Take that, Novalis!

Posted on June 22nd, 2009 by

For at least two centuries, people who ought to know better have been alleging that “philosophy bakes no bread.”  Google the expression, and you’ll find it (or a version of it) attributed to that wildly prolific philosopher, It Has Been Said. I found a hand-scrawled note to myself, claiming that

By I,Max. http://www.flickr.com/photos/_imax/126046432/

By I,Max. http://www.flickr.com/photos/_imax/126046432/

Bertrand Russell says it in The Problems of Philosophy, but I can’t seem to confirm the truth of this, so I’m inclined to think I made it up. You’ll find any number of online surveys, such as this one, asking you if you agree or disagree with the expression.  If you’d been around in, say, 1867, when the Journal of Speculative Philosophy began publication, you would have  found it on the masthead of the journal.

novalisThe claim seems to appear in print for the first time in the writings of one Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, the philosopher-novelist also known as Novalis. Novalis managed to accomplish an awful lot, given that he died of tuberculosis at 28: he left an impressive collection of (fragmentary, unfinished) philosophical writings and letters, as well as two prose novels and a prose poem. He also left us with the assertion  that ““Philosophy cannot bake bread—however, it can provide us with God, freedom and immortality—now which is more practical—philosophy or economics?”

What you won’t find on google is much counterevidence to Novalis’s claim. But all that is about to change, as the 2009 graduates of the philosophy department take the baking world by storm.

Kate and her apprentice, up to their elbows in philosophy

Kate and her apprentice, up to their elbows in philosophy

Caleb Phillips has set out to put the lie to it, in his new blog, “Philosophy that Bakes Bread.” (Google THAT expression and all you’ll find is Caleb.) Find Caleb and his oat wheat bread recipe here. And Kate Goodpaster can be found this summer at the River Rock Cafe, earrrrrrrrly in the morning, baking all manner of bready objects, to the delight of the denizens of St. Peter.

A 1965 issue of Time magazine hauled out the old chestnut  about philosophy and bread in an article promising to answer that ancient question, “What (If Anything) to Expect from Today’s Philosophers.”  From some of us at least, you can expect, well, bread. Here’s some I baked today, in fact.

Bread, baked by a philosopher



  1. B Heldke says:

    Very Interesting……all the philosophers I know can make bread, can they?

    And I can’t help wonder what the great still life artists of yore would make of the fruit/vegetable labels peeking out from behind the beautify orbs of bread.

  2. Brian says:

    I have no living bread, but I do have a mother.

    There – a statement that’s freighted with possible perceptions of import, but that is actually just a simple statement of fact. I have a loaf of pumpernickel from the Co-op, and…of COURSE…a VAST AMOUNT of kombucha mother. The mother has grown to fill the entire jar. Just today I bought a one-gallon fish bowl in Pet Expo to transfer part of this blobbish behemoth. I have also shared the elixir with department colleagues at our last department meeting.

    Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg has approximately the same expression on his face that I have when I look at that cloth-covered jar that you gave me a while back.