Thursday, June 30, 2011

On My Shelf: Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate (A Review)

Grounds for Debate is a fantastic read—providing insights into the coffee culture that even a tea drinker can appreciate. The collection encourages readers to consider their relationship to larger social practices that have resounding effects on daily life.

About a year ago, I was a three-coffee-a-day person: Two cups in the morning, and one around midday or after lunch. My esophageal lining took a hit—and coffee drinking also took a toll on my wallet since I had long ditched the office sludge for more enjoyable brew. Anyway, I was ordered to lay off of the caffeine for two weeks, and while I resumed coffee consumption in moderation once the mandated fasting period had passed, I thought it might be a good idea to give it up entirely. Much like Napoleon’s Waterloo, I was less than successful. About two weeks into that endeavor, my general misery prompted coworkers to buy coffee for me. I took it as a hint that I needed to resume my affair with caffeine and I’ve never looked back.

Following a legacy of colonialism and linked to power dynamics and capitalism, the coffee bean is curiously intertwined in our history. I’ve documented some of this here on AiP previously, so when Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate arrived in the mail for review, I admit I picked it up with some relish. And I was not disappointed: a quick perusal of the chapters gave me pause on almost every page. The volume is divided into four sections and a diverse assembly of lively authors deliberates the meaning and experience of coffee culture, from why we choose to drink it the way we do to its role in our daily lives to fair trade factors.

It seemed the perfect book to accompany my morning commute. After all, that’s the time when I am most preoccupied with coffee: I can smell it thanks to my fellow commuters, I can imagine its robust flavors, and I anticipate that moment when I can hold the coffee cup in my hand and feel its comforting warmth (I generally wait until I’m at work before I have my coffee). I crave it.

When you drink coffee, there is often a process to consumption. And it may be different for everyone, but we all have our methods. I add my sugar and cream—I realize I probably lose points for not taking it black, but it’s my coffee and I’ll have it my way, thankyouverymuch—and I watch the cream swirl along the top. I take a tentative sip, testing the flavors and the temperature, teasing my senses further. I hold the cup in both hands and allow my entire body to anticipate the caffeine … Okay, perhaps I’ve told you too much, but you know you have your own rituals. If all you do if pick up the cup and down the contents, you aren’t a coffee drinker.

There is a method to the way we absorb information also. My instinct however was to pick and choose the chapters that seemed most interesting on different mornings, depending on my mood. Though each chapter presented a standalone discussion, I felt as though I was cheating the process. Until, that is, I opened the book to “The Anatomy of a Wasted Afternoon” in which Will Buckingham documents a stolen afternoon spent at a coffee house with his books, his writing, and three cups of coffee. He says:
There are many different ways of reading philosophy books. Sometimes you need to gallop through them Napoleonically … But sometimes you want to work through systematically from the first page to the last, taking notes as you go … And sometimes you want to browse through with no clear sense of direction, seeing what your eye ends up alighting on, seeing what new thoughts are provoked (159).
Grounds for Debate lent itself exceptionally to the latter experience: Though there were discussions that I poured over, leaving the pages riddled with notes and commentary of my own, I meandered my way through.

One theme that the contributors returned to time and time again was the shifting experience of the coffee house itself: Once a boisterous center for congregation, coffee houses have become places where we go to be alone together. Sure, we may occasionally meet a friend for coffee, but in most cases, the coffee house is populated by workers, writers, and observers—people who are otherwise absorbed in their tasks but draw energy from the busy-ness of those around them. In “Anxiety, Existence, and the Coffeehouse,” Brook Sadler describes this as a space where nothing happens—we are publicly anonymous, and as such, we are not bound by the regulations that govern official workspaces, waiting rooms, and even our own homes. We are physically present, but can choose to be elsewhere, without repercussions:
No more integral to the social scene than the furniture, you are replaceable by any other patron. The non-place of the chain-store coffeehouse thus allows us to be non-persons, in a sense. We are private right out in public, and our devices facilitate this self-containment and public erasure—cell phones, smart phones, laptops, iPods allow us to engage in a social world that is happening elsewhere. It would seem we have better places to “be” than where we are—online, for example (104).
There is a coffeehouse “community” that arises: you frequent the same place, the Baristas come to know your name (and possibly your order), you sit in the same place, and see the same people. But you aren’t required to perform any particular role in this space, and what’s more, you could visit any space like it, and find that this is essentially the case.

The coffee house becomes a space where we can hide from work, or bring work with us and work on our own terms, where we can sit and watch, and occupy our time and thoughts with whatever pleases us. It is a public space, with no form or function attached to it other than coffee consumption.

Though it is a workman’s drink, meant to help us power through the 9-to-5 obligations that many of us hold, the relationship we have with this beverage has shifted. Sadler rightly notes that while there is time for tea, there are only breaks for coffee:
Coffee goes to work, whether in a steel-handled thermos to the construction site or in a paper cup from McDonald’s to the drone’s cubicle or in the ubiquitous cardboard-sleeved Starbuck’s cup to, well, any job at all (101).

Coffee drinking often involves urgency and hurry—leaving stains on our clothes and papers, spills in the car—desperation and loneliness (102).
But if coffee is the drink of the worker, John Hartmann asks, how is it possible that we can shell out up to $9.00 a cup? We’ve been taught to pay for coffee—for a blend, for artistry, for the experience of consuming the caffeine, and for the space. These factors appear to contribute to a re-valuation of the beverage, one that does not weigh sociability very heavily. And this is perhaps fitting with our current culture, which values the ability to be “alone together.”

Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate | Scott F Parker and Michael Austin, eds. | Wiley Blackwell | 264 pages | $19.95 (Softcover)

Note: Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate was provided by the publisher for review.

For more on coffee culture, please see:


  1. My friends and I recently lost our favorite coffee shop.

    You see, I'm a relatively new coffee drinker. I barely ever touched the stuff until about five years ago. but I've long been enamored of the concept of the coffee house. When I moved tot he DC area, I set out to find a good coffee shop for "hanging out". With some significant help, my friends and I found a pleasant, local place. Interestingly enough, the presence of couches was a key factor.

    Over the course of the last few years, this evolved into running a social group, with regular meetings - once a month at a coffeehouse, once a month at a member's home.

    This leads me to some curious places.
    You see, I've found it's uncommon - but not "rare", if you grok the difference - to casually speak with strangers, even at a coffeehouse, although that environment is one in which it seems less likely to result in offense. But this means that to synthesize the boisterous, active conversation with which coffeehouses are associated, one must bring the group.
    Ironically, this betokens that any coffeehouse into which we settle will be unsuccessful. As we bring a not-inconsequential number of people, we want someplace large but not heavily trafficked - in other words, a coffeehouse which is failing to do much business. A successful business is usually at, or close to, capacity, something we're avoiding.

    I'm told that the founders of Starbucks have long been frustrated: they sought to recreate the neighborhood coffeehouse, but the successful business model was that of a fast-paced coffee dispensary.

    Interestingly, according to tea advocates, the qualities I desire in coffeehouses are qualities engendered by tea. In fact, most of the tea documentaries I've seen and books I've read tend to cast coffee and tea as antagonists, while emphasizing the differences. Tea, it seems, is associated with quiet contemplation and tranquility, whereas coffee is associated with stimulation and frenetic energy. My own experience has been that these are strictly cultural; the two beverages could easily swap places.

  2. 9$/cup!!!???? Where the HELL did that cup come from? I've ordered a 16oz. coffee in New York and it wasn't over $2.75! Please tell me that is a pure over exaggeration on your part, and not a corruption of the book where the authors equate corporation branding for the actual drink of coffee, a Salted Caramel Mocha is not a coffee, it's an angle on corporate branding. I really hope that the authors did not succumb to 'corporate culture', if so that will diminish the book for me. Thanks for the review and the website.