Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

voltaire coffee

I think I speak for many of us when I say that cof­fee fuels our great­est intel­lec­tu­al efforts. And even as we get the jit­ters and leave brown rings on our desks, we can take com­fort in the fact that so it also went with some of the most notable philoso­phers in the his­to­ry of the dis­ci­pline. As far back as the 18th cen­tu­ry, no less a writer, thinker, and agi­ta­tor than François-Marie Arou­et, bet­ter known as Voltaire, “report­ed­ly con­sumed some­where between 40 and 50 cups of joe a day, appar­ent­ly of a choco­late-cof­fee mix­ture. He lived into his eight­ies, though his doc­tor warned him that his beloved cof­fee would kill him.”

That comes from Aman­da Scherk­er at The Huff­in­g­ton Post writ­ing up “9 Famous Genius­es Who Were Also Huge Cof­fee Addicts.” Voltaire’s java habit also comes up on “10 Odd Obses­sions of Famous Philoso­phers” by Vir­ginia Muir at List­verse, who names his drink­ing venue of choice (the Café Pro­cope in Paris) and indi­cates the extent of his enthu­si­asm by not­ing that “he even reg­u­lar­ly paid exor­bi­tant fees to have lux­u­ry cof­fee import­ed for his per­son­al use” — which cer­tain­ly does­n’t seem so eccen­tric today.


Lat­er that cen­tu­ry, Immanuel Kant took up cof­fee in his last days. Writ­ing first-hand on the sub­ject in the apt­ly titled The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, Thomas De Quincey (no stranger to life-chang­ing habits him­self) describes the philoso­pher’s “cus­tom of tak­ing, imme­di­ate­ly after din­ner, a cup of cof­fee,” a rit­u­al he so came to rel­ish that, when­ev­er he sensed he may not get his new favorite bev­er­age, there “com­menced a scene of some inter­est. Cof­fee must be brought ‘upon the spot’ (a word he had con­stant­ly on his mouth dur­ing his lat­ter days) ‘in a moment.’ ” Know­ing this would hap­pen, De Quincey made sure “the cof­fee was ground; the water was boil­ing; and the very moment the word was giv­en, [Kan­t’s] ser­vant shot in like an arrow and plunged the cof­fee into the water.… But this tri­fling delay seemed unen­durable to Kant.”

Kierkegaard Mug
(pic­tured: Søren Kierkegaard cof­fee mug)

In the 19th cen­tu­ry, Søren Kierkegaard would also get into a cof­fee rit­u­al. He “had his own quite pecu­liar way of hav­ing cof­fee,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Joakim Garff. “Delight­ed­ly he seized hold of the bag con­tain­ing the sug­ar and poured sug­ar into the cof­fee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incred­i­bly strong, black cof­fee, which slow­ly dis­solved the white pyra­mid.” I always drink it black myself, but who among us dares think our­selves too good for the teeth-aching pre­ferred by the author of Fear and Trem­bling?

We must always bear in mind, too, that while cof­fee may con­sti­tute a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for our intel­lec­tu­al achieve­ments, it nev­er con­sti­tutes a suf­fi­cient one. Before pour­ing your next cup, whether your first of the day or your fifti­eth, whether before or after din­ner, and whether into a pyra­mid of sug­ar or not, ask your­self how much progress you’ve made on your own Can­dide or Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son. A sober­ing ques­tion, to be sure — but after enough caf­feine, you feel pret­ty sober any­way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

The Cof­fee Pot That Fueled Hon­oré de Balzac’s Cof­fee Addic­tion

“The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink”: London’s First Cafe Cre­ates Ad for Cof­fee in the 1650s

J.S. Bach’s Com­ic Opera, “The Cof­fee Can­ta­ta,” Sings the Prais­es of the Great Stim­u­lat­ing Drink (1735)

Black Cof­fee: Doc­u­men­tary Cov­ers the His­to­ry, Pol­i­tics & Eco­nom­ics of the “Most Wide­ly Tak­en Legal Drug”

135 Free Phi­los­o­phy eBooks

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Ian McHugh says:

    Great video here on the way in which cof­fee fueled the Enlight­en­ment:

    The move from alco­hol to cof­fee, depres­sant to stim­u­lant, allowed for greater cre­ativ­i­ty.

  • M.G. Piety says:

    I would­n’t put too much stock in Garf­f’s descrip­tion of Kierkegaard’s cof­fee drink­ing habits. His biog­ra­phy of Kierkegaard has been shown to be wrong on a num­ber of the details of Kierkegaard’s life. See:

  • bERNARD mOONEY says:

    Dear Car­ol,

    As a mem­ber of the British Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion I attend­ed the Ben­tham lec­ture, which each year cel­e­brates Jere­my Ben­tham a 18 th cen­tu­ry cel­e­brat­ed per­son whose Mum­my dec­o­rates one of the Col­leges of Lon­don Uni­ver­si­ty.
    The sub­ject was by a Prof of Phi­los­o­phy Rae Lang­ton, if I have remem­bered her name cor­rect­ly. She talked of Kant and his respect for the Per­son. I emailed her to ask if she knew of Dr Carl Rogers and attached the six con­di­tions. She did not know of him. For me he is a philoso­pher in as much as his train­ing for coun­sel­lors had a new philo­soph­i­cal under core, but he has nev­er been men­tioned in my read­ing of philoso­phers. But per­haps I am out of date in my lit­er­a­ture read­ing, as I am on sev­er­al oth­er top­ics.
    Hap­py New Year to you and yours Car­ol

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