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The Conciergerie at night. Photo: Eric Tenin of Paris Daily Photo.

 

Getting a Cupful and an Earful on the Café Philo Circuit

cafe-flore-paris

At the Flore, the lofty discussions take place on the upper level.

 

One of the things I admire about the French population as a whole is the surprising number of people here who can't get enough of school. For example, from 1985 to 2005, one of most eagerly awaited television specials during the year-end holiday season was Les Dicos d'Or. Emceed by literary talk-show host Bernard Pivot, the “Golden Dictionaries” annual extravaganza consisted of: a dictation. Yes, people of all ages would forsake Christmas parties to stay home in front of the tube for the pleasure of doing a long, extremely difficult dictation exercise, full of obscure and difficult-to-spell words, and then comparing their score with the authors and celebrity guests on the show. I repeat: pleasure.

Another manifestation of this longing to prolong the bon vieux golden-rule days is the Café Philo. France is the only country I know of where philosophy is part of the standard secondary-school curriculum. To graduate from the equivalent of high school here, students in the university-track programs have to write long essays on questions like “Does culture alter human nature?” or “Does self-mastery depend on self-knowledge?” or “Is art less necessary than science?” These are actual questions from this year’s baccalauréat, the national standardized test for 18-year-olds. In the United States a more fitting question would be, “Is there one single 18-year-old in the entire country capable of answering any of these questions?” But in France, by the time they move their game consoles and piercing kits into the dorm, all college freshmen have been taught how to reason through abstract propositions, formulate cogent arguments and weigh alternative viewpoints.

And some former freshmen can never get enough of it. Hence the Café Philo – the “Philosophy Café.” The term doesn’t refer to any specific corner bar: a Café Philo is an informal event open to the public, usually held in a café, in which a philosophical topic is chosen and discussed, usually with the help of a moderator and a wireless microphone.

As much as I love to shoot my mouth off, this is a concept that has never really appealed to me. As I mentioned in a previous Paris Update article, I have seen too many dinner parties brought to a standstill by an amateur philosopher trying to show off his erudition and rhetorical prowess by harping on for the better part of an hour to “prove” some half-baked, and usually well-sauced, thesis. However, purely for the enlightenment of my readers, I decided to suppress my distaste for protracted serious discourse and check out the Café Philo scene.

Note: Since the question “What is the plural of ‘Café Philo’?” would be impossible for even Hegel to answer, I will henceforth, when it’s convenient, refer to these activities as “CPs.”

A CP is held every Sunday morning at the Café des Phares on Place de la Bastille, and there's one in English on the first Wednesday evening of every month at the Café Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain. To get a balanced sampling of the intellectual action I went to one of each. Both events worked the same way. Here's a point-by-point rundown of the “rules”:

1. Anyone can attend, with no admission charge other than the obligation of ordering something from the café.

2. The topic is chosen by popular vote from among those proposed by the participants.

3. The moderator then leads a discussion of that topic for two hours, handing the microphone around and giving preference to people who haven't already spoken.

Here’s a point-by-point rundown of my experience:

I was surprised at the number of participants at the Café des Phares: easily one hundred people on a sunny Sunday in mid-summer. I was also surprised about my drink order: I had a café au lait that was easily the worst, vilest, most execrable cup of coffee I have ever had in France. It somehow managed to be both weak and surpassingly bitter. I had to hope that it would be the only thing to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

The anglophone Café Philo at the Flore drew slightly less than half as many participants, about one-third of them French people who wanted to practice their positing and parrying and English all at once. I was not at all surprised about my drink order: I had a glass of wine that was easily the most expensive, usurious, exorbitantly priced Chardonnay I have ever had in France — €9 for a small glass. This was not a surprise because the Flore is one of Paris's most famous, most historic and therefore swankiest cafés. In fact, €9 there is a bargain — the beers were €9.50.

The moderator at the Flore casually but very aptly defined a good “philo” topic as follows: “A question that when you first hear it makes you want to answer, ‘Yes, of course,’ right away, but then you think about it and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, maybe not…’” At the Café des Phares on the morning I went, the proposed topics included:

Is chance the greatest of artists?

Why do we seek to avoid the inevitable?

Are French people Italians in a bad mood? (Not very philosophical, but a nice one.)

Why, in politics, is what one believes more important than what is true? (My favorite.)

After due deliberation, the final choice was: At what point does servitude begin?

At the Flore, the proposals included:

Do humans have a death, or killing, instinct?

Is the source of ethics knowledge or the freedom to do evil?

Are we morally obligated to contribute to society?

Why must one’s team (country, ethnic/cultural group, etc.) win?

And the final choice was: Are liberty and equality compatible?

Surprisingly, I got no votes at either event for my own proposal:

If audible flatulence were involuntary, would it still be considered disgusting?

Since I was there more to experience the experience than to delve into the debate, I will gloss over the details of the talks, other than to say that the vast majority of participants at both CPs made good points, expressed themselves well and remained civil even when they disagreed. To my pleasant surprise, it was not the harangue-fest I had feared, but truly an amicable exchange, or at least spouting off, of ideas.

I had another surprise in store: I thought there would be more “characters” at this type of thing — eccentrics, ravers, intellectual misfits, world-class nerds (like myself), etc. The vast majority of participants at both CPs were none of these, but I was not entirely disappointed. Four distinctive figures stood out:

The Headbanger

Attending one of the sessions was a sepulchral-looking, long-haired, gangly young guy who came armed with a thick etymological dictionary. He listened intently to every word, and must have looked up about half of them. He remained hunched over his reference book the entire time, flipping the pages madly and never raising his head, but occasionally showing agreement with a point being made by jabbing his left index finger toward the speaker over and over while nodding frenetically. Since he never raised his gaze, and the speakers were all over the room, it’s a wonder that he didn’t poke one of his neighbors’ eyes out.

The Recluse

At both events there was one pale, dweeby-looking guy who sat there taking notes but otherwise stayed slouched immobile in his chair, never saying anything or contributing in any way to the proceedings. He didn't seem to be very interested but stayed to the end. Everyone must have been wondering why he had even bothered to come. I know the answer to that question. Not because I have such uncanny insights into other people's motivations, but because it was me.

The Mutterer

Sitting next to me at one CP was a woman who never addressed the assembly but would mutter under her breath in response to other people's comments. Sometimes she was on topic, but most of her asides were complaints to no one in particular about some perceived flaw in the proceedings. During the voting she muttered, “Why is this taking so long?” and during the discussion things like, “You don't know what you're talking about,” “Get to the point,” or, in response to a request to repeat the topic, “So don't come late next time!”

The Blowhard

This was my biggest surprise. I had expected to see a large bigmouth population at both CPs, but, in fairness, I have to say that out of the 150 or so people at the two events, there was only one person whom I would unhesitatingly qualify as a blowhard. And in fairness, I have to say that the gentleman in question was very intelligent and impressively well read. And, in fairness again (whew – I'm really not used to this), he contributed more to the discussion than anyone else and what he had to say was well-informed, thoroughly thought-out and glibly expressed.

But enough fairness! He was a blowhard because he couldn't get enough of the microphone (which he didn't actually need because of his piercing, booming voice), would talk out of turn and/or off topic once in a while, and whenever someone else was talking he would furrow his brow and shake his head while snickering to himself.

Another sizable surprise in this dual field trip was the parallels that emerged between the two CPs. One was in French on the Right Bank and one in English on the Left Bank, with different moderators and different participants (except of course for the Recluse) debating different topics, and yet at both events Dominique Strauss-Kahn was mentioned within the first 15 minutes and Jean-Paul Sartre within half an hour. At both events leftist politics were mentioned, if not championed, frequently. At both events someone wasted five seconds of everyone’s life by repeating the old saw that individual freedom ends at the point where it infringes on other individuals’ freedom. (Exactly like I just wasted four seconds of your life by repeating it here.) (And another three by adding that sentence.) (And two with that one.) (Etc.) And at both events someone, a French person both times, mentioned that after the Civil War in the United States, there were slaves who wanted to remain slaves. At the English CP, the moderator wisely voiced doubt at the veracity of that statement, but I take this to mean that it is presented as a “fact” in French history classes.

Speaking of “facts,” it seemed to me that many philophiles are fond of larding their comments with spurious suppositions presented as obvious truths. The analysis of servitude at the Café des Phares included these delusional tidbits:

Whoever looks the most has seen the least.

Wealthy people remain isolated in their apartments because they don’t have access to police protection.

In today’s society, there are fewer and fewer skills in the workplace.

I wondered if these asinine assertions weren’t actually bait, intended to lure the discussion off on a pet tangent. If so, none of them, to my relief, worked.

Speaking of tangents, the French CP moderator made one comment that I must share. To illustrate an aspect of servitude, he mentioned that in the United States there is a widely accepted principle that “The customer is king,” to which he immediately added, “I have always found that to be a shocking proposition.” I’m sure his shock will come as no shock at all to my American readers who have any experience as customers in France.

To sum up, as the moderators did when the clock ran out, it was a fairly interesting (and oft-surprising) experience in the company of diplomatic, gracious and, of course, intelligent people. In fact, the only exceptions to the “diplomatic and gracious” qualification were the Mutterer and the Blowhard, and even they were nice most of the time. Unfortunately, they were at the same CP, and since I was sitting next to the former, I knew that she would have something to say about the latter sooner or later. It finally came toward the end. Someone had mentioned the practice of arranged marriage, and in his next comment Monsieur Soufflefort posed a rhetorical question that could have been the topic for another Café Philo: “Can we, through the power of reason, choose to love almost anyone?” At which point the Mutterer muttered, “I can choose a few powerful reasons why almost no one loves you.” If the Headbanger could have overheard her, he probably would have agreed.

They may not be my cup of (bitter, overpriced) tea, but CPs are an admirable activity for those who are so inclined. Information on upcoming Café Philo events is available here for the Flore and here for the Café des Phares.

David Jaggard

 

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Reader Richard Ewen writes: "Very interesting article. I wish that I were bilingual so that I might experience one of these meetings, but then again, it reminds me of why I can't stand to attend even one of my neighborhood association meetings. I particularly liked your reference to audible flatulence. Perhaps the entire conversation could be considered oral flatulence by some."

Reader Patty Marino writes: “As a child of the Deep South, I know a bit about the history of slavery in the United States, so please allow me to take over the microphone for a moment. The French speaker was indeed correct: during and after the Civil War, many chose to remain on the plantations, in servitude, though they were technically free men and women. The alternative − freedom − meant literally becoming a nonentity, with no income, no housing, no protection from the vagaries of a society still in flux. A former slave was indeed free to attempt a better life, but opportunities were virtually nonexistent, and illegal slavery was still widely practiced. Some talented slaves were given their freedom and a stipend by their former masters and were allowed to establish their own businesses, such as artisan-sculptors, plasterers, woodcarvers or decorative ironworkers. It was not uncommon for these wealthy ‘free people of color’ to purchase slaves of their own, even after Abolition was passed. Thus, rather than face being tracked down, caught and sold by slave-hunters, many chose to attempt to assimilate with various American Indian tribes or simply chose to remain on the plantation, where at least they were assured of some semblance of security. Funny how Europeans frequently have a better grasp of our history than we do, n’est-ce pas?”

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