Spanish translation here
The following text was written in 2000. It is a report on the philosophy café movement of the 1990s, with special reference to the philosophy cafés I ran at Borders Books in Buckhead, Atlanta, in 1998 and 1999, while I was in graduate school. Since philosophy is my first love, I am using it to inaugurate an occasion “column” on purely philosophical topics entitled “The Philosopher is In.”
“But now I find I must put somewhat more spirit into my activity, and for this reason I turn to you with a request for assistance. I think a . . . coffee maker would be of great use to me in this connection.”—Hegel to Niethammer, October 13, 1807
Last Fall, a friend who lives in Paris informed me that the unemployed were on strike, demanding Christmas bonuses. “What are they threatening to withhold until their demands are met?” I asked. “Cashing their government checks, of course.” “Of course . . .”
There is nothing strange, however, about the French institution of philosophy cafés, in which thousands of people gather every weekend to sip coffee and debate philosophical topics from the death of God to the standard of taste. So natural is the connection between coffee and philosophy that to me the greatest mystery of ancient philosophy is: How did they do it without coffee?
The philosophy café movement was founded quite by accident in 1992 when Nietzsche scholar Marc Sautet was inspired by Gerd Achenbach, the founder of modern private philosophical counseling, to open his own practice in Paris. Sautet’s decision was reported on a radio news program. (Only in France!)
The reporter also mentioned that Sautet and some friends often gathered on Sunday mornings at the Café des Phares on the Place de la Bastille to discuss philosophy.
The following Sunday, ten people showed up, asking to see “the philosophers.” Twenty came the Sunday after. When the Café des Phares became too crowded, the discussions overflowed into neighboring coffeehouses. Today, there are at least two dozen philosophy cafés in Paris and more than 130 in France as a whole.
Typically, the meetings are weekly—usually on the weekend. Once the participants assemble, topics are suggested on the spot and voted on quickly to obviate canned speech-making. Usually the discussions are moderated by a trained philosopher.
The movement has given rise to several books, including Sautet’s own Un Café pour Socrate, a television program, and a bimonthy magazine Philos. Philosophy cafés have now sprung up in Brussels, Geneva, Bonn, London, and the U.S.
My Philosophy Café
In August of 1998, I was asked by Borders Books in Buckhead (Atlanta) to set up a monthly philosophy café. Our first meeting was on Thursday, September 17, 1998. More than thirty people were present. I served as moderator. In all, I moderated eleven philosophy cafés from September 1998 to July 1999. In September of 1999, the café was taken over by one of the participants.
We followed the French method of nominating then voting on topics. The first topic for the evening surprised me: When is hope a reasonable basis for belief? For the next hour and a half, I was entranced. Although I did have to play Socrates, asking leading questions and suggesting clarifying distinctions, I was more a student than a teacher, and at the end of the discussion I found that I had learned a good deal about a question I had never considered, and had completely revised my initial thoughts on the matter.
On this and other nights, we had genuine Socratic discussions. The participants reflected upon the question at hand in light of their own experience. Solutions were offered. Criticisms were formulated. Then new solutions were offered to surmount the criticisms, and the process continued. On some occasions, the participants even approached a consensus.
From the very beginning of the café, I found it necessary to eliminate non-philosophical questions. Press coverage of the first café led to more than 100 people showing up at the next one. Unfortunately, an inaccuracy in the story led them to show up thirty minutes early. When I arrived, a discussion was already in full swing. The topic? Bill and Monica. Friends approached, imploring me to take over. Although virtually any political issue can be used to raise philosophical questions, the more topical the issue, the more likely it is to get bogged down in unphilosophical concretes or dissolve into name-calling and invective.
As I came to understand the kinds of questions that could lead to good discussions, I also used a strong hand in the nominating process, eliminating bad questions immediately.
The best discussions were about moral, political, and “existential” questions: honesty, personal responsibility, hate crimes, assisted suicide, faith and reason, the rights of future generations, selfishness and altruism, freedom, the nature of love, moral judgment, and the nature of friendship. None of these questions requires specialized philosophical knowledge or training. All of them allow the participants to draw upon their own experience.
The worst discussions were on topics in metaphysics and aesthetics. Metaphysical questions like the nature of time, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God cannot be discussed in the light of personal experience. People tend, therefore, to fall back on dogmas and prejudices or simply to fall silent. Metaphysical topics also lead almost inevitably to half-baked discussions of what I like to call quantum baloney.
Aesthetics can be discussed profitably only by people with good taste. People who have never cultivated their tastes think that taste is subjective. Beyond that, they have nothing to say.
How to Start a Philosophy Café
If anyone is interested in starting a philosophy café, I advise the following.
First, follow the tried and true French formula of letting the audience nominate and vote upon questions. The very process of nominating, reformulating, and voting on questions draws the audience in and gets them thinking. This process gives the moderator a great deal of latitude in shaping the questions. To seek more power is counterproductive.
Do not foist questions on the audience, for such discussions start slowly and fall apart quickly. No matter how good the topic is “in itself,” the discussion will go nowhere if it is not a live question for the audience.
Do not announce topics in advance. I tried this, and found that those who were interested in the topic came with canned speeches; those who were not interested did not show up at all. The result: a dead session.
Second, you must be quick in identifying and ruthless in eliminating certain types of people from the discussion or they will drive good people away. Every café has its share of harmless flakes. As long as they are concise, let them have their say. Eventually, the will find less challenging forms of amusement. Others, however, need to be dealt with.
There are the proselytizers, who will make extraordinary statements about themselves, usually apropos of nothing and without a shred of argument. They then hope that individuals will ask them their secret. (The secret is Jesus, or Krishna, or LSD, or atheism.)
There are the pedants, who like to show off their learning and drag the conversation toward specialized topics where they feel superior.
Finally, there are neurotics of all stripes. Some crave attention and love to hear the sound of their own voices. Male moderators will encounter women and men who act out their problems with daddy. Female moderators will encounter similar problems from those whose mothers have much to answer for.
The best way to drive such people out is to keep them waiting. The moderator controls the flow of conversation. If an undesirable person wishes to speak, ignore him. If someone else has his hand up, pretend that you saw him first. If many people have their hands up, establish a queue, put the undesirable at the end, and then let the conversation take on a life of its own. By the time he is recognized, his point is irrelevant or forgotten. Eventually, such people will look for a more receptive audience.
Third, have several moderators who take turns running the cafés. This has three benefits. It makes it less likely that the café will degenerate because of personality clashes between the moderator and certain participants; it prevents the café from being too imbued with the personality of one moderator; and it prevents moderators from burning out. I eventually quit moderating the Buckhead philosophy café because all three of these factors took the joy out of moderating.
Fourth, when the latte machine begins whooshing, declare a few moments of silent reflection, then continue the conversation.
Finally, when the conversation lags . . . drink more coffee.