m much better at recognizing when I need to eat. But, when I give up smoking, for example, I really don’t know whether the unpleasant experience I am having is a need for nicotine or a need for food. As far as I understand, this is not how most people experience hunger – although I have met quite a few people who seem to experience things in this way.  I suspect that the way I subjectively experience the need to eat has a biological basis. I wonder if anyone knows of any empirical research on this topic? Although I guess that there are evolutionary disadvantages to not having an immediate feeling of hunger, it does have it’s upside as an academic.

My subjective experience of the need for food affects the way I read a lot of philosophical literature on desire. So for, example, many philosophers take hunger as the paradigm example of desire (or at least of a certain type of desire). And often talk of sexual desire as an “appetite” – as if it were a type of hunger. I think, for example, that this is how Plato often thinks of sexual desire. But for me sexual desire and “hunger” are extremely dissimilar. So I don’t really get the characterisation of certain desires as “appetites”. Many philosophers (once again Plato springs to mind) take the pleasure we get from eating as the paradigm of the pleasure we get from satisfying a desire – but for me the pleasure of eating doesn’t really feel like satisfying a desire.  So I suspect that my biological set up has a lot to do with my dissatisfaction of many philosophical discussions of pleasure.

I wonder if others reading this blog experience the need for food in the way I do? If not, how do you experience the need for food? Does my attempt to describe my experience make any sense to you?

UPDATE: A couple of friends who are not philosophers have asked me about this post – and in particular about the relationship between the first and second half of the post. So let me try and explain how they are related. I used to think that although other people talked about hunger in a different way than I do, that we probably experienced it in the same way. Gradually over time I’ve come to believe that my subjective experience is probably quite different from that of most people – and talking to galen about the way he experiences his “self” played a role in the evolution of my thinking on this. But I really not sure. So I’d b really interested in hearing people describe how hunger feels like to them. Whether or not you have any philosophical background is not important.


Written by Lucas Thorpe

March 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. A topic of great interest to me- not only hunger but our representations systems–. For me hunger is visual and I feel a sudden struck of need for tastes, I know usually exactly what I wanna eat etc. and this feeling is accompanied by visual images of food and I gotta hurry up for finding food. I am quite primitive in this sense I guess 🙂

    But you might be familiar with the VAKOG representation systems (Visual, Auditory, Kineasthetic etc) Each one of us filter the experience according to our representations systems. If you are a visual person, you code your experience with pictures and feelings with brightness, panoramicness etc..

    That is one of the motivations that I am really into diagrams in mathematics. One cannot or should not categorize one system being objectively better than the other. Each system, synthetic/ analytic, visual/ formal sentential can be refined to fill the need of rigor. I believe one should add visual learning tools for the formal teaching subjects (university level mathematics, logic etc). Then these subjects would not be considered as a mystery to a large number of intellectuals who could easily understand these with diagrammatical methods…

    Ozge Ekin

    March 18, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    • Hi Ozge,

      very interesting. For me “hunger” really isn’t object oriented and associated with any particular imagery. I really don’t know what I want. (So hunger is very different for me from say, needing to go to the toilet or sexual desire).

      I hadn’t thought of this before – but if you’re right – perhaps what is like to grasp a proof might be quite different for different people. Even they they, in a sense, grasp the same thing.


      Lucas Thorpe

      March 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm

  2. your experience of hunger makes perfect sense to me and -though it sounds weird – I am pretty sure that
    I somehow learned to respond to hunger over the years. I used to get impatient and uneasy and when asked if I am hungry it was very likely that my answer was “no”. I could satisfy the need in part by other activities such as drinking water or cigarettes which makes me think that even in the case of a “basic need” a need cannot be wholly understood in isolation from other needs. (on the contrary, abraham maslow in his book “motivation and personality” argues that the need for food is the most isolated human motivation.) I find it interesting that even in the case of hunger, the experience of needing something is not as straight forward as it is usually presuppposed.even the object of need is far from clear – in the case of the need for food, can it be enough nutrient in take? (this reminds me of an example. As a possible remedy for hunger and environmental problems, Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations considered a different model of eating that has been developed in Wageningen University of Belgium. The proposed model of eating offers nourishment by bugs that provide a considerable amount of protein and mineral in-take required daily.)
    This topic is of great interest to me- I recently completed my dissertation on human needs. the questions I pursued were quiet different than the ones you have raised. yet the phenomeology of needing is a subject that deeply interests me – so thanks for the post and I look forward to hearing further thoughts.


    March 18, 2012 at 8:54 pm

  3. In our house ‘have something to eat’ is a response to many different symptoms: irritability, lightheadedness, tiredness, and temper tantrums. The last one is due to Max, obviously, and brings me to the following remarks: responses to hunger tend to be psychological or behavioural, and so probably related to chemical activity. If we accept neuro-diversity, then some people’s responses to hunger are going to be very different from others. Thus we’ve had to figure out in Max’s case that sometimes, when he behaves wierdly, he’s just hungry. As to hunger pangs, or painful stomach contractions, you probably wouldn’t experience them unless you were seriously underfed. I think the stomach doesn’t start to contract like this until 20 hours or so after your last meal. So no, you’re not odd! At least not in that respect. But I do believe that variations in the way we perceive ourselves are interesting as one of the implications of neurodiversity.

    Sandrine Berges

    March 19, 2012 at 9:45 am

    • Hi Sandrine,

      From conversations with a number of people I have began to think that the way I experience hunger is not typical – but perhaps I am wrong about this. This is one reason I wrote this post. So my experience seems to be quite different from Ozge’s who says “I feel a sudden struck of need for tastes, I know usually exactly what I wanna eat etc. and this feeling is accompanied by visual images of food.”
      One thing is that for me, “knowing” that I’m hungry is very much an inference (to the best explanation). And I suspect that most people do not experience hunger as an inference. Although, as Demet suggests – perhaps it is a learned response – but most people learned it much earlier than I did and so it has become for them a sort of ‘ninja inference’.
      In terms of the ‘location’ of the feeling – some people have told me that they do locate the feeling in their stomach.
      So I think I basically three questions for people about how they experience hunger:
      (1) Do you experience hunger as an inference?
      (2) Does the experience involve imagery of food, tastes?
      (3) If the feeling has a location, where would you locate it? (in your head? Stomach? Left big toe?)

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 19, 2012 at 12:03 pm

  4. This is a very cool post, Lucas. I wish I had time to do justice to it. Suffice it to say that my next project (if I’m ever finished with my current one!) is an investigation into human variation, and how much it has been ignored in both philosophy and science. I suspect that if its true extent were known it would upend most classical theories of ethics, mind, action, etc. I’ve read that our species is actually uncommonly homogeneous genetically. But I think there are reasons that this doesn’t translate into psychological homogeneity. Our brains are so sensitive to slight environmental variation – so plastic – that I think we’re set off on dramatically different courses from day one. However, these centrifugal forces are dampened by various practices of mindshaping (the topic of my current work), which makes the variation harder to notice. In any case, I’m glad I’m not the only one intrigued by these possibilities.

    Regarding your specific example: it put me in mind of Descartes’ discussion of mind/body union in the Sixth Meditation. He claims there that the mind is not like a captain in a vessel because it directly feels sensations – like hunger and pain – rather than dispassionately registering their causes in the intellect (the way a ship’s captain detects damage). It occurred to me, when reading your post, that, with respect to hunger at least, you ARE more like a captain in a vessel!

    Tad Zawidzki

    March 20, 2012 at 3:24 am

    • Hi Tad,
      Thanks for that. I think that we naturally assume that other people are quite similar to us in terms of their subjective experience. I used to regularly teach Plato and Aristotle – and I find certain things that Plato says about desire and pleasure quite odd – but I assumed that his experience was quite similar to mine – and that he just expressed himself badly. I’m now inclined to think that his subjective experience of, say, hunger was quite different from mine. But it’s very hard to evaluate such claims. I guess that this is an area where empirical research might help us. (and this relates to a discussion I was having with Kirk in our discussion of our previous post – trying to express our subjective experience in ‘folk’ terms might lead to advances in scientific understanding. Perhaps if we can categorise the various ways in which different people experience, say, hunger – in ordinary language we might then be able to find some biological bases for these differences.)
      I hadn’t thought about Descartes here – but I think you’re right. Sometimes when I forget to eat I will hear my stomach rumbling – but I very much hear this ‘from the outside’ (and sometimes I’m not sure whether I’m hearing my own stomach rumbling) as a sign that it needs attention. This is not, however, how I experience a full bladder. But when it comes to eating I think I very much feel like the captain of a vessel.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    • I guess one problem I have with Plato is his account of pleasure as a sort of becoming full. This does not capture my experience of the pleasure of eating when I am hungry. i think that my pleasure here really involves an awareness of my blood. And when I eat when I am very hungry I’m aware of a sort of surge. I guess this is the awareness of sugars entering my blood stream. And so the pleasure sort of washes over me. It is not at all (subjectively) an awareness of an emptiness and then the experience of becoming full.
      I used to assume that Plato expressed himself badly here – but perhaps he just experienced things quite differently.

      Lucas Thorpe

      March 20, 2012 at 1:24 pm

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