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Towards a Theory of Food Categorization

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By Sumil Thakrar

Forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Society of Drinking a lot of Cough Syrup


“Everybody knows that something is wrong. But it is uniquely the achievement of contemporary philosophy – indeed, it is uniquely the achievement of contemporary analytical philosophy – to have figured out just what it is. What is wrong is that not enough distinctions are being made.”—Jerry Fodor[1]

There has been a much-needed resurgence in published papers and PhD dissertations on the philosophy of food categorisation. Yet, outside of the philosophy department, we are steadfastly entrenched in a naïve tradition that does little but separate food from drink. The recent attempts at popularizing food categorisation are inadequate at capturing the natural distinctions, and have barely engaged with the emerging philosophical literature. For example, the philosopher Lawson, in her seminal thesis “Nigella Bites”[2], invoked the categories “slow cook weekend”, “comfort food”, and “rainy days”, which critics claim offer an embarrassment of riches that fail to ‘carve nature at its joints’. This paper will clarify the emerging philosophical consensus, and suggest possible avenues for further research.



Drawing originally from the work of Arischipotle, the Four Categories of food have long been held in contention. However, due to its rival theories repeatedly having been shewn to be self-defeating, it is today widely regarded as the only game in town. The categories are the following:

(I)  sandwich,

(II)  salad,

(III)  soup, and

(IV) meat.

No other categories are admitted into this schema. The categories are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive of all main meals – some even claim, of all possible main meals. The categories are (reasonably) to be taken as primitive notions; as such it is not in the business of the theory to attempt to define the categories using other, non-primitive terms.

There have been several rigorous proofs of the theorem that any main meal belongs in exactly one of the Four Categories[3,4] (the first proof being due to Plate-o[5]). However, the man-on-the-street is typically convinced of this theorem’s veracity simply by considering any large, arbitrary subset of the set of main meals, and checking that each element, indeed, belongs in exactly one of the Four Categories.

For example: a cheese and tomato sandwich is, quite plainly, a sandwich. A sirloin steak, well-done, is a meat. Risotto – that’s a soup. Potato salad is a salad, as is pasta salad, or even pasta simpliciter – although lasagne is a sandwich.

We could go on: fried egg is a meat. Pepperoni pizza is a sandwich; pie is a sandwich; cake is a sandwich. Chips are a salad. Cereal, with milk, semi-skimmed, is a soup. Cereal, without milk, is a salad. Fudge is a meat. A glass of water is a soup.

Sociological meta-analyses have shown[6] that the man-on-the-street, after verifying a list of 50 arbitrary main meals, tends to report the concepts of sandwich, salad, soup and meat, as feeling “more natural” and “clarifying”, compared with the naïve, ‘folk’ counterparts to which they are used. These ‘folk’ concepts, particularly of meat, prove to be a hindrance on the man-on-the-street’s understanding of food, and it is this author’s belief that such concepts ought to be unlearned.



We see too often this lamentable disconnect, between groundbreaking analytical philosophy on the one hand, and the continual and widespread adherence to an outdated paradigm on the other. Food categorisation is no exception. However, unlike mereology, there is foreseeable scope for the Four Categories to be put to use to improve the quality of life of at least some of the general populace.

For example, the Four Categories can greatly increase the efficiency of the modern supermarket, which currently has many aisles (e.g. a dairy aisle), where the food is arranged not in accordance with the appropriate natural kinds. To those versed in the philosophy of food categorisation, the current layout is analogous to arranging food by its colour, or by its mass density. Instead, there ought to be exactly four aisles, each corresponding to one of the Four Categories.

Further, the common practice of marketing recipe books according to regional culinary tradition has been variously criticized as an appeal to history[7], irrelevant[8] – and even, racist[9]. Making use of the Four Categories will do much to surmount these issues.



Currently, the bulk of literature surrounding the philosophy of food categorisation is concerned with the foundational issue of the bread paradox, which shall not be discussed here.[10] More research is desperately needed in expanding the theory to new domains. Despite cuts in federal research funding in the humanities, arts and sciences across the board, our department has been able to offset these losses by generous private donations from a wealthy eccentric – whose priorities, thankfully, match all of our best interests.



[1] Fodor J. 1985. Precis of Modularity of Mind. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8. Reprinted in A Theory of Content and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990)

[2] Lawson N., Nigella Bites (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001)

[3] Thakrar, S., from the tattoo on his chest (Balham: Tattoo Parlour, 2013)

[4] Waltmann, B., Unpublished Works [Preprint] (to be published in 2064)

[5] Plate-o, Themeateaters (New York City, NY: Palan & Co, 1969)

[6] Goplerud, M., A Selection of Meta-Analyses, Journal of Meta-Analysis, 2012. As quoted in Brooks, C., A Selection of Meta-Meta-Analyses, Journal of Meta-Meta-Analysis, 2013, pp.12-22

[7] Unknown, from a fortune cookie (Leicester Square, 2014)

[8] Johnson, F., from her Last Will and Testament, 2002

[9] DuVal, H., On Meal Segregation (Leeds, 1994) pp.31-89

[10] For a comprehensive study, see Phan, V. D., Bread: A Sandwich Or A Meat? (Ho Chi Minh City, 2014)


Written by fauxphilnews

January 8, 2016 at 7:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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5 Responses

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  1. Butter must be a meat.

    Drusilla Barron

    January 8, 2016 at 1:58 pm

  2. Remind me to tell you sometime about my stew categorisation system. Almost all cooked dishes containing multiple ingredients are a form of stew, which comes in three basic kinds: red, white and brown.


    January 9, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    • actually, you’re wrong, that’s all soup. stew is a form of soup. moron

      a man of wealth and taste

      December 27, 2017 at 2:04 am

  3. Having reached a point where I must decide whether or not to continue with my pursuit of a PhD in philosophy, reading this abstruse yet reader-friendly analysis has renewed my confidence that philosophy alone holds out the hope of resolving the more urgent political and moral problems facing us today.


    January 11, 2016 at 7:06 pm

  4. This is exactly like my categorization! I am so glad there is research into this by someone else as well! Thank you for this, it rejuvenated my love of my categories. Although I pose a question, where are there ever foods that are classified as meat that are not just that single item of meat? I propose changing the final category to single item if there are no circumstances of this. A single-item category would specify the meat as a single item, as well as incorporate other items that seem to not have a category anywhere else. Thank you.

    Paul Spring

    March 12, 2019 at 5:12 pm

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