Pens? es au Lait

France's latest cultural invention--the philosophy caf?--has arrived

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By 11 a.m., every seat in Paris' popular Caf? des Phares is taken. All eyes are on Gunther Gorhan, the animateur, who is asking this heady collection of about 50 men and women -- young and old, French and foreign-born -- what topic captivates them. Finally, he settles on the question 'Do I have a body, or am I a body?' and hands a cordless microphone to the man who suggested it. The discussion careens all over the place. Some of the group draw on the latest in poststructuralist theory, while others invoke common sense. One cafegoer proposes that bodywork can provide a more profound understanding of the relation between body and self than philosophy. And another says plaintively 'Why are we ignoring the entire history of metaphysics?'

Voil?! Another new cultural trend takes off: the philosophy cafe. Five years after philosopher Marc Sautet organized the first philosophy discussions (which are more focused than traditional salons) at the Caf? des Phares, more than 20 caf?s philo meet regularly in Paris and its suburbs, and many more have appeared elsewhere in France, as well as in Belgium, England, Greece, Switzerland, Japan and the U.S. As The Economist (Feb. 8, 1997) notes, this phenomenon is part of a general resurgence of interest in philosophy, and has much to do with 'a recurrent feeling that the world is in a mess, that western civilisation may be on the verge of dramatic change, that one should reflect on man's place in the universe.'

Indeed, Sautet and others argue that philosophy has joined psychology and politics 'in a new and higher union,'according to Jacqueline Swartz in World Press Review (May 1997). Unlike most English-speaking philosophers, who dismiss questions about the meaning of life, Sautet believes that philosophy has an important role to play in helping people grapple with the big questions. To that end, he has also created France's first private philosophy practice, seeing clients for about $50 an hour (see 'Thinking, Not Shrinking,'Utne Reader, Jan./Feb. 1997). In his book Un Caf? Pour Socrate (Laffont, 1995), Sautet tells the story of his first client, a bored middle-aged businessman calmly considering killing himself, who changes his mind after reading and discussing Socrates' thoughts about suicide in Plato's Phaedo.

Sautet insists that these clients are not simply substituting philosophy for psychology. Those who see psychotherapists, he says, are the misguided ones, because their anguish comes from what's missing in collective life. In his view, that anguish is the product of a society in crisis, one that strongly resembles what Athens was going through at the time of Socrates. As with the ancient Greeks, Sautet's ideal is a person who 'cares about his or her soul and also about the body politic.' The caf? philo is an effort to bring philosophy back from the academy to the marketplace, so that it can once again become, as it was in Socrates' day, a tool of daily life.

Sautet's brainchild is just starting to make inroads in North America. In Minneapolis, the first sessions of a caf? philo at the Loring Bar (organized by this writer) have drawn up to 40 participants. And a weekly session at the Collage II Coffee House in Montclair, New Jersey, regularly attracts about 25. 'People want to feel that what they have to say counts,' says organizer Chris Phillips. 'They like to push their thinking, and they like to find out what other people think.' Phillips paraphrases Nietzsche's dictum: 'It's not enough to have the courage of your convictions. You have to have the courage to have your convictions challenged.'

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