I’ve found the Paris of my dreams

The Cafe des Phares on Place de la Bastille, the home of the first Café philo. Picture attribution: “Café des Phares, Place de la Bastille, Paris” by Booklover206 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons (link at bottom of page)

I’ve finally found the Paris of my dreams!  When Americans come to Paris, we dream of going to parties with people who have strong opinions about Sartre versus Bernard-Henri Lévy and are very familiar with the history of the cinema.  We also dream of sitting around cafes discussing weighty stuff with people.  I haven’t figured out how to get invited to any of those parties, but I found out how to do the cafe thing.

There’s this thing called a “café philo,” or Philosophical Cafe.  These are public meetings to talk about philosophical matters, typically (as you might guess, although not always) in a cafe.  The format can vary–sometimes there’s a pre-selected topic, and sometimes people suggest and vote on topics at the beginning of the meeting.  The Cafés philo are actually a movement that started in Paris in the 1990s at the inspiration of the philosopher Marc Sautet.  (The English Wikipedia page on Sautet relates that he briefly offered consulting services on philosophy to businessmen, at rates about equal to those of a psychoanalyst–the most French business idea that I’ve ever heard of.)  The Cafés philo aim at a democratization of the practice of philosophy, and have spread all over France and elsewhere, notably South America.

Anyone can, and does, come to these things.  Attendance at one that I went to this weekend included:

  • An old guy in a tweed jacket and severe glasses
  • A pale-faced, blonde Polish cardiologist (charming accent) wearing a stunning knee-length caracol winter coat
  • A pompous guy in a black turtleneck
  • A smoking-hot college student
  • A young African guy
  • A clearly crazy guy with a long gray beard wearing a peacoat like a cape, pants rolled up to his knees, and white knee-length stockings (he talked to himself through the whole thing)

Topics are wide-ranging.  Here are some of the topics that were voted on at the beginning of one that I went to this weekend:

  • Are existing and living the same thing?
  • Why are you afraid to die?
  • The end of carefreeness?
  • Language is the house of my master (might have been language and the house of my master–no matter which it was, I couldn’t make any sense out of it)

We finally ended up with “is a life lived only for oneself worth living?”  Opinions varied; the only thing I can recall hearing broad agreement about at one of these things is that utilitarianism is sucky–and “Anglo-Saxon.”

How I discovered the Cafés philo, and how you can find them for yourself: Meetup.com.  This turns out to be a great way to deal with the isolation of being a foreigner in France, as you can connect with groups of people doing all sorts of things.  Scroll through the list of things happening in Paris and you’re likely to find something of interest.  Language-sharing groups abound, as do things for expats.  I found a number of computer-science-related things, and…the Cafés philo, of which there are several in Paris, meeting at different times and places.

The most surprising thing to me has been how fun these things are.  My previous exposure to philosophy has mostly been pretty dry and pedantic–fussy, even.  In contrast, the Cafés philo are animated affairs, with perhaps a young college student in the back waving his arms to be called on to share his thoughts on why obstacles are necessary to happiness, or a really pithy insight being followed by applause.  I had a great time!  As one of the speakers pointed out, the point is to live life–philosophy is just a way of learning how to do that.  A variety of beverages were consumed, people laughed (at one point I think I heard the joke about the Jew stranded alone on a desert island with two synagogues, one of which he goes to on the Sabbath, and the other which he wouldn’t set foot in–many of the Jews I know love telling this joke–although I have trouble understanding the guy who was telling it because he’s missing some teeth, and I assume it was the joke mostly on the basis of keywords), and afterwards those who feel like it go out for lunch or dinner together.

People at these things tend to be thrilled to show off their English when they find out that you’re American, but these things basically take place entirely in French, unless you go to one that is specifically advertised as being in English (there’s at least one in Paris, but they’re in the minority, and I’ve never been to one, so I can’t tell you what the attendance is like).  So, this experience is going to be most enjoyable for someone with a pretty good command of the language.  (I understand maybe 80% of what’s going on, and unfortunately, the 20% that I miss always seems to be the most important part.)  As you can imagine, Zipf’s Law strikes constantly in one of these things–I would have had trouble following a technical philosophy discussion even in my native language, and it’s far worse in a second language.  Here are some words that I had to look up (translations from the Collins French-English dictionary, Kindle edition):

  • le bonheur: happiness.  “Happiness” was the main topic of conversation at the café philo that I went to Saturday night, with definitions ranging from the metaphorical to the purely ontological.
  • la morosité: (sadness) morosity, gloominess; (of a person) sullenness; (of an economy or market) sluggishness.  The person running one of the cafés philo that I went to this weekend commented on how odd it felt to be talking about happiness in the light of the morosité of recent weeks, since the attacks of 13/11.  (First definition from WordReference.com.)
  • l’insouciance (f.): (absence de soucis) carefreeness, carefree attitude; (irresponsabilité) carelessness.
  • l’excitation (f.): excitement.
  • l’enthousiasme (m.): enthusiasm.
  • la méfiance: distrust.
  • la désespoir: despair; hopelessness.
  • demander la parole: to ask to speak (WordReference.com)
  • prendre la parole: to take the floor, to speak (WordReference.com)

Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caf%C3%A9_des_Phares,_Place_de_la_Bastille,_Paris.JPG#/media/File:Caf%C3%A9_des_Phares,_Place_de_la_Bastille,_Paris.JPG

9 thoughts on “I’ve found the Paris of my dreams”

  1. How very French! I can relate to this: my last year in French high-school, we took for granted that philosophy could be a fun way of learning where you wanted to go in life. The reading list was 20 non-pedantic books loosely related to Philosophy. One of these books did end up being my lodestar 🙂


      1. No secret: it’s “Tristes Tropiques” – Claude Lévi-Strauss. And no, I didn’t become an anthropologist or anything of the sort. Long story you’ve made me realise I can probably write a post about sometime 🙂


  2. Pingback: Zipf's Law

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