Friday, February 8, 2013

What is dessert?

There's an interesting thread at The Splintered Mind about the necessary and sufficient conditions for dessert.

As some note on the thread, desserts needn't be sweet or had after a meal.  They needn't fall within a certain range of portion size.  So what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a dessert?


Anonymous said...

From the encyclopedia:

Dessert is the usually sweet course that concludes a meal. The food that composes the dessert course includes but is not limited to sweet foods. There is a wide variety of desserts in western cultures now including cakes, cookies, biscuits, gelatins, pastries, ice creams, pies, pudding, and candies. Fruit is also commonly found in dessert courses because of its natural sweetness. Many different cultures have their own variations of similar desserts around the world, such as in Russia, where many breakfast foods such as blint, oladi, and syrniki can be served with honey and jam to make them popular as desserts. The loosely defined course called dessert can apply to many foods.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Is this definition all that helpful? Here's another way to put what that says:

Dessert consists of some kind of food or other and is eaten at some time or other.

But this is true of all meals. We need some way from distinguishing dessert from breakfast. You might add: "and it's not one of the traditional meals--breakfast, lunch, (supper), or dinner." But then we need some way of distinguishing dessert from a snack. So, you might add, "and it's not a snack." So then we get:

Dessert consists of some kind of food or other and is eaten at some time or other. It is not one of the traditional meals and it's not a snack.

This is a little better than that encyclopedia entry. But it's more of a negative definition--about what dessert is not. It would nice if we had an account of what it is.

Anonymous said...

Well, the definition involves the idea that desert is eaten as part of a MEAL; that it is the LAST COURSE of a meal. What can be eaten as a last course of a meal varies quite a bit, but as long as it tops off the meal, then it counts as desert.

When someone says that "you can eat desert alone" or "you can eat desert at the first part of a meal," what they say relies on the definition of 'desert' and would have no meaning if the definition were not already established.

What do you think?

Jesse Steinberg said...

You're right that when I say "One can eat dessert before dinner" I'm relying on a definition of 'dessert'--and maybe this definition involves something like "the part of meal that is typically eaten last." But dessert is only TYPICALLY eaten last and it's still perfectly possible to eat dessert before dinner, for example.

So, we've got the following definition.

Dessert consists of some kind of food or other and is eaten at some time or other. It's not one of the traditional meals and it's not a snack. It's typically eaten after a meal.

I'm still unsatisfied since this is primarily a negative definition. Maybe this is the best we can... ?

Anonymous said...

What do you think about saying that 'desert' is a "functional kind," (not a "natural kind"), and is defined by its function as something eaten at the end of a meal? Things that can be eaten at the end of a meal can be quite variable, but 'desert' does not refer specifically to any sort of thing that can be eaten at the end of a meal.

Consider an analogy. A mailbox is a thing that is used to hold mail delivered by the post office. A mailbox can be made out of a lamp shade, a milk bottle, or the bell of a trombone. And a mailbox can be kept in the closet, dumped in the ocean, or put in a space ship and sent to Mars.

Chelsea R. said...

Ice cream can be a dessert, and ice cream can also be a snack.

Perhaps we need to broaden the definition...

Maybe dessert is literally just a portion of food, typically sweet but not required to be, that is usually eaten at the end of a meal.

Jesse Steinberg said...

I'm more easily satisfied by such answers than many philosophers.

When one asks for a definition or an account of something, one seems to want to know what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for being that thing. As this example shows, it is very difficult, maybe even impossible, to do this for even simple things that dessert.

So what should we make of concepts with which philosophers are concerned like: knowledge, justification, cause, being the same person as, etc. Is it a fool's errand to try to supply the necessary and sufficient conditions for such things? Perhaps the best we can do is provide broad accounts or rough sketches of what such things are--just as we've done for dessert. But this is surely going to disappoint many philosophers. Alas, I fear this is the boat in which we find ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Dessert is a subset of 'comfort food', primarily consisting of carbohydrates and fat. To qualify as a dessert the carbohydrates must be sweet and the fat must be vegetable or dairy. Protein is generally limited to grains (flour), legumes or tree nuts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jesse. I read your lament. To simplify: The 'hue of resolution' (Hegel) must be sweet and it must have nothing to do with animal flesh.