Practicing philosophy at the café

Cafe des Phares
Booklover206 / CC BY-SA 3.0

On May 29, 2009, I made a Sunday morning pilgrimage to the Place de la Bastille and the Café des Phares to take part in a French tradition: discussing life’s deepest questions over espresso.

The first café-philo had taken place at that very café in 1992, organized by philosophy professor Marc Sautet. As the story goes, Sautet mentioned during a media interview that he was going to meet up with his friends on Sunday mornings at the Café des Phares:

“Certain listeners concluded that a philosopher would be at their disposal in a public place. And imagine Marc’s surprise when a dozen people arrived at the café the following Sunday.”

The format of this structured intellectual discussion is as follows: Any attendee can propose a topic for the session. The host of the day makes a selection, and the debate kicks off. Whoever holds the microphone is welcome to speak.   

Twenty-five years later, the Café Philo des Phares is still running every Sunday morning from 10:30 am to 12:15 pm, attracting crowds of up to 150 curious thinkers. Some questions that have been discussed include:   

  • What are the limits of privacy?
  • Does the ineffable exist?
  • Is violence a human phenomenon, or can it be found in all of nature?

The point of these discussions is not to reach any kind of consensus. As Sautet (who passed away in 1998) once explained, “I help my members structure their thinking. I’m there to feed their doubts by posing the right questions, not by offering answers. I also point out references of authors that could help in their reflections.” 

Cafe Philo des Phares
Café Philo des Phares

In a way, the café-philo was meant to democratize philosophy, to move it beyond its ivory towers and into the most quintessentially public space in Paris. Since 1992, other cafés-philo have cropped up at Café Le Bastille just nearby, at Café de Flore (in English), and throughout the city.

Gerard Tissier, who has been a moderator at the Café Philo des Phares since 1995, “thinks there is something in the French character which makes the philosophy cafés such a success,” Radio France Internationale reported. “For him, the propensity to philosophize is a child of the French Revolution—when the country held fervent debates on the ultimate good for the people. He thinks this has been deeply ingrained into the French psyche.”

It may have taken the French to invent the café-philo, but they aren’t the only ones interested in exploring the mysteries of human existence. Cafés-philo can be found everywhere from South America to Australia, Greece to Japan; some even target kids and teens.

I can’t say I loved my café-philo experience; to this American, it was unsettling to speak for hours about questions that were assumed to have no answers. But perhaps French philosophizing, like its blue cheese, is an acquired taste.   

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