/ languages

Choisir langue

Café, croissant ... and the meaning of life?

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)

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 …

Culture in France: The Philosopher in the café

10/09/2009 by Susan Owensby

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.

Jean-Paul Sartre, author, philosopher, café-goer(Photo: Unknown)

Jean-Paul Sartre, author, philosopher, café-goer
(Photo: Unknown)

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.

and Share


<em>Skull with Butterflies</em>, by Philippe Pasqua(© J. Brunelle/Adagp, Paris 2010)

Cracking skulls!

Fascination with death reaches new heights in an exhibition guaranteed to make you touch your head and feel thankful it is not made out of colouring crayons, or flies!

2010-02-15 12:35 TU

(Photo: Paris, ville rayonnante)

France's gothic avant-garde

A new show reveals an avant-garde Paris in the 13th century creating “total art” that spread from architecture to all art forms and went on to conquer much of Europe.

2010-02-13 15:16 TU

Poster for <em>Sons d'Hiver</em>

Winter sounds warm up French jazz fans

A tribute to trumpeter Don Cherry at a Free Jazz showcase festival outside of Paris.

2010-01-31 11:55 TU

Jane Allan performing in Paris(Photo: Christophe Bailleul)

Trance on a trapeze

Ever thought of running away with the circus? The mere idea sounds almost 19th century now, but the art of the circus is alive and well.

2010-01-30 12:41 TU

Retro Mobile - classic car exhibition

The rusty 1925 Bugatti Brescia Type-22

260,500 euros for rusty old car found at bottom of lake

A rusty old Bugatti, which spent years at the bottom of a Swiss lake, sold for 260,500 euros at the Retro Mobile classic car exhibition on Saturday. Other more lovingly-restored pristine examples are exciting enthusiasts from across the world in a special anniversary event at Porte de Versailles in Paris.

2010-01-23 20:21 TU

(Photo: Dirk Lenis)

France's changing face looks east

Since its ethnically diverse team won a famous World Cup victory 11 years ago, France has tried to change its image at home and abroad.  Bonjour India presents a multicultural French-speaking world to south Asians.

2010-01-22 16:17 TU

Isadora Duncan, from Elisabeth Kapnist's film(Photo: JIFA/DR)

Putting art on film

International films about art converge in Paris for a festival at the Louvre from 20-24 January.

2010-01-20 13:09 TU

(Photo: Rosslyn Hyams)

What sex is a coffee bean, where does the aubergine come from?

Where were eggplants first grown? And what about quinces and clementines. A new book traces the journey of fruit and veg from their countries of origin to our plates.

2010-01-08 16:08 TU

Robin Guthrie in St Petersburg 2008 (Photo:

Cocteau Twin flying solo

In the 1980s and 90s, Robin Guthrie was the guitarist whose rippling layers of sound formed a pivotal part of the sound of the British band, the Cocteau Twins. His most recent solo work Songs to Help My Children Sleep was released in November.

2010-01-06 16:43 TU

A scene from Nord by Rune Denstad Langlo

A taste of Nordic filmmaking in Paris

Ciné Nordica 2009 at Paris’s Panthéon cinema showcases filmmaking from Scandinavia. So what makes Nordic film different from the rest?

2009-12-22 17:15 TU