Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Metaphysics of the Martini

Since it is New Years Eve, it seemed appropriate to reprint this September 2006 post from the late, lamented Right Reason blog. (The original can be found here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.) Happy New Year! Philosophize responsibly. New posts coming soon.

The philosophy of booze is a greatly underdeveloped subdiscipline within our field. This is surprising given that the greatest philosophers had a notorious fondness for drink, as a Prof. Monty Python has documented in a famous scholarly study of the matter. As for my own efforts, I’m afraid they’ve been stalled by the failure of the Seagram’s corporation to reply to an application for a research grant I put in some months ago. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that Edgar Bronfman is a Democrat who doesn’t want his money going to some right-wing philosopher. And this despite the fact that I made it clear that the grant should be paid in gin rather than cash. How disgusting it is when politics gets in the way of serious academic research.

Now that I’m a blogger, however, this work can finally proceed. The usual obstacles to publishing bold and original ideas (peer review, valid arguments, evidence, grammar and spelling, that sort of thing) don’t apply in cyberspace. And of course, Wikipedia has eliminated the need for time-consuming research trips to the library, bookstore, or even the bookshelves here in my office - though the research relevant to the subject at hand is, in any case, of the sort that comes in liquid form. As a matter fact, I’m doing a little researching (a lot of researching, actually) as I write this.

Now as we all know, a real philosopher has to specialize. Minutiae are where it’s at. The “big” topics that used to occupy the philosophers of old (pre-analytic mediocrities like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, et al.) - God, the soul, good and evil, and so forth - are, after all, so unserious and unscientific. Far better to devote one’s entire career to studying something really meaty and interesting, like the epistemic closure principle or the possibility of unsensed sense-data. That way one’s work is sure to reach a significant audience, such as the twelve people who eagerly leaf through each new issue of Noûs.

For my part, I’ve decided to specialize in the branch of the philosophy of booze known as “martiniology,” a.k.a. the metaphysics of the martini. I realize, of course, that there is a danger that even this may be too ambitious; indeed, I’ve considered focusing on something more narrow and manageable, such as the famous and notoriously thorny “olive problem” (about which I’ll be saying something below). But I’ve done just so much research on this - and believe you me, I mean good, naturalistic, empirical hands-on research, most of it in the last two or three hours - that I must say I’m feeling pretty confident. So here goes.

As my long-time readers know (both of them, I think), I am a Thomist, indeed an “analytical Thomist.” (What that means is that instead of just giving an argument, like an old-fashioned Thomist would do, I make my arguments extra rigorous by sticking numbers in parentheses in front of all the premises.) The key problem of metaphysics, then, is, for me, to identify the substantial form of a thing, the unchanging essence that makes it the kind of thing it is. And my considered position is that the presence of gin is part of the substantial form of the martini. Among the implications of this is that a so-called “vodka martini” is, James Bond notwithstanding, simply a metaphysical impossibility, like a round square. (Don’t even ask about such ontological monstrosities as the “Chocolatini,” which sounds like something out of one of Meinong’s drunken nightmares.)

Now while as a Thomist I am fully aware that our knowledge of essences must in general be largely empirically based, I believe that it in this case our metaphysical thesis can be laid down a priori, on the basis of a direct intuition of the martinian quiddity. (Though as I have indicated, and as my hepatologist can testify, I have in any event gathered a considerable amount of empirical confirming evidence.) At the very least, this thesis has one undeniable advantage over all others: it saves time that would otherwise have to be devoted to detailed argumentation, precious time better spent doing (ahem) research.

Of course, there are those who hold to a wholly conventionalist theory of the martini. For example, some scholars have held that certain speech-acts, such as a (sincere) utterance of “Shit, we’re out of gin,” can transform a vodka-based concoction into a real martini, at least for the duration of the time it takes one’s wife to rush to and from Vendome’s to fetch a bottle of Tanqueray. I was once briefly sympathetic to this view myself - last Thursday, in fact, when we ran out of gin. But the fallacy was evident to me once the olive had been consumed and Rachel returned from the liquor store. (If you can’t see the fallacy too, that’s your problem, Jack; why don’t you take a frigging logic class before questioning us experts, OK?)

The other main metaphysical component of the martini is vermouth - at least enough that you can taste it, but never so much that the gin doesn’t dominate. Now of course, you wouldn’t know this from the writings of those desiccated Quinean martiniologists, who, following their master’s well-known “taste for desert landscapes,” insist that a true martini is maximally dry, i.e. that almost no vermouth at all should be used. Hence one hears of bizarre practices like swishing around the vermouth in the martini glass and then disposing of it before the gin is poured in, or using an atomizer to ensure that nothing more than a bare mist of vermouth is allowed to dilute the gin. (Oh what decadence, what affectation Quine’s naturalism hath wrought!)

This absurd position can be refuted by a simple reductio-cum-sorites argument. If a mere mist or residue of vermouth makes a martini, then surely a microscopic drop of vermouth does too. And if a mere microscopic drop does - despite its being undetectable to the taste buds - then a glass of cold gin entirely devoid of vermouth does too. But of course, a glass of cold gin qua cold gin just isn’t a martini at all. Hence neither is a glass of cold gin with a mere drop of vermouth in it. Etc. (I leave the details as homework, since I’m busy doing some more research just now.)

Oh, before I forget: it is also part of the essence of the martini that it be cold. And I mean arctic cold, as close to frozen as possible. Use a lot of ice, and chill the glass in the freezer for a good fifteen minutes. And (again, pace James Bond - how’d this guy ever become a spy, anyway?) it should be stirred, not shaken. Unless you’re in a hurry, then shake away, but in a circular motion so as to simulate stirring. Call it “twin earth stirring” if it helps. (It’s sure helping me just now, I can tell you.)

Now (deep breath) the olive problem. Look, it’s almost three AM, which means bedtime is approaching, and there are some classic 80s videos I’ve been meaning to check out on YouTube. Plus, a little more research, to make sure I sleep soundly. So let’s make this quick. You’ve got to have an olive if it’s really gonna be a martini, OK? No onions, and (give me a break) no lemon rinds. This is a grown-up drink, people. Show some class. And at most two olives (though yes, they can be big fat ones). Anything more would be vulgar. [Insert argument here, blah blah blah, whatever.]

Whew, feeling sleepy…

Alright, now let’s consider some possible objections to my account. Many will object that it is boring, conventional, and dogmatic. To that I can only reply: Look, I’m a conservative, a Catholic, and a Thomist; so what the hell did you expect?

But this naturally leads us to the $64 question, viz. whether one’s martini metaphysics is a reliable guide to one’s politics. And the answer, of course, is no. There’s no connection whatsoever. The very idea is preposterous. Why are you asking me this?

“Feser, you disappoint us,” I can hear my critics saying. “Its evident preposterousness has never stopped you from taking a position in the past - why start now?”

OK, then, in the spirit of Popper I’ll make this bold conjecture: someone is a conservative if and only if he agrees with my martini recipe. (And if a liberal agrees with it, that just shows he’s really a conservative. So there. Vote accordingly next time, OK pal?)

Wow, am I beat… exhausted! Can’t think straight. Better call it a night…

Post entry. Logout… in martini veritas…

…colorless… green ideas… sleep furiously…


(Coming next: the metaphysics of Scotch, wherein it is demonstrated inter alia that the fad for single malts is no mere yuppie affectation, but portents nothing less than a revival of Western civilization and the final eschatological victory of all that is good and decent.)


  1. Argued like a true Catholic (hic!).

    Total agreement as to the metaphysical absurdity of vodka martinis. Quibbles about the number of olives (to my vulgar sensibilities, three is the minimum) and the amount of vermouth (I usually just read the label and/or sniff the nose of a vermouth bottle while I pour the gin).

    I eagerly await the discussion of single-malt Scotch as a possible avenue of the future regeneration of Western civilization. This certainly sounds plausible to me, but I would like to see it rigorously argued.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Feser, you’re much too sectarian. Men may disagree with your metaphysics, but may be united with you in “spirit”; Your pneumatology is way too narrow. I propose that the spirit should be the basis of our union? Sure, the Unitarianism of the single malt will clash with the triune nature of the Martini, (the glass, the olive and the spirit), but I must admit I have found very admirable features in both points of view.

    And what of wine? Made by the Master himself: How can exclude drink made by God and call your self a Christian? I don’t need to tell you it’s a logical contradiction. And what of beer? And these men? Are they of little faith? Isn't it self evident that they perform God's work. You need to gather more empirical data, because as it stands, it's a poor philosophy you preach.

    Still a line must be drawn, and there are those that venture close to heresy with “light beer” and barbarism with a scotch and coke (a corruption of both their natures), but I can still share a table with them. But Hell can freeze over before I’ll drink “non-alcoholic” wine. Even a heathen like Orwell could see there was something wrong with the “orange juice” brigade.

    At the moment, I’m performing some spiritual “exercises”, I hope you are too. Have a happy new year!

  3. The man who drunk can never lie as he forgets how to how to lie?