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Wittgenstein And The Biscuit Monster: A Philosophy of Language

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Over the bank holiday, or what you Yanks celebrate as Memorial Day, it was National Biscuit Day. It was on this day that I made an important discovery. Cookie Monster has a British cousin who wears a bowler hat. A BOWLER HAT.

Some of you may not be impressed by the cultural analogues of a hypoglycemic blue puppet, which is fine I guess. But maybe you would find this an interesting time to visit a philosophical discussion about the language used on baked goods.

What Is A Jaffa Cake?

First of all, they are not good. Its a bitter orange chocolate sponge “cookie” that tastes like it sat out in the rain. Jaffa cakes are named after Jaffa oranges and have been a staple of the mass produced British sweets collection for about 90 years. Metro UK had it listed at number 5 in the nation’s favourite biscuit survey in 2015. In 2016, The Great British Bake Off held a cake challenge where contestants were tasked with baking the popular confection. So is it a cake or is it biscuit?

The British define biscuit as “A small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, flat, and sweet.” A cake, by contrast, is “An item of soft sweet food made from a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, sugar, and other ingredients.

So that should clear it up, right? Nope. The debate has existed for decades, even after a legal verdict determined that it was indeed a cake. The motive was purely financial, as biscuits and cakes are subject to different taxes. But the deeper meaning of biscuit and cake is still of relevance to a Cambridge philosopher named Tim Crane.

From an excerpt of a BBC article about the philosophy behind Jaffa Cakes:

There is no record of the 20th Century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, ever tasting a Jaffa Cake, though there is evidence that he was partial towards a bun. But his ideas are relevant to the Jaffa Cake puzzle.

We are tempted to think that every concept must have a strict definition to be useable. But Wittgenstein pointed out that there are many “family-resemblance” concepts, as he called them. Family members can look alike without sharing a single characteristic. Some might have distinctive cheek bones, others a prominent nose, etc. Equally, some concepts can operate with overlapping similarities. Take the concept of “game”. Some games involve a ball, some don’t. Some involve teams, some don’t. Some are competitive, some are not. There is no characteristic that all games have in common.

And there is no strict definition of “cake” or “biscuit” that compels us to place the Jaffa Cake under either category.

You can listen to more of Tim Crane’s thoughts on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Philosophers Arms here.

So where do you think Biscuit Monster would fall on this issue?

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