Hunger and Desire: Am I Odd?
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.