by Susan Owensby
Article published on the 2009-09-10 Latest update 2009-09-10 13:12 TU
Socrates drinks hemlock after being condemned for corrupting the youth - poison is not on the menu at the philosophy cafés
(Painting: Jacques-Louis David/Princeton University Art Museum)
Every Sunday morning the Café des Phares at Paris's Place de la Bastille changes from a traditional French café into a …. philosophy café. People from all walks of life gather to discuss ideas, to debate, to reflect …
The philo cafés – there are a good dozen around Paris - were born at the Café des Phares in 1992 by philosopher Marc Sautet. A Nietzsche specialist, Sautet felt that no subject is in itself philosophical, but that all subjects can be treated philosophically.
A philosophical debate is a human interaction which links all people, because it revolves around a fundamental human question, he believed. The goal of the philosophy cafés is Socratic – that participants leave the discussion with more questions than they had when they arrived.
The philo café is guided by a moderator, usually a trained philosopher. Participants propose subjects, the moderator chooses three of them, and puts them up for a vote.
The person whose idea was accepted starts, and usually ends, the debate. The moderator keeps the discussion on track, responds to the participants reflections, and tries to pose questions which will provoke further discussion.
Proselytism, as well as long-windedness, is avoided. People listen to each other and ask to speak. It is an orderly discussion – but one which can become quite passionate.
Among the topics proposed at a recent Café des Phares debate were: “The time of innocence”, “What is intellectual honesty?”, “Is lazy thinking a new barbarism?”, “Should we believe in man instead of in God?”, and the chosen subject: “Are we our own most savage enemy?”
And the debate commenced.
People spoke to two issues, the communal and the individual – and the question of guilt, blame, pardon, self-love, acceptance of evil without as part of the evil within. The poet Baudelaire was duly quoted, and everyone was clearly enjoying themselves. The moderator, Gerard Tissier, deemed the discussion a successful one.
Tissier has been a moderator at the Café des Phares since 1995 He thinks there is something in the French character which makes the philosophy cafés such a success. For him, the propensity to philosophise is a child of the French revolution – when the country held fervent debates on the ultimate good for the people. He thinks this has been deeply ingrained into the French psyche.
Perhaps it is no surprise that one of his favourite recent topics was “Can man escape ambivilance?”
You can escape your ambivalence by jumping right in there and giving your thoughts, at one of Paris’s numerous philo cafés. Most hold sessions on Sunday mornings.
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