The sociology of intelligent conversation – 7.04.2014

Le Salon Brussels is a new social network for discussion of science, art, politics, philosophy and literature, with the aim of learning, sharing ideas, socializing and making friends. It is inspired by the French literary salons of the 17th to 19th century, together with the democratic and progressive spirit of Bohemian coffeehouse culture.

In this introduction, we will briefly explore the social factors which gave rise to these cultural phenomena, their development, mutations and, perhaps arguably, extinction. What role did these institutions play in the life of their members and in society at large? Do the “society of information”, post-industrialism and other contemporary social trends have the potential to open a new space for public intellectuals, or to reconfigure social mobility? In short, what is constant and what is changing? The answers to these questions may help us to imagine, shape and communicate our new initiative.

Intellectuals in the age of Enlightenment imagined themselves united in a Respublica Literaria, the Republic of Letters. The form of communication which held this imagined republic together was the handwritten letter, read, of course, typically by a single counterpart or at best a small group, and lacking in the dynamics of face to face conversation. “Citizens” of this “republic” might have met each other at a salon or been introduced through mutual acquaintances. Often they had the means to travel and their epistolary network allowed them to enter into social circles upon arrival at their destinations. The dynamics of this social system (together with a number, certainly, of idiosyncracies) is well illustrated by Casanova’s twelve-volume account in the Histoire de ma Vie.

The appeal of the idea of the Republic goes back to Plato and the political organization of the Greek city-states in the 5th century BC. This fell at the end of a period of political transition, during which the city-states experimented with various forms of political organization, and Plato’s ideas were (and are) anything but uncontroversial. The context of this political reappraisal was an external existential, but also ideological, threat, the ongoing conflict with Persia, which in the late 5th and early 4th century was able to pursue a policy of divide et impera amongst the Greek city-states, bringing the Greek cities of Asia Minor under its sway and preparing the ground for the later Theban and Macedonian hegemonies.

The Athens of Plato’s time was a city romantically attached to its traditions, but in fatal decline following its subjugation to Sparta as a result of the Peloponnesian war. Its humiliation was ritually inflicted on one of its own sons, Socrates, judged as a traitor to his people but in Plato’s eyes a wise man the ignoring of whose counsel directly led to Athens’ nemesis. Plato’s account turned Socrates into the archetype of the spurned intellectual, an almost Christ-like figure whose fate incarnated – and prejudged – what became an ongoing, and still to this day unresolved (because unresolvable), symbolic conflict between philosophy and democracy. It is no coincidence that the Platonic tradition within Western philosophy, which became dominant during the Roman empire and was only first seriously questioned by Spinoza, at its origins is inseparable from the struggle for autonomy of the new field of political science, itself called into being by technological change in the art of war, changes which undermined earlier, more “democratic” forms of government which, no doubt because they were biologically primed, characterized the history not only of hunter-gather societies but also, in increasingly attenuated form, of settled agricultural peoples throughout prehistory into the early historical iron age.

The salons have been understudied by historians and sociologists, with the literature primarily consisting of monographs. A key question of interest in recent academic enquiry has been whether they were a critical stage in the emergence of an autonomous “public sphere” in opposition to “court society”, a view championed by Juergen Habermas in his ground-breaking and enormously influential work Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962). According to David Randall, “In Habermasian theory, the bourgeois public sphere was preceded by a literary public sphere whose favored genres revealed the interiority of the self and emphasized an audience-oriented subjectivity.“[1] Habermas goes on to argue that the bourgeois public sphere later morphed into “mass society” under the influence of the industrial revolution. Whilst the bourgeois public sphere operated and brought into being a clear distinction between the state and private life, this distinction was once again obfuscated by the welfare state. The following video gives a brief introduction to Habermas’s notion of the public sphere.

Habermas is pessimistic about mass democracy, which he sees as making it more difficult to address public issues, an idea Adam Curtis was to go on to develop in his popular TV documentary The Century of the Self. Yet it is not obvious that Habermas is right either about the social role of the salons or about the public sphere and governance today. It seems to me, and to many of his critics, that his thinking on this matter is asociological and indebted to a certain philosophical conception of modernity which elsewhere he deems to criticize. Habermas not only misconstrues the social reality of the salons, which he fairly patently instrumentalizes; he also misconstrues the production of social thought and the mechanisms determining public outcomes: the fact that, in Bourdieu’s formula, “la force des arguments n’est guère efficace contre les arguments de la force” [2]. Habermas’s public sphere is a philosophization of the Greek agora, since its origins a romantic and contested notion.

Habermas also seems to see in the cafes of Bohemia the temporal successor of the salons, a notion hardly consistent with the irreconcilable social differences between the two, famously portrayed in Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale and developed in Bourdieu’s social history of 19th century esthetics Les Regles de l’Art (and other works more specifically devoted to Bohemianism). We will not expand here on the ontogenesis of Bohemia, but its values represented a clear break with the formalism and politeness of the salons. In the words of Gelett Burgess:

To take the world as one finds it, the bad with the good, making the best of the present moment—to laugh at Fortune alike whether she be generous or unkind—to spend freely when one has money, and to hope gaily when one has none—to fleet the time carelessly, living for love and art—this is the temper and spirit of the modern Bohemian in his outward and visible aspect. It is a light and graceful philosophy, but it is the Gospel of the Moment, this exoteric phase of the Bohemian religion; and if, in some noble natures, it rises to a bold simplicity and naturalness, it may also lend its butterfly precepts to some very pretty vices and lovable faults… What, then, is it that makes this mystical empire of Bohemia unique, and what is the charm of its mental fairyland? It is this: there are no roads in all Bohemia! One must choose and find one’s own path, be one’s own self, live one’s own life.” [3]

In Europe, salon culture was eclipsed in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Bohemia in the first half of the twentieth, both victims no doubt of the political upheavals of Europe from 1848 to 1945. In the United States, where it plugged into a long cultural history of the renegade, its intellectual heirs were the Beats and Hippies; some would say punk and gothic culture are a more contemporary manifestation.

In 1992, philosopher Marc Sautet launched the idea of the “cafe-philo“, a forum open to everyone to discuss “practical philosophy”, recently also promoted by Glen Brauer with his philosophy dinners. A good discussion of the concept by Michel Tozzi is here. The concept is not without its critics, some with a certain flavor of elitism (which reminds one of the relationship of the Academies to the salons), but others of which fairly point out in my view a certain naivete and populist, rather French ideology in the concept itself, an uncertainty in the very concept of philosophy, its relationship to the world, and what a forum such as this can be expected to achieve. Simultaneously, however, TED has shown the appetite of an increasingly educated public for knowledge and exchange around topics relevant to today’s world.

My working hypothesis is that the concept of the cafe-philo would work better if stripped of this ideology and relaunched in a form which is no less ambitious in terms of increasing the impact of knowledge on society and on individual’s lives, but more self-aware of its social context and role, and that to do this it is helpful to draw new inspiration from the salons. Philosophy should be dethroned, or at least understood in a much wider sense than is normally the case. Topics should benefit from the widest possible illumination, privileging a spirit of more scientific enquiry, and rather than encouraging the mere sharing of opinion, a process not only of limited interest but also prone to descend into personal conflict, rather seek to benefit from the actual knowledge as well as the life experiences of each of the members of the group. At the same time, the experience should also be socially enriching.

Aut prodesse aut delectare. The historical salons frequently drew inspiration from Horace’s observation, in the Ars Poetica, which in full reads “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae / aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae,” i.e. that poets seek either to instruct, or to entertain, or to do both. These are important goals, but equally important is getting to know both new people and those we already know better – in a word, friendship, wonderfully defined by William James as “taking delight in other people’s lives”. As Anaïs Nin put it, “Chaque ami représente un monde en nous, un monde qui n’aurait peut-être jamais existé sans lui et que cette rencontre a rendu possible”. This means that meetings should never be a one-way street: solliciting the views of others is as important as communicating new ideas and one’s own views. Topics should be sufficiently open-ended, presenting a variety of viewpoints and they should not be overly specific so that they are suitable for a general educated audience.

I also want to make the whole experience more intimate and to bring it back, ideally, into people’s homes. Today, the public sphere is not inexistent; on the contrary, it is pervasive. But, once we are out of college, for most of us it is impersonal. This is not a problem only of socialization; it is also a problem of learning and of motivation to learn. We learn, as a species, to solve problems, but when these problems are situated at an impossible scale of abstraction, as most of them inevitably are in the modern world, we lack the sense of community necessary not only to address them, but even to care about them. Thus the spirit of the public intellectual must be cultivated and nourished in a circle of friends. This is an ever more critical challenge as the traditional institutions of moral reproduction – the family, the school, religion – are all losing their power, simultaneously unable to maintain obviously anachronistic universalistic claims, in the midst of a crisis of values as the capitalist consensus and the bourgeois myth of self-improvement are increasingly questioned, and undermined by trends towards increasing social fragmentation.

This all gives us plenty to discuss, in an engaged, and yet playful manner. Welcome to Le Salon.



[1] David Randall (2008). “Ethos, Poetics, and the Literary Public Sphere”Modern Language Quarterly (Duke University Press). pp. 221–243 (emphasis added).

[2] See this article by Julien Talpin

[3] Burgess, G., “Where is Bohemia?”, in The Romance of the Commonplace. San Francisco: Ayloh, 1902. pp. 127–28


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