The Anglo-Saxon attitude towards the French has always been ambivalent, in philosophy as in all things. We praise the way in which philosophy is an integral part of everybody’s education, lament that the only way to get philosophy into our bars is to tie it in with football and envy the level of celebrity French intellectuals enjoy. And yet – there is always an “and yet” – French philosophy itself is often held in contempt as a woolly, pretentious, meaningless, willingly obscure practice for which the name “academic discipline” is a terrible misnomer.
It was with a heightened sense of this ambivalence that I tried out the new Café Philosophique, run by the Institute Francais in affluent Kensington this winter. The idea was to import one of the jewels in popular French culture’s crown to London, and hopefully kick start the movement in the UK. The Café Philosophiques are extremely popular in France. Meeting regularly in, as the name suggests, cafés and bars, the idea is that, with the help of a qualified mediator, participants engage in philosophical discussion on a theme of their choosing. Cynics would say it’s a kind of “Whose line is it anyway?” without the jokes or any prerequisite for the participants to have any talent for improvisation.
There was a certain buzz of excitement among the generally middle-class, middle-aged mass that filled the institute the day I went to check it out. The Institute’s café was certainly stylish and with smells of fresh café au lait and pastries filling the air, the feeling that one was in a haven of civilisation was irresistible. I was genuinely looking forward to the discussion.
Our mediator this session (and for all the Institute’s current programme) was Gayle Prawda, an American who regularly hosts such groups at Paris’ famous Café de Flores. Dr Prawda informed us that she would take suggestions for topics from the floor and then we would choose which one we wanted to discuss. The suggestions came thick and fast. “Is this a community?” “Is thought an addiction and love the cure?” “What is rationality?” “There is no such thing as a philosophical problem” Questions were bandied around, frequently with a cavalier disregard for coherence or precision. One question, “Can we go beyond the animal body?” was restated by Dr Prawda as “Can we go beyond the animal instinct” as if this were simply a clearer synonym. Eventually, in a demonstration of Murphy’s law of shopping, having tried out all these alternatives, DR Prawda announced she would go for the second suggestion, “What is normal? What is objectivity?”
But before I could get over my horror at this absurd conflation of two quite distinct questions, the event took a farcical turn. First, a man in the crowd protested that the event had been “hijacked”. Having been promised a vote, the convener had now chosen the topic herself! After a short debate on the merits of such a course of action, a vote was held on which voting system to use, and then there was a show of hands for each one of the suggested questions. (Our protester was clearly acting on no less a motive than principle – he voted for the question Dr Prawda had chosen).
So, after twenty-five minutes we finally had our question. Now the discussion could begin. It soon became clear that a large number of the contributions fell into one of two categories: Profound sounding but unhelpful rhetorical questions (such as “What are we searching for anyway?” “Normal for whom?”) and unsupported assertions of a subjectivist or relativist nature (such as “There are no facts because all facts require interpretation.”) There was also a fair smattering of unfunny jokes. These generally involved selecting a word from the last speaker’s last sentence – such as ’milk’ – and swiftly asking, “What’s milk anyway?” For some inexplicable reason, this would always get a good laugh. This raised the intriguing possibility that most people there didn’t take what was being said seriously anyway, and that it was all a kind of pointless parlour game.
There were some glimmers of sense. After half an hour someone objected that the statement “there is no objective truth”, which most participants seemed to endorse explicitly or implicitly, entails a paradox and is perhaps self-defeating, as if it is true, then there is at least one statement which is objectively true, namely itself. This would mean it was not true. Secondly, he attacked the supposition that ethical relativism (the belief that there are no objective moral values) entails absolute moral tolerance. Another speaker pointed out that the discussion had failed to distinguish between the statistical and value-laden senses of normality. But none of these fruitful observations were taken up by the discussion and we soon reverted to the seemingly endless game of verbal pass the parcel.
My notebook soon began to fill with outraged rants, which in retrospect, were a little harsh. “They’re jumping from question to question with (apparently) no genuine desire to seek out answers.” Elsewhere, I wrote, pen virtually ripping the paper, “The discussion is rambling and unstructured. There’s no sense of making progress or learning anything. A tiresome round of pseudo-intellectual opinionating.”
This was not what I had hoped for. There’s little enough philosophy in popular culture without what little there is being dismissed out of hand, so I spoke to Gayle Prawda after the discussion was over to hear her side of the story. Press comments from the first session had generally been quite critical. So Dr Prawda was pleased to be able to put her side of the story. First off, as this was my sole experience of the Cafe Philosophique, maybe this wasn’t typical? Alas, it was.
‘Today we dealt with the subject pretty well,” thought Dr Prawda. ‘Last time I felt we were getting off the subject, but the subject was a lot more difficult.’ [Is it better not to have been born?]
Trying not to think too much about what this last session must have been like, I put some of the objections to her. Firstly, the accusation that what happens at a Cafe Philosophique is that you get a stream of people expressing their opinions and there’s never really a chance to focus in on them, and make progress. It’s just an exchange of platitudes.
‘There are some inherent problems because of the spontaneity of the way in which it is presented. Obviously, you’re not going to have the structure that you would have in a conference or a class. We don’t know the subject that we’re going to be discussing in advance, we don’t know who’s going to say what. Now there is a moment where you’re able to pull the ideas together and try to synthesise them in a way that they move on for the future, and that’s the ideal situation you want to get to. But sometimes, even when you do the synthesising, the participants may not necessarily pick up on it. They have their own things to say or they’re still responding to someone who spoke half and hour ago. That’s why I think it shouldn’t be judged just on what it is – there are a lot of ramifications that it has outside the two hours that occur. The first two hours people are either listening and taking in or giving out. Afterwards they’re either circling off into their own little groups still thinking about it or discussing it, and, if they have ways of writing or incorporating some of this, it goes beyond what we can see in the first two hours.’
‘You have to have a series [of meetings], because then indirectly or directly they start to pick up some of the tools or skills that philosophy has to offer, that is, how to think, how to analyse, how to examine, how to question, to question your questions. All of these methods that will help you to examine your won life.’
Such a view of philosophy as a teacher of thinking skills has recently become quite popular. But I put it to Dr Prawda that some people would say that if you take the overall effect of the Cafe Philosophique, it may reinforce some of the negative ideas people have about philosophy, that it is just about expressing your opinion or saying things which sound profound but don’t necessarily have any content to them. People aren’t challenged that often on what they’ve said.
She admits that the debate element can get “scanned over” and replaced by a simple exchange of views. ‘It depends on the subject and the groups involved how the dynamics go.”
Ever helpful as I am, I try to offer a line of defence. In French culture, isn’t it the case that philosophy is understood in a broader sense that it is in Anglo-Saxon culture? For example, Bernard Henri-Levy is known as a philosopher in France, whereas we’d think of him more as an “intellectual” than a philosopher as such. So maybe Anglo-Saxon critics of the Cafe Philosphique are simply missing the point?
‘Well, you have to know what distinction you’re making. An intellectual is a very well read or cultivated person who can use their intellect in various different situations. A philosophers is someone who’s asking basic questions about life and existence. A philosopher is a bit more rigorous. He tries to use various methods to get close to the truth and to try to clear away all of the clouds that are clouding the way to that truth that he’s trying to get to.’
But, I insist, isn’t there something about the Cafe Philosophique format which undermines that rigour?
‘”Well, what is the relationship between the Cafe Philosophique and the role of the philosopher? We’re going back to the Athenian times where Socrates was shouting out and discussing things out in public areas. This is making philosophy more accessible to people, to everybody, and to make people more accessible to philosophy. It’s reviving philosophy. Rather than it become that old, absolute, intangible obscure, inaccessible language, let’s talk to the people about these ideas.’
The analogy with Athens is interesting, I reply, but surely the major difference is that Socrates went out and spoke to people and listened to their opinions, but then he always followed up on them and questioned them. Socrates didn’t just go and listen to the people and comment from time to time.
‘That’s one of the disadvantages of a large group,’ replies Dr Prawda. ‘But when you have a small group of twenty people meeting regularly, you have the time and the place to be able to sit down and say, ‘Now what made you think that?’ The size of the group determines the outcome or the form of the discussion.’
So is one of the aims of the Cafe Philosophique to encourage the proliferation of more smaller groups?
‘Definitely. It’s not necessarily a question of competition. The more the merrier. I do feel there is a need. I’m always amazed, but the place I’m in in Paris, there’s never enough room. It’s always full. I’m already drawing eighty to a hundred people. I think people are attracted tot he idea of looking at things philosophically, which was always kept in this ivory glass tower.’
The cafes are certainly proving to be popular, and Dr Prawda is surely right to say that we shouldn’t judge their value solely on what goes on in the meetings, but also on their effect afterwards. Nonetheless, I was not the only one with reservations. One participant, whose probing questions clearly marked him out as someone with a background in the subject, was Peter Cave of Imperial College. After the meeting, he lamented, “It’s very sad that some glaring errors were just left hovering.” Sad indeed, for with so few opportunities for the non-academic public to participate in philosophy, surely they deserve some rigour when the opportunity is presented to them.