Pens? es au Lait

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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