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Cafe des Phares
The Café des Phares - a Café-Philo at the Bastille.

Walk-in Café Philosophy Increasing in Popularity

Paris:- Wednesday, 25. February 1998:- Professor Greb's philosophical strolls by the Little Chico Creek in California have been disturbed by 'El Niño's' howling gales, so he has been sitting at home reading the Christian Science Monitor. It a recent edition he discovered that philosophical debates are taking place in Paris bars and cafés.

Ever curious, he wrote to ask, "Would you check into the philosophy craze which is said to be sweeping the town?"

I am frequently asked to look into all sorts of things, some of them pretty weird and obscure, but 'philosophy crazes' really takes the cake.

Two French people get together - say Madame Leblanc is seen chatting to Madame Chilly in my local supermarket - they might very well be having a deep philosophical discussion, or they may simply discussing the weather - which I will get to in a moment.

Even if they are going on about the weather, it might be philosophical. MadameCafe Bastille Leblanc says to Madame Chilly, "My grandfather told me about the 1910 flood. He said he couldn't get to the Sunday philosophical debate at the Café des Phares at Bastille because the bridges to the gare Saint-Lazare were washed away."

This is the Bastille's other café-philo, the Café Bastille. Seems logical, doesn't it?

Madame Chilly remembers this too; "My great-great aunt Pierrette-Lucie managed to get there, but couldn't get home. They debated for ten days until the water level went down. She talked about it for years!"

Today it is not raining and it is not sunny, it is not cold and it is not warm; it is a normal day in February, and therefore has no philosophical significance - unless you really want to get into fine hair-splitting.

The Café des Phares at the place de la Bastille is beside a unit of the Banque de France, and between the big rue Saint-Antoine and the little rue de la Bastille. The sidewalk in front is very large.

I first noticed the Café des Phares when I was looking for the May Day parade two years ago. It has extended its outside terrace since then, presumably because there are more philosophers around.

How do I remember these things? Ordered one café on Wednesday, 1. May 1996, asked for the directions to the parade, and still remember the joint? There must have been something about it.

Well, the Christmas decorations are still hanging, criss-crossing the interior of the café. Maybe they are the same ones I saw before. There is a peanut vendinginterior Cafe des Phares machine with various sorts of peanuts in it - something very rare to see in Paris. And there are quite a few people in the café; a whole booth full of students, some people alone and other people having conversations, maybe discussions.

As befits a café-philo, the Café des Phares is not all that usual inside.

I ask the students if they ever come for the Sunday morning philosophical sessions and they look at me as if I just stepped off the Concorde from Mars. Serves me right too.

The bar lady tells me there is a 'philosophical' magazine and as it is only 15 francs I buy the latest issue, the number 57. It's cover date is Août-Septembre 1997 and it is a monthly. I cannot chat up the bar lady much because there is just enough custom in the café to prevent a conversation.

From the magazine I learn that there are 16 cafés in Paris and nine others nearby. The magazine also lists a lot outside Paris with a bunch in Marseille, Lyon - plus some in the rest of Europe and in the United States and Canada; one is the Loring Bar in Minneapolis. None are listed for California, so it sort of leaves Little Chico Creek high and dry. There are some more in Mexico, in Central and South America.

This particular issue of 'Philos' has part one of round-up account of a world conference of Café-Philo operators in Marseille last May. Over two days, 80 of these operators spoke at this international summit meeting. The idea of the Cafés-Philos is the public forum, the place to meet for a public exchange of ideas.

Apparently a lot of the talk was about the philosophy of the Cafés-Philos themselves. This seems right, as the participants were the operators, or moderators, of them. One of their questions goes like this: 'Debate the philosophical debates or debate the philosophy of the debates?'

As for the rest of us, we are pretty certain to have a personal philosophy even if we don't actively think of it often or at all. What the Cafés-Philos offer is a public place where you can hear what other people think, and you can add your two-bits worth. Since everybody has some philosophy of their own, you don't need a license or a government-approved degree in any subject in order to take part.

That's right! You can be a new-age Socrates or Aristotle on your own say-so.

But before you rush down to the'Philos' magazine Café-Philo nearest to where you live, remember this: modern philosophy started in Greece in the sixth century, B.C., when Thales told anybody who would listen that the world is based on water.

An issue of 'Philos,' the magazine of the café-philos.'

In those days, 'creation' wasn't a concept; there was not thought to have been an actual beginning to reality. Other Greeks said the world was based on fire, or air, or numbers, or apeiron - which is a combo soup of earth, fire, water and fire - but the word itself is not in my very big dictionary, although 'ap' by itself is very very old for 'water.'

I am sure all readers of this are well ahead of me on philosophical matters. In order not to be too much of a dummy, I have consulted a book written by J. Stevenson, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., entitled 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy.'

We could debate about the title of this book, but I sort of look at it as sort of useful one of the 'FAQ's files one finds on the Internet. In order to save you - or me! - the embarrassment of asking a question about reality that has been around for 2,600 years, this book can tell you what has already been discussed and by whom, and about where the state of discussion is today.

There are several good reasons for doing this. Professor Greb pointed out to me the sorry state of local 'talk' radio - he said it started out fine but has degenerated into the 'moderators' taking it over, leaving little room for the participants to voice their thoughts.

As local 'talk' radio goes down the tubes, along comes the worldwide Internet. When I checked it the other day, my Paris-based ISP served me up over 32,000 'newsgroups.' Another check showed that some of the items were 'empty' - they contained no messages - and others revealed themselves to be full of spam, promotion, or advertising.

The number of 'newsgroups' which have interesting exchanges of ideas is unknown to me. If there isn't one to suit you, it is not difficult to start your own - and with a little light 'moderation' it is possible to keep junk out of it.

Back in Paris, back in reality, real people talking in real cafés is really happening. Because of where I live and other circumstances, I can't see how I can take part in any of these sessions at this time.

But if you are in Paris, the Cafés-Philos are accessible. Some have their weekly session on Sundays - a great before-lunch activity - or in the early evening, at the right time for an 'apero' and some chat, before dinner.

For anybody who wants a list of Paris' Cafés-Philosex-philo cafe Deux Magots - it may be out of date a bit - just write to me and I'll email it to you.

The Deux-Magots is not a 'cafe-philo.' At least, not any more.

As I am leaving the Café des Phares there is a photographer taking a shot of the front, and maybe I'm in it. When I turn around to do the same thing - take a shot of the photographer taking a shot of the Café des Phares - he's scampered off.

This leaves me in the philosophical area of the place de la Bastille which always conjures up a variety of thoughts.

One medium-sized debate I have with myself, is which photos to run with this piece? Many of the Cafés-Philos are well-known Paris watering places. I already have photos of them - usually taken in sunny conditions - and I'm wondering about the ethics of running some of them here, on this grey day.

Oh, heck - I'll run the Deux-Magots instead. If it wasn't a café-philo, then philos at least hung out there.

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