Cafe philosophique

Institut Francais, London

"Continental breakfast, monsieur?" "Yes, make it coffee, croissants and a vigorous bout of dialectical reasoning." "Perhaps you'd like to choose from today's menu of topics. For starters, you might consider `is thought an addiction and love a cure?' or `How can we go beyond animal instinct ?' " "I had a heavy night. Got anything a little... lighter?" "Perhaps monsieur would care to grapple delicately with `What is Normality?' "Oh, go on then. Black, no sugar."

The hundred-plus souls gathered in the Institut Francais' spacious cafe for the second British Cafe Philosophique hunkered down to get to grips with a spot of weekend philosophy. Well-heeled SW7 sophisticates mingled with polyglot students and competed with a hissing espresso machine to exchange terms. The professional philosophers could be picked out by the frowns of puckered disgust as words like "value", "self-refutation" and "objectivity" were recklessly bandied about.

Given that the British scepticism toward most things Gallic goes into overdrive when faced with the very idea of the French philosopher, the Cafe Philosophique is a brave venture. I attended with a certain degree of that same scepticism myself, but aware that it's often a defence mechanism against feeling intimidated by the spectacle of full-on intellectual badinage, especially so early on a Saturday morning. What do cafe philosophers read on the tube, I wondered? Karl Popper's Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics was one volume I spotted, which made me feel a little awkward about the James Sallis spy thriller protruding from my pocket.

So what is Normality this morning? "There are four coffee cups on this table," interjected one participant languidly. "Three are on saucers, one is not. So this cup is clearly abnormal." Ah, the voice of sardonic empiricism. More, please. After about half an hour, the slightly self- conscious sense of occasion gave way to some real exchanges, leavened by some passion and no little humour. Thankfully, there was no sense of this being a nostalgic wake for the spirits of cafe-dwelling Parisian intellectuals. The convenor, Paris-based American philosopher Gale Prawda, conducts a similar event every month at the Cafe de Flore, Sartre and de Beauvoir's former cogitating ground, and the Cafe Philosophique has more than a hundred branches throughout France and has even moved as far afield as Japan. When I learned that the originator of the Cafe Philos, the French intellectual Marc Sautet, had been charged with the mission to extend the idea to Latin America by Jacques Chirac I had a vision of their global strategy session at the Elysee Palace. "What have the Americans given us - Euro Disney and the Hard Rock Cafe? We must hit back on all fronts. I see brioche and Barthes partout. As for "What is Normality?", search me garcon.

The next Cafe Philosophique takes place at the Institut Francais, London SW7 24 Jan (0171-838 2144).

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