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teeped in Thought: The Philosophy Café Movement
By Joshua Glenn, contributing editor, Britannica.com

Participants in the movement that has come to be known as "applied philosophy"
tend to describe themselves as escapees from the confines of the ivory tower.
Musty academics no longer, these newly minted philosophical practitioners claim
to be doing philosophy "in the public sphere." While it's noteworthy that in
recent years philosophy Ph.D's have found it increasingly possible to moonlight
as consultants and even counselors, this isn't exactly doing philosophy pro
publico. One might ask, then, whether the applied philosophy movement in fact
provides ordinary, thoughtful people with public forums in which to

Thanks to a disaffected Nietzsche scholar in Paris, the answer is yes. In 1992
Marc Sautet, a lecturer in philosophy, decided that a promising academic career
just wasn't enough. So he invited some friends to participate in a pugilats
d'idées ("conceptual fisticuffs") for two hours every Sunday morning, at the
Café des Phares on the Parisian Place de la Bastille. Sautet's "Café
Philosophique" (as it came to be called, or café-philo for short) seems to have
filled a void that people didn't realize they had. University students, idle
wealthy women, off-duty cab drivers, and eccentric citizens off the street
began to show up, week after week, to discuss subjects as abstract as truth and
beauty and as concrete as sex and death.

Sautet, who died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1998 at the age of 51, was by all
accounts a highly charismatic figure. His 1995 book Un Café pour Socrate,
written partly in response to gibes from skeptics within academic philosophy
and mainstream journalism alike, compared the café-philo experience to a
Socratic elenchus, or cross-self-examination, through which one becomes aware
that nothing can be taken for granted. It's difficult to imagine making an
ordeal such as this seem fun and exciting, but Sautet pulled it off with great
aplomb: In 1997 a writer for Salon compared Sautet's café-philo to "a college-
town literature workshop and a Quaker meeting rolled into one, with a pinch of
karaoke." By the time Sautet died there were more than 100 cafés-philos
operating throughout France. Today there are close to 150.

Still not sure what a café-philo is all about? The American Philosophical
Practitioners Association explains that "a philosopher's café is not a
philosophy lecture; the philosopher presides only as a moderator, to maintain
the conversation on a philosophical footing. The discussion is thoughtful but
nontechnical. You will be challenged to defend your beliefs or opinions, but
you will not be asked to refer to a list of philosophy books in order to
support your views. In fact, the opposite is usually true: Instead of showing
off your erudition by referring to great works you may have studied, you will
be obliged to think for yourself, to give your own reasons for the views you

Must the moderator (facilitator, if you prefer) of a philosophy café be a
trained philosopher? Not necessarily. Sautet, who also worked as a
philosophical counselor, once explained that, "I help my clients to structure
their thoughts. I am there to nourish their doubts and pose the right
questions, not to supply the answers." This could serve as an apt description
of a café-philo facilitator. To fill that role one should be good at helping a
group of people ask themselves questions and then helping them question those
questions. Philosophers are trained in this sort of inquiry, but that doesn't
mean a non-philosopher can't be good at it, too.

Having exploded like a revolutionist's bomb in the infamous Place de la
Bastille, one might have expected that the café-philo idea would eventually
spread outward from Paris. Cafés-philos have appeared in Belgium, Greece,
Switzerland, Austria, Germany, South America, and Japan. They've also taken
root and begun to flourish in Britain and the United States. I recently tracked
down half-a-dozen apostles of the café-philo movement in the latter two
countries and asked them a range of questions about philosophy cafés, from the
idealistic ("What is the most important goal, and what can one do as a
facilitator or participant to achieve this goal?") to the materialistic ("What
is the most effective group size?"). In the remainder of this article I'll take
a look at the philosophy café scene in England. Next week I'll explore its
American counterpart and appraise the phenomenon as a whole.

The Philosophy Café Crosses the Channel

In November 1997 Gale Prawda, a Paris-based American philosopher, traveled to
London to launch a regular philosophy café there. Prawda, who'd studied with
the influential French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in the 1970s, had turned away
from philosophy since then because, as she's written in her bimonthly
newsletter Philo News, philosophy deals with "those questions concerning
[ordinary] human existence, yet it's so incredibly inaccessible to the very
people about whom it speaks." After attending one of Sautet's "philo dinners,"
however, the two became good friends, and with his blessing she launched an
English-language philosophy café at the Café de Flore, formerly the haunt of
Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. She continues to
convene one café-philo a month at the Café de Flore, but thanks to the success
of the London event, she runs one philosophy café a month there, as well.

To Prawda cafés-philos are simply "an exercise in thinking together." Although
she says that one is welcome to attend them in hopes of discovering the meaning
of life, the only "point" is to question one's settled opinions, "and modify
them according to reason and thinking, when necessary." Some of the most
enjoyable sessions she remembers, Prawda tells me, were sparked by good
questions, like "What is a fact?," "Can people communicate?," and "Why does
time keep moving forward?" Her cafés-philos, and the various other open-forum
philosophical discussions she now runs, are attended by people ranging in age
from 15 to 80 and in occupation from businesspeople and professors to artists,
writers, and scientists. She reckons the optimal size for a really successful
café-philo is 25 people. As a facilitator Prawda sees it as her duty to
intervene in the discussion to suggest other ways of looking at the topic under
debate (without being overly "directional," she hastens to add) and to help
synthesize the discussion as it develops so as to build on preceding thoughts
and prevent things from just circling around and around. But "by no means is
consensus a desirable goal," she concludes, "as it might undermine the actual
thinking process if one were coerced into thinking as the others for the
purposes of agreement."

Bryn Williams, a doctoral candidate in philosophy and an editor at the British
"popular philosophy" magazine Philosophy Now, attended Prawda's inaugural
philosophy café in 1997. Williams found Prawda's evangelistic fervor inspiring,
but—having been a bartender before he began studying philosophy—he knew that in
England the café is often seen as a refuge for pretentious aesthetes. The pub,
on the other hand, is a community center where, as he sees it, "competing views
may meet and test themselves against the demands of rational inquiry." In
February 1998, with the support of his colleagues at Philosophy Now, Williams
founded Pub Philosophy, which he advertised as a biweekly "opportunity for the
exchange of ideas, the exploration of underlying assumptions, and the pure
enjoyment of engaging in intellectual pursuit for its own sake." These events
attracted between 10 and 50 participants at a time, Williams remembers
(somewhere in between is the perfect size, he thinks), and tackled topics as
serious as "What is it for a human to flourish?" and as humorous as "Is it just
me, or is everyone paranoid now?"

In 1996, completely unaware of the café-philo movement in Paris, London-based
philosopher Anja Steinbauer started talking to her friends about starting an
organization whose objective it would be to bring together professional and
nonprofessional philosophers to discuss philosophical questions in a
nontechnical way. In early 1998, she helped found Philosophy for All to do just
that. Shortly after joining the editorial staff of Philosophy Now, she wrote in
its pages that "It is one of the objectives of Philosophy for All not simply to
stroll along the aisles of a philosophical supermarket, picking up ready-made
and hygienically-packed solutions from the shelves. Instead we aim at informed
discussion, in which we allow philosophical questioning to disturb us and
perhaps even challenge beliefs that we may have long taken for granted." To
this end Philosophy for All sponsors "philosophical walks" in the countryside
and a monthly event called Kant's Cave. At these latter happenings an invited
speaker gives a lecture, then those present (70 or 80 people on average) engage
in a spirited debate, after which the group breaks out into smaller groups to
socialize and talk philosophy.

When I asked Williams about his first impressions of Prawda's philosophy café,
he recalled being disappointed by what he perceived as a lack of critical rigor
at that event. "There was an apparent unwillingness to distinguish between the
relative validity of statements," he told me. "Attempts at critical analysis of
ideas were seen as somehow 'not in the spirit' of the discussion." Pub
Philosophy, then, wasn't just about a change in venue for Williams, but a
change in style, too; it was, as he puts it, "an alternative for those who like
their philosophy a little more hardheaded." For Williams an evening of
philosophizing is a success if everyone present recognizes that "there is a
philosophical dimension to any question, that even the most mundane of things
may spark an investigation into the validity of our most common assumptions,
and connect with the eternal questions which seem so far from everyday life."
As a facilitator, therefore, he says his role is to try to tease out the
specifically philosophical implications of the topic at hand, without
interrupting the conversation too much with his own take on things. Pub
Philosophy folded in the summer of 1999 because Williams needed to concentrate
on his doctoral dissertation. Today, with some embarrassment, he admits to
running an organization called London Café Philosophy.

Kant's Cave, on the other hand, which continues to meet at pubs, is still going
strong. It attracts everyone from taxi drivers to professional scholars,
Steinbauer tells me, and some of its most passionate discussions have been
those on applied ethics. "But even topics from the area of theoretical
philosophy (such as 'On Not Being') have really fired up the debate."
Steinbauer insists on the use of the word "debate" because, she says, "a
genuine exchange of arguments is much more fruitful and in tune with the style
of Philosophy for All than taking turns at a disjointed uttering of opinions."
This latter, for Steinbauer, is a description of most philosophy cafés. "More
or less random discussions on philosophical themes," that is, are not her cup
of tea.

Here's a question worth debating, then: Is Kant's Cave an example of a café-
philo? Steinbauer says it isn't. But why not? After all, the stated aim of
Kant's Cave is "for people to engage in more philosophizing or in new ways of
philosophizing; to question, be critical, and think for themselves." Isn't that
the goal of a Socratic elenchus?

Part Two of this article will address this question and explore the growing
philosophy café scene in the United States. Stay tuned.
Joshua Glenn is editor of the journal Hermenaut and author of the forthcoming
book Hermenaut: Why Philosophy Matters Today. Part Two of this article will
appear in this space on Wednesday, March 29.


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