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Stirring it with Socrates and a teaspoon

– originally printed Dec. 14, 1997 in The Sunday Times (London) –

     If the tree fell in the forest, nobody heard. At the French Institute in Kensington, west London, they were far too busy discussing truth.

     Gale Prawda, the moderator of Britain’s first Café Philosophique and, by name, the very embodiment of truth, permitted herself an indulgent smile as those taking part ran riot with the philosophical lexicon.

     Existentialism had come up almost at once. By 3:30pm, we had the first mention of empiricism. A Karl Popper aphorism emerged, somewhat tortuously, at 3:36pm, followed, inevitably, by something from Socrates. Life after death rose again at 4:04pm; waiting for Godot ended at 4:09pm, and more heat than light was generated by a reference to global warming at 4:11pm.

     The structure, or lack of it, would have alarmed Wittgenstein, had he dropped in for a café filtre. But at least everyone appeared to be having a good time.

     Bistros-philos have been part of the Parisien scene for years. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are credited with starting the trend in the 1940’s when they and their friends aired their views about life, the universe and everything at the Café de Flore on the Boulevard St-Germain.

     The difference, one suspects, is that they did it as a natural extension of their thought processes. Thinking was what they did for a living and if they could turn it into a spectator sport while catching up on gossip and enjoying a glass of wine – well, so much the better.

     Today’s Paris scene is littered with talking shops. About 30 cafes are said to have joined the circuit, led by the Café des Phares on the Place de la Bastille where Marc Sautet, a Nietzsche scholar, is presiding genius.

     Back in London, a distinct combativeness had crept into the Saturday afternoon session. A man in leather trousers proclaimed the view that truth is not a constant.

     "Ha! In that case," boomed a large, slightly ungainly figure, reminiscent of Martin Clunes in Men Behaving Badly, "then at some stage that statement must be wrong and truth is a constant. Real truth, if it is to make any sense, has to correspond with the facts – okay?" It was at this point that a woman in the far corner pointed out, somewhat diffidently, that it was Popper who said all crows were black until someone saw a white crow.

     An Edinburgh man, wearing a cravat, wanted to know if truth was dependent on enlightenment. "No, no," replied a Frenchman, wearily. "Truth is universal. Belief is personal." A collapsed figure, looking like a combination of Dylan Thomas and Father Jack, ran a finger along the collar of his black polo neck sweater. It was all getting too much.

     A French woman, apologising for her lack of good English, inquired whether the sun always rose in the east or whether we just called the place where the sun rises east? It was time for Madame Prawda, small and sassy like a fortune teller, to get a grip, which she did. "Okay," she began, "let’s get back to the Greeks. Let’s try to validate reality. It was Socrates who said, ‘Know thyself’, okay! So is truth based on cultural consensus?"

     To the Martin Clunes lookalike, this was a red rag to a bull. "Look, truth has to be objective: it can’t just be what we agree on." Was he a ringer, I wondered, brought in to serve as agent provocateur? Someone observed that Paris is the capital of France because that is what we had always been told, causing Clunes to behave very badly indeed. He waved his hands in the air. "Paris is the capital of France is a fact that is true today and for all time," he roared.

     "But what if that changes tomorrow?"

     Clunes went berserk. "Then I would say, Paris was the capital of France and that is true for all time."

     "So you’ve changed your mind?"

     "That’s because you’ve changed the date."

     "So absolutes are transient, after all!" crowed the man in leather trousers.

     Time for bed, said Zebedee. But you get the picture. In Paris – arguably the capital of France – discussions like this are part and parcel of Frenchness. After all, the wonderfully self-regarding Dictionary of French Intellectuals, listing the nation’s greatest thinkers, runs to 1,260 pages and a recent book, A Small Treatise on Big Virtues, by André Comte-Sponville, sold 160,000 copies.

     However, there is a practical side to the phenomenon. Paris at the turn of the century was estimated to have more than 100,000 cafes. Cafe society was born along the banks of the Seine. It was once normal for an average citizen to spend an hour a day watching the world go by over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

     Today, these traditional stations of repose are closing at an alarming rate. The total number of cafes has fallen to fewer than 30,000 and the majority of these are empty most of the time. Modern life has become too frantic for people to waste their energies sitting around.

     In Britain, where the pub is the equivalent of the French cafe, the response of publicans to any downturn in trade is to enter a darts league, rent out the upstairs bar for line-dancing lessons or organise a quiz. But the French, perceiving themselves, as ever, as a distinctly upmarket commodity, have turned to more cerebral pursuits.

     The latest craze, following on from les philos, is les psychos – not a gathering of mad axemen or child-abusers but informal assemblies of angst at which , over a beer or a glass of Côtes du Rhome, trained psychologists discourse on the nature of fear and loathing.

     Sautet believes his philosophy sessions are worthwhile as well as fun and can sometimes change lives. But he does not promise miracles. "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."

     What he fails to mention is that, by all accounts, he is one of Paris’s most fancied intellectuals. Large numbers of young women turn up to be turned on by Sautet – and so "hot" is his debating style that cafés-philos are widely recognised as pick-up joints for the thinking and drinking classes.

     It is hard to imagine the same thing happening in Britain. But you never know. How, indeed, can you know? Over to you, Madame Prawda – and mine’s a double expresso.

-Walter Ellis


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