philosophy in the real world

by David Sadegh

Gale Prawda is on a mission to drag philosophy out of the universities and onto the streets, by way of the sidewalk cafe. She's queen of the Cafe Philo, a philosophy discussion group in Paris, and holds court at the Cafe de Flore on the first Wednesday of each month. But it hasn't always been a foregone conclusion that this would be her destiny. In fact, when Prawda first left New York to make her home in France, back in 1971, she seriously considered studying painting instead of philosophy. A year later, however, she moved from l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Nice to plunge into philosophical study in Paris at the Sorbonne. She had always been developing something of a passion for philosophy, growing up on the works of Nietsche and William Blake, and in the early 70's Paris was buzzing with the fresh ideas of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others. But once her thesis paper was written, it seemed time to move on to other things. Philosophy was something she felt she could only pursue academically, not in the real world. She did not really want to be a professor, and though she did want to eventually write (novels, not philosophical treatises), she could not see it as a realistic possibility at the time. Her practical nature led her to take on more responsibility at the bookstore she had been working at to pay her way through school, and she ended up creating her own book company, distributing english language texts in France. She could say she still had a foot in the door to the world of ideas, if only through selling them. At a fairly young age, however, Prawda had realized that philosophy alone probably wasn't going to pay the rent, and so she learned to keep the worlds of work and intellectual thought separate.

I was doing a fairly good job of that myself, often finding myself practical, non-creative work that paid the bills so I could philosophize in my "leisure time," whenever that was. Looking through a Paris Voice in the spring of last year, I saw mention of a philosophical discussion group at Les Sept Lezards, on the topic of "Truth." Needless to say, my interest was perked, and I decided (as a former philosophy student myself) that this was something I would like to try. I was on a roll with discussion groups at the time - I had just experienced an enjoyable movie discussion group at the American Church the Thursday before (although the tendency for people to blurt out the endings of movies I had not yet seen was rather unnerving). So when Sunday evening came around, I located the Seven Lizards, adjacent to the Marais, and crept down to the lower level where the bartender had indicated. In contraast to the abundance of elbow room at the movie discussion, the room here was packed with what seemed to be thirty or forty people. And between me and that room was a table and a young man (who I later learned was Prawda's son Jonathan) charging thirty francs admission. I was surprised at the fee but eagerly paid my money, all the while trying to calculate what kind of profit this sort of event might bring to the person who had organized it. Philosophy as a career was not something that had occurred to me, but inside this crowded room was someone who was evidently a success at it. That someone, of course, was Prawda. She had figured out a way to get her two worlds to meet.

Looking back, I can't say that my first philosophy discussion group experience was completely satisfying for me, or even any of the ones since. Ultimately, I was frustrated that night by the wide scope of the topic, as well as the number of people present, often hampering any real discussion-type activity from occurring. Someone would say something outrageous or thought provoking and then ten people would raise their hands. When I was finally called on, the discussion had switched to something else entirely. Sitting among people who sometimes seemed to be focused on either venting their personal problems or practicing their english, I wondered if the attendence was simply too much of a grab bag. Did the price of admission actually weed anybody out, or did it just serve to legitimize the activity? I found myself cursing Gale under my breath for not charging more.

She does charge more for the philosophical dinners at the Canard d'Avril, and subsequently gets a greatly reduced turnout, although up to twenty-five people can be accomodated for. When I attended such a dinner recently, the subject was "History," another topic altogether too broad for one evening's analysis. Other discussions I have been to were "Passion" (Sept Lezards) and "Human Rights" (Cafe de la Bastille) as well as "Can we ever be ready for death?" and "Is all knowledge worth knowing?" at the Cafe de Flore. At the Flore the topics are picked on the spot by popular vote, so if you plan to attend it is probably best to have a topic of your own handy to throw out as a suggestion. The sporadic Sunday night discussions (previously at Les Sept Lezards, but more recently at the Cafe de la Bastille) focus on pre-set topics and for those it is also good to be a little prepared -- one of the first activities the group engages in is going around the room giving everyone a chance to make a statement on the topic. It's a way to grease the wheels so to speak and get the discussion rolling.

The expansive, flexible nature of the topics discussed is probably a key to the popularity of these gatherings. One would probably be more put off if the subject was something as specific as "Kierkegaard's Analysis of the 19th Century Christian Church" or "Nietsche vs Heidegger -- Who Had More Facial Hair?" Thus my frustration as I go to these discussions, when a grand theme or question is posed, and the floor is opened up. Time flies by much too fast as the group attempts to tackle the topic, and soon the allotted two hours have passed with perhaps the very definition of the subject at hand still in dispute. How can the problems of the world, the meaning of life, be "solved" if we can't even agree on fundamental terms? To make matters worse, it seems like a lot of the regulars at these get-togethers have an agenda of their own -- they're pushers for a philosophical idea they've grown fond of, and they try to warp the direction of the discussion accordingly. What happened to an open-minded search for truth? Why can't we work together with the focus and commitment required to sort out some of life's more difficult issues? And why can't everyone just agree with me?

Luckily Prawda is there with the experience and patience necessary to lead the discussions away from the brink of chaos. In the cafe this business gets messy, in contrast to the old conception of philosophy relegated to libraries and classrooms. When trapped in an academic environment, philosophy tends to feed upon itself, building a tower of analysis that zooms farther and farther away from the reality it was based upon. What good is philosophy if it is not somehow incorporated into the real world, if it is not put into relation with people's lives? We all act on the basis of philosophies that are for the most part unconscious, guiding our actions in kind of a mysterious way. I think the goal of Prawda (whose name means truth in Polish) is to bring these underlying philosophies of ours to the surface where we can look at them in the light and analyse them, hold them up to scrutiny in a public place with a captive audience. The legacy of the Parisien cafe reinforces the idea that we are doing important work here, following in the footsteps of some of the greatest writers and thinkers to ever hold an expresso. Two such persons, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus helped to blur the distinction between art and philosophy, in their own way opening up the doors to philosophy and thereby making it accessible to a wider audience. These writers and others understood that philosophy's voice was too important to leave to academia and consciously incorporated it into their creative work, where it would have a greater impact by reaching more people.

It seems we often need some motivation to rise above the small talk of daily events and gossip -- people need an excuse to talk about ideas, the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For most, these subjects are only directly addressed at church, if ever, and in that setting the answers are provided for you and go unchallenged. In everyday situations it's hard to bring these subjects up casually. It's difficult to have a philosophical debate in the comfort of your own home in an organized manner. Part of the problem is that very often such discussions are taken much too personally - it could be that people need the safety of a moderator like Prawda, a guiding hand to keep possible verbal fisticuffs in check, or at least on track. I can begin to imagine a future where professional philosophers will make house calls to clear up family disputes -- with a simple phone call, philosophy would be conveniently delivered to the home, possible with a side order of chicken wings.

Can philosophy in itself be bought and sold like everything else? One pictures television ads for possible enterprises such as "Plato and Kant Associates, featuring the latest in metaphysical technology!" Though in reality Gale's income from the Sunday discussions barely covers the expense of publicizing them, more and more people are making a living with philosophy in the corporate world, providing expertise in areas such as business ethics. In a way, Prawda and the new philosophers are part therapist, part consultant, part teacher, and part self-help guru. But rather than disseminate a specific philosophy or idea, which is normally the case with such fields, the emphasis is on using a method (the Socratic method) which is open-ended and interactive. It's a way to think about life's issues in a clear and rigorous manner, an attempt to weed out what is irrational in our thought that might be clouding our actions and causing us difficulty.

Whether in a cafe or elsewhere, Gale Prawda continues the struggle of trying to make philosophy more accessible. Not by watering it down, but rather by making it available to people who care about the big questions and want to improve their lives, people who don't have the time or means to devote their lives to philosophy but can spare a few hours a month to the pursuit of meaning and truth. I'm probably a little more addicted to this pursuit than most. The high level of frustration I feel at the end of a discussion, when the night is still much too young, is a frustration that this state of elevated consciousness couldn't last just a few minutes longer than it did, that the great philosophical questions couldn't have gotten just a little bit closer to being "answered." Oh, but to leave the cafe and feel my mind actually working, racing with new thoughts and ideas, new problems and questions, that is worth much more than the price of admission. Thank you Gale.

Gale Prawda