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In Therapy or Coffee Klatch, French Philosophy Goes Mainstream

September 29, 1995

PARIS (AP) _ Sacrifice, homelessness, Santa Claus and AIDS are just a few of the subjects Parisians are pondering on Sunday mornings at France’s first ``philosophy cafe.″

Once an elite preserve for France’s best and brightest, philosophy has gone mainstream at the Cafe des Phares (Lighthouse Cafe) overlooking the fabled Place de la Bastille.

Since 1992, enthusiasts ranging from professionals to the homeless have gathered for spontaneous debates guided by Mark Sautet, a 48-year-old doctor of philosophy.

Historically, cafes in France have been hangouts for intellectuals and philosophers. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, among others, gathered to write and talk in Parisian haunts like the Cafe de Flore, Les Deux Magots and La Coupole.

But Sautet says his debates are completely different.

While Sartre’s crowd was exclusive and ``spoke among themselves,″ he said, ``I talk to strangers, ordinary people who are not necessarily intellectuals.″

Sautet spread this ``pop-philosophy″ concept even further Wednesday night by organizing debates in more than 30 Parisian cafes as part of France’s annual, four-day Bistro Festival.

``French people work so much today,″ said Janine Meunier, 42, who works at an insurance company and was having her first ``cafe philo″ experience at one of the festival debates.

``It would be great if coming to a cafe was always like this. It reminds me of my hippie days of the 60′s,″ she said.

Self-proclaimed philosophers abound in France, quietly penning books or loudly advocating political causes.

Bernard-Henri Levy is among the most visible, championing the interests of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970′s and denouncing human rights abuses in Bosnia today.

But Sautet’s community discussions have nothing to do with political activism.

On Sundays the Cafe des Phares bursts at the seams with crowds of more than 100 people opening their minds _ and their mouths.

Nimble waiters needle between crowded tables with trays of hot espresso, croissants and beer for the weekly onslaught of philosophy lovers, many of whom arrive early just to get a seat.

At 11:00 a.m., the tall, blue-eyed Sautet takes charge.

Above the noise of the nonstop espresso maker and heavy traffic outside, he opens the floor for debate suggestions.

Passing cordless microphones, people pipe up with life’s big questions: ``Can one love without caring?″ ``For whom does the world exist?″ ``Are we products of our history?″

Topics range from the serious to the ridiculous. ``Why do we lead children to believe in Santa Claus?″ asked Virgile Loyer, a 20 year-old student who comes to the debates weekly and works closely with Sautet’s association, ``Les Amis du Cabinet de Philosophy,″ (Friends of the Philosophy Practice).

``We talk about things like sacrifice and death, or more political topics,″ Loyer said. ``Sometimes a humorous idea can become quite heavy. It just depends on the crowd.″

One week, a homeless man came to the cafe and fought his way through the crowd with polite excuses. He was told, ``Creve!″ (Drop dead).

But he grabbed the microphone and offered this experience for discussion.

``It turned out to be one of the best debates,″ said Jean-Christophe Grellety, 26.

For Sautet, a professor at the prestigious Political Studies Institute who specializes in the works of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, questions count more than answers.

``To philosophize does not have the pretension of saying, `I’ll tell you the answer.′ For me, it’s to look for answers together,″ said Sautet, who expounded on this theme in a new book, ``Un Cafe Pour Socrate″ (A Cafe for Socrates), published by Robert Laffont.

``People see psychiatrists. They consult mediums. They find themselves a guru, unaware that what they’re really seeking is a philosopher,″ Sautet wrote.

Sautet and his friends have started similar cafe debates in the French cities of Toulouse and Nice and in Switzerland, and they hope to sell the idea in the United States.

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