Plutarch's Table

September 21, 2010
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What is Plutarch’s Table?

September 20, 2010
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The first century Greek philosopher Plutarchus believed that philosophy should be done at dinner parties, in convivial settings, and preferably with drinks.  Plutarch’s Table aims to take philosophy out of the academy and bring it back to the dinner table, in the belief that we should all be learning to think and live more philosophically, and that deepening our commitments to thoughtful living is not properly a lonely pursuit but one best done in joy and friendship.  We are located in Toronto, Canada.

See Philosophy Salons and Literary Salons for information on how you can host a Plutarch’s Table event.


Love and Monogamy – Thanks for coming out!

March 31, 2014
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A huge thanks to all who came out for the Love and Monogamy salon. Between our wonderful guest speaker and highly engaged participants, I think it was a fun and stimulating event. I know it gave me a lot to think about, in terms of being more open to questioning the conventions and habits of monogamy that we take for granted.

I know some guests were interested in reading some of the books that were mentioned, so I’ve put together a bibliography of all the titles I can think of, as well as some references from Ronnie’s book that may not have been mentioned but that sound really interesting.

Also, as always I welcome feedback. I am still unsure about the format of the salons that I host myself  – should we have a full buffet-style dinner (which would be more expensive), or a Sunday afternoon wine and cheese (which would be a little cheaper). What are people generally willing to pay? I don’t want cost to be prohibitive, but I also like it to be enjoyable in the food and drink department. Are weekends best or would a weekday after work be more convenient? So comments and suggestions are welcome, in this and any other aspect of the set-up. I’m also always looking for good topics, so suggestions for that are welcome.

 

Here are the books:

Easton and Hardy. The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures.

Kipnis, Laura. Against Love (which I think should really be called against marriage, or perhaps against cohabitation…)

Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity (an excellent book that questions monogamy somewhat but is focused on long-term relationships)

Sternberg, Robert. various articles, though he has a book called The New Psychology of Love.

Kolodny, Niko. various articles (google “Love as Valuing a Relationship”)

Mitchell, Stephen. Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living (not entirely on topic, but it was mentioned in the context of learning to be more comfortable with insecurity)

 

– and of course look for Ronald de Sousa’s forthcoming book Love: A Vert Short Introduction (a fascinating philosophical look at love – the discussion of polyamory is only a small part of it).

* most of these are written by psychologists rather than philosophers, with the exception, I think, of Kolodny. But the nature of our topic seems to have taken us into this territory! If you want more philosophical accounts (besides Ronnie’s book and Plato’s Symposium, of course), email me for suggestions. And if you know of any good books I’ve missed, feel free to let me know and I’ll add them.

 

 

 


March 29th Salon sold out

March 19, 2014
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Thanks everyone for booking your tickets early for the upcoming salon on Love and Monogamy with Ronnie de Sousa. As I read through professor de Sousa’s latest book, I see that this is going to be really interesting. I was a little worried that the topic of love might be hard to approach philosophically, just because we can all say so much about love that doesn’t even begin to approach a philosophical analysis. I also worried that the topic of monogamy might be too controversial – in the sense that when there are clear ‘for and against’ positions for which people have fairly passionate attachments, the discussion becomes polarized instead of investigatory. I find salons work best when the topic is both familiar and yet puzzling enough that we aren’t too attached to our instinctive views about it.

But after reading and getting an idea of what our speaker has to say on this issue, I see that his talk will force us to think very carefully about our preconceived notions, and will give us some perhaps unexpected perspectives from which to reconsider and explore these issues. And this is ideal – my purpose with these salons is precisely to take topics that really matter to us on a daily basis and explore them as deeply and as carefully as we can. So I am very much looking forward to this evening, and I can’t wait to see you all there.

Joanna


March Salon: Love and Monogamy

March 7, 2014
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I’m very pleased to announce our next salon, on the topic of Love and Monogamy. We’ve been talking about doing this one for a while now, and we’ll have the great pleasure of welcoming a guest speaker, Professor Ronald de Sousa of the University of Toronto, who has just written a book on Love (forthcoming). We also have a fabulous venue, and the evening promises to be interesting, enlightening, and likely controversial (one can only hope). All the details are below on the invite – make sure to reserve soon as there are only twenty spots at this one.

Plutarchinvite


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Love and Therapy

February 3, 2014
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After a long, long hiatus, I am taking up the cause once again. The cause of making philosophy fun, accessible and relevant, that is. I am planning a salon for this coming March which promises to be very exciting. This time, I am not the only philosopher! I am very pleased to have secured a brilliant prof from the University of Toronto to speak on a topic about which he has just written a fascinating book. The topic, once again, will be Love, and details will be announced very soon.

I have also begun a new website related to my work as a philosophical therapist, so please check me out at the Centre For Philosophical Therapy. I hope to be posting my philosophical observations there on a regular basis. This site will just be for info on and summaries of salons that I will hold from time to time.


Valentine’s Day salon at Fat Cat Wine Bar February 14th

January 30, 2011
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Valentine’s Day Salons

January 24, 2011
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I will be posting information about our exciting Valentine’s Day salons in the next few days – check back soon!


Challenge 2011: be intellectually brave

January 20, 2011
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Here is a challenge for the New Year, one that I think could be highly rewarding for almost anybody: be intellectually brave.

I have been thinking about this because of a phenomenon that has come out of the salons.  Many people, curious enough to come out to a salon but nervous about their ability to contribute, have confided in advance that they don’t think they will be smart enough.  I think that our society’s erroneous sense of a clear divide between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘lay people’ is to blame for the fact that many people who have a great deal to contribute to intelligent conversation hold back out of fear that they will find themselves in over their heads.  While the objective of the salons is precisely to demonstrate that everybody can participate in philosophical conversation without any explicit training, I think that you only see this if you can find the courage to just go ahead and offer up your own thoughts, especially when you’re not entirely certain.

For the sake of those who regularly find themselves too nervous to contribute to supposedly ‘intellectual’ discussion, I am going to share a secret I learned in grad school: when you’re not involved in the conversation, you always think everybody knows something you don’t, that there’s some big picture that everybody else gets, a shared understanding about which you’ll prove yourself ignorant if you speak up.  But what’s really going on is that those on the inside are doing something you aren’t doing, and that is really the only important difference, which you learn when you just dive in anyway and quickly discover that there is no shared idea at all, just a particular group of people controlling the discourse.  It only sounds like everyone is on the same page when you are not on that page yourself, and when you are you see that people are flipping through different pages without any real consistency, sometimes missing each others’ points entirely, sometimes picking up on what wasn’t really meant, but not suffering for any of this.

A discourse is not a smooth navigation around a transparent idea, but is more like a collective improvisation where pieces get put together and come apart and sometimes align in surprising ways and sometimes get diverted off topic – but sometimes it is the diversions that can lead down especially interesting paths.  If I knew more about jazz I would offer an improvisational jazz metaphor – I’m pretty sure it would work.  The point is that simply participating can be a huge revelation about ones own intellectual capacity. Getting something out there is the first step to being brought in, and as soon as you’re in you’ll know you’re worthy of being there.  I promise – and it took me a very long time to learn this for myself.

My own view is that those who are a little nervous have the potential to be the very best contributors to intelligent conversation.  Socrates was thought to be the wisest man because he alone was aware of his ignorance, and there is great merit in coming into a conversation with the sense that you have something to learn rather than something of which to convince your audience.  I always admire the person who asks the question that everybody else wants to ask but is too afraid.  This is what it means to be intellectually brave – not to pretend to know more than one does, but to be confident about ones capacity to engage in intelligent conversation while being candid about ones ignorance.  Any conversation where the only people talking are those who think they know a whole lot is not a genuinely philosophical event.  Our public discourse, and any good conversation, needs the bravery of those who know they don’t know with any certainty, and are willing to learn and contribute all the same.  And here’s one last insider’s tip: sometimes when ‘intellectuals’ are discussing something that sounds very heady and esoteric – sometimes they are talking total shit.  Sometimes.

So get out there and be brave.  Ask questions, offer comments, venture an opinion, get in over your head.  You’ll discover that fear makes intelligent discussion look far more intimidating than it really is.


Philosophy as Self-Help: Response to Alain de Botton

January 11, 2011
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I just read an interesting piece by Alain de Botton on the BBC, on the much-discussed topic of the value of the humanities.  His claim that academics ought to be doing a better job of explaining why they matter seems right, and echoes what I have previously said.  Of course many academics are now, at this point of crisis, doing just that (see, for example, Martha Nussbaum’s recent book “Not For Profit”), but de Botton’s central point seems to actually be that they don’t teach as though the humanities are relevant for anything outside of academia itself.  Although I agree that philosophy can and should be applied to “the problematic areas in people’s lives”, I also think that if this kind of direct application were all that philosophy did, then philosophy would no longer have much to bring.

The difference between philosophy and self-help is enormous, and I remember attending a class on contemporary continental philosophy where a lecturer was offering what I called the self-help version of Nietzsche and Heidegger – which to me meant the absolutely unphilosophical version.  Instead of challenging students’ familiar views of the world by making them grapple with ideas that required real mental struggle and highly theoretical exercises, this instructor was translating the texts into the kinds of formulas for personal fulfillment in which the self-help genre specializes.  If Nietzsche can be reduced to  “reject mediocrity!” and Heidegger to “live as though every day were your last!” then philosophy is dead, because philosophy is exactly that which exhorts us to live without formulas and using the creative and responsive power of our own minds.

I am not in the habit these days of defending the ivory tower and my doing so would surprise the students that I have taught, because I am always working to get them to see the real-world relevance of what they are studying.  But I need to emphasize this in the classes I teach, I think, because I see myself as working against an academic culture that de Botton rightly identifies as at times hostile to the notion that the ultimate value of philosophy is to help us to lead better lives.  But de Botton’s suggestion goes somewhat further than I would be willing to go with this:

How should universities be rearranged? In my view, departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people’s lives and to design courses that address them head on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies should be properly explored.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

The problem with structuring courses around conventional problems is that asking conventional questions gets you conventional answers.  Thinking that sets out with a clear idea of where it wants to end up is not philosophical in nature, but is something more like the ‘calculative’ thinking that Heidegger contrasts with the ‘meditative’ thinking of philosophy.  Meditative thinking is indeed the best thing to apply to the existential questions about why we are here and what we should do, but the highest power of philosophy is that it offers us better questions that enable us to see what we hadn’t already anticipated.  In interpreting the work of Gilles Deleuze, Todd May suggests that the genius of this great philosopher lay in his asking not the usual questions philosophy poses about what things are or how we ought to live, but in asking “how might one live?”.  This is a great example of how philosophy is a constantly self-overcoming discipline, and this is what allows it to open itself to the unfamiliar, the as-yet-unthought, by looking beyond the ought and the is with which our lives are regularly constricted.  A course structured around the works of Deleuze, or around the concept of, say, metaphysics, might be restrictive in its own ways, but at least it refuses to begin with the answer.  The best courses in metaphysics, ethics, etc., problematize and keep open the very notion of what these words mean in a way that courses that translate philosophy into a ready set of guiding principles couldn’t begin to fathom.  And there are many great philosophy professors out there who teach in just this way, without closing down the possibility that what they teach might be useful.  It’s just difficult to see from the outside.

So I am finding myself stuck in the middle here.  I believe very passionately in the real-world value of philosophy (and the humanities generally) and am making my own attempt to use philosophy productively and towards the possibility of helping people to lead better lives.  But I think that the reason philosophy is equipped to do this as no other study can depends upon its sometimes highly esoteric activities.  The ivory tower is the place where academics need to begin their work, because it is (supposed to be) safe from the need to conform to the status quo, to be in line with the political powers, and to respond to current trends or the desires of the consumer.  Above all philosophers need the rarified air of that tower in order to think independently and without any restrictions on what real-world problems need to be solved by their thinking.

Using philosophy to help people to lead better lives, then, is not about telling people what answers to our problems we can glean from Nietzsche.  It is about demonstrating how philosophy can open up new and better possibilities for human life by teaching us to use our highest capacities to question and reflect upon what we might otherwise take for granted, to experiment and to aspire to something more than the given.  It is about teaching us how the human mind, in engagement with a world that is always in the process of transformation, can turn difficulties into challenges that incite us to greater forms of existence.  But until you encounter Nietzsche’s thinking itself, until you are laid flat by the extreme difficulty and the struggle of grasping what he is trying to do, this just sounds like another self-help formula.  A good philosophy teacher takes the student along that difficult journey and lets her find out for herself how to make a better life, so that it is her better life, and not the one currently in fashion.  Maybe this is why philosophers have such a hard time explaining themselves.


In Praise of Levity

December 4, 2010
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I went to a great party a few nights ago.  It was in support of a wonderful cause, the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, so everyone was feeling good, and in addition to great music, food and drink, there were some really interesting people to talk to. I am pretty sure that I didn’t engage in any small talk at all, since everyone I met seemed to be passionate about something really important and eager to share their ideas and their visions.  But it was a party, and appropriately during all this talk about important things everyone was having fun.  This got me thinking about Nietzsche’s critique of seriousness, of the heaviness he sees as such a destructive part of the legacy of Western thought and civilization, which is a large part of my inspiration for the salons.   His view is that if you think that everything you do and say will have consequences for your eternal existence, then living becomes a pretty serious business.  What is important – grown-up matters for mature people – absolutely cannot be fun to talk about.  I think we can agree that what is never fun – at a party or anywhere else – are fanaticism and dogmatism, and these just aren’t an option for those with a light-hearted attitude to life, the laughers and the children.  For Nietzsche the extreme nihilism that is the modern predicament can turn with the flick of a switch – a radical change of perspective – into the recognition that life has no transcendent meaning, and that it waits for us to affirm it.  In contrast to the denial of the value of this life in favour of that other (true and eternal) life that Nietzsche sees as having saturated our thought with such heaviness, nihilism can lead us to affirm this life, to love the earth and our bodies and temporal existence in all its fleeting richness.  When the shepherd in the vision at the climax of Thus Spoke Zarathustra finally bites off the head of the snake that is choking him, he is transformed into a “dancing, laughing being”, a powerful, healthy and unserious but philosophical sort of creature such as the earth has not yet seen.  Zarathustra is a prophet for the coming of this new creature, preparing the way for humans to live less seriously and with more substance.  The superhuman lives kinder and smarter and has way more fun doing it.

If it goes without saying that we could all stand to be a little less serious some of the time, it can be hard to imagine being less serious when it comes to those things that we hold to be of the highest importance.  What if you are fighting for social justice?  Is there any sense to the claim that you should be less serious about this endeavour?  Perhaps not, but my guess is that there would be a lot less injustice in the world in the first place if there were less gravity.  We are serious, I think, when our positions involve our own vested interests.  Henry Miller talks about the “ferocious gaiety” of a certain philosophical indifference that comes with the recognition that “all is flux, all is perishable”.  This refusal of attachment has a very Buddhist element to it, but in Miller’s more Nietzschean view it is very much a sense of dying to moralistic gravity in order to be born to a genuinely celebratory love for the temporal.  Miller as he describes himself is certainly capable of some reprehensible behaviour, but I always think he is the kind of person who would be utterly incapable of real baseness on the scale we now see it every day on the news, and just because of this lightness, this lack of personal investment in anything but expanding his perspective as much as he can.  The very thing that makes him seem cruel to the overly serious – he seems particularly talented at bringing impious hilarity to funeral scenes in Tropic of Capricorn, for example – is what makes him relatively harmless, as well as enormously fun and full of life.  Making light of things, and its concomitant irreverence, seems incompatible with genuine cruelty.  I wonder – if we take some position to be of great importance and are passionate about it without any personal interest whatsoever, would it not necessarily be a good, affirmative position?  Or put another way, is it even possible to be passionate about something that is negative and destructive without some personal interest guiding us?  I suspect not.  Of course, it must be nearly impossible to be entirely free of personal interest in anything.  But we can aim for that, and can aim to be less serious people, without having to let go of the notion that some things really are more important than others.  Some things call for our commitment and passion and dedicated attention, and may be harder to laugh about, but in this short life if we begin to take anything too seriously we may get stuck in the trap of dogmatism.  Since even good causes can turn dogmatic, I think it is imperative to practice philosophy in the spirit of levity, and to make a clear distinction between the important and the serious.


Happiness 2

November 22, 2010
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Saturday night’s philosophy salon felt like a big step in my quest to convince people that philosophy can be fun.  Although I did my best to turn our guests off the pursuit of happiness, some would not be deterred.  We had some good laughs, some fabulous food and some enlightening conversation.  I particularly liked how willing many people were to share very personal experiences in illustrating their points, so that it wasn’t just about happiness as an abstract idea but about how that idea shapes our lives.  It got me thinking about this entire project and how it forces me to think about philosophical ideas in an entirely new way.  When I prepare for a salon I have to think about why the topic might be important and interesting to people in very concrete ways, which becomes revealing of the fact that I don’t do that nearly enough when I’m teaching at the university.  In some ways this is inevitable in university teaching, and has its good reasons as well as its bad, but it makes salons and their more practical focus all the more interesting and illuminating for me.  At the same time, I feel that the value of a salon for non-philosophers is that it encourages us to draw out the significance of our experiences and reflect on them more deeply than we usually do when we just share them in an entirely anecdotal conversation.  I think we achieved that balance beautifully Saturday night, and I was really excited about how engaged people were.  I had imagined that after we broke for dinner people would abandon the topic and just enjoy the party in the usual ways, but everyone seemed so eager to keep talking about it that I was convinced to call the group to order a second time – and was very glad that I did since that was when things got really intense, as well as hilarious.  I will not underestimate the allure of philosophy ever again…

I was also very much encouraged in my mission with Plutarch’s Table by all the positive comments about the concept.  As I’ve said before, I find that philosophy is not well understood out in the world, and that people generally think it sounds either boring or above their heads, and to be honest it’s been a bit tough convincing people to attend a philosophy salon.  It might be that the people who do end up coming out are already receptive to the idea, but it was very gratifying to have people leave with a big smile and tell me that they had a wonderful time and would love to do another philosophy salon.  And of course before the night was done the hamster in my head was already running on the wheel, cooking up new topics that I think would be fun.  Someone suggested “monogamy”, and I thought this would be fabulous as a deeply controversial topic that raises questions about biology and evolution, socialization, and human emotion and need.  I was also thinking that the mind-body problem would be a fun one, as well as really interesting.  It’s one of those things many people haven’t explicitly considered and yet we have very deep intuitions about it.  I am also planning a salon on Love, around Valentine’s day next year, so details will follow in the new year.  Happily, Victoria is in too, and chocolate will be featured on the menu.

Thanks so much to everyone who came out and participated with such enthusiasm.  Check out all our info to see how you can host your own salon.  And huge thanks to Victoria, whose amazing food can be delivered to your door.  Thanks also to Jane and Sarah for all their help, and to Jane again for making the cookies that were the highlight of at least one person’s evening.


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About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at www.joannapolley.wordpress.com for information about my philosophical therapy services.

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