Plutarch's Table

Examined Life

September 29, 2010
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I finally saw Examined Life.  Something in me had been resisting it, even though a film that attempts to ‘bring philosophy back to the streets’ should be right up my alley.  Every time I had seen it in the video store and had felt obliged to rent it, I would tell myself that I was in the mood for something more entertaining, or gripping, or dramatic, or suspenseful, or funny.  Not surprisingly Examined Life turns out to be none of these things.  I know that philosophy has a reputation out there for being boring, but I happen to think that it doesn’t have to be that way and that this represents a misunderstanding about philosophy that Examined Life is not helping to dismantle.  In my minority opinion, philosophy can and ought to be – and sometimes is – entertaining, gripping, dramatic, suspenseful and funny.

Nobody in their right mind could claim that Cornell West or Slavov Zizek are boring philosophers, but although there were good moments in each of their monologues, watching them yapping in taxis and garbage dumps was a big yawn.  I couldn’t agree more that philosophy should get out of its tower and into the streets, but talking heads is clearly not the way to do it.  I am a particular kind of philosopher, it’s true, and my opinion surely does not represent the academic orthodoxy, but for me the great moments of philosophy happen in that instant when we discover something new, something we hadn’t thought of before.  Philosophy should be active, learning as it goes, rather than simply reporting to the audience what it has discovered back in the armchair, back in the age of Socrates.  In a university lecture this happens very rarely nowadays because of enormous class sizes, but when it does happen it is when the students get to see the professor engaged with a text or a question or a new thought and actually thinking with it out loud.  Wherever it happens it is active, a moment when some outside force pushes its way into our familiar view of things.  Students (and those people in the streets that according to Cornell West have nothing at all going on in their heads), learn philosophy by watching it happen and not by taking down information output that might as well be online.  As Gilles Deleuze says, philosophy is an apprenticeship.  Bringing philosophy to the streets should not be about philosophers telling the people down below what to think, as they seemed to be doing by using the cityscapes as mere backdrops or props for their clearly rehearsed speeches.  It should be about dropping those philosophers into the urban environment and making them interact with it and learn from what they come across or are confronted by.  The philosophers shouldn’t get to do all the talking, either.

Judith Butler’s segment was the one exception, as she was navigating the streets in dialogue with a disabled friend.  Not only was Butler getting flashes of insight from her friend’s responses and observations, but the audience got to see what it might be like to negotiate the city streets in a wheelchair as these two women used this situation to guide their thinking.  This indeed was philosophy on the move, living and breathing and responding.  On the other side of the spectrum was a feminist Derrida-spouting philosopher who I admit I had never heard of, and who suddenly made me see why all my fellow students had made fun of me for studying Continental Philosophy.  Lord please tell me that I never sounded like that.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t saying anything smart in her post-modern jargon that no non-philosopher would ever be able to decipher, but it seemed to add absolutely nothing valuable to the world – and nothing that hadn’t already been written by the 1950s.  Peter Singer was delightful just because he is delightful and everything he says is so perfectly spot-on, and Nussbaum and Hardt and Zizek all fared better, I thought, than Ronell and West because they were presenting really new ideas, ideas that at least were new when they wrote them in their books.  But then this is really just bringing books to the streets – where they can already be found – rather than creating an opportunity for philosophy to be confronted by the reality on the street or for anyone on the ground, or in the audience, to be given a chance to learn what it means to be philosophical.


Literary Salons/Book Club

September 21, 2010
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Plutarch’s Table offers literary salons that you can host in your own home.  These events work for the most part like a book club.  Most often a book club will meet at regular intervals to discuss a book that every member has read.  What we add to this picture is a stimulating philosophical orientation, so that instead of simply discussing your subjective reactions to the work your conversation will be guided by the deeper philosophical issues that the book raises.  In this way your experience of a work of literature can come to be a deeply thoughtful and productive one, and the engagement between members can transcend polite respect for the opinions of others.  The atmosphere is always lively but never hostile; the salon is a welcoming and egalitarian setting where conflicting ideas challenge us to higher levels of both thinking and camaraderie.  The format is usually a short talk on the work and then a facilitated discussion that is guided by the philosophical issues raised but in no way restricts the ability of participants to follow their own ideas and questions.

Food and drink is encouraged at Literary Salons.  These are less often dinner parties and more often wine and cheese events, but we are open to all of your great ideas for the set-up.  Food, drink, venue and guests is where you get to work your part of the magic for this event, though I also work with an outstanding caterer and can bring the whole package to your home.

Please contact me for more information at

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Philosophy Salons

September 21, 2010

The Appeal of the Salon

Salons have been a regular feature of human society throughout our history, from the Athenian Symposia to the café culture of Paris in the 1920s.  The word came into use in the 17th century, through salons that were most often hosted by women who had no official role in the political sphere but refused to be excluded from public engagement.  They gathered around them writers, artists, intellectuals, and like-minded citizens who came together to share ideas and inspire and learn from one another.  Not only have salons such as these been credited for inciting large-scale historical change like the French and American revolutions, but they have also been responsible for stimulating on a smaller scale everything from artistic movements to greater civic engagement to a more thoughtful populace on the whole.  Salons allow us the public forum to voice our ideas and the chance to learn how to think and share ideas in a more satisfying way, in a setting that is welcoming, stimulating and egalitarian.  In our age of technological speed and instant gratification, I like to think of the salon as slow food for the mind, where we take the time to ask the deeper questions and expand the limits of our too-familiar worlds, in the company of friends old and new.  And of course with some great food and wine.

Plutarch’s Table salons

Plutarch’s Table specializes in salon evenings that you can host in your own home and we are open to any great ideas that you want to put into action.  Our orientation is philosophical but we believe that almost any topic can be approached philosophically, so we are happy to consult with you in designing a topic that suits your own interests and that you think will be particularly stimulating for your guests.  All talks and discussions are designed for non-philosophers.

Some clients like to host a regular salon evening with changing but related topics, while others like to host the occasional dinner party as a separate event.  The event can be a wine and cheese, a dinner party, a cocktail party, or anything that involves food and drink and socializing.

I also work with a fabulous caterer and can arrange and run the entire event from start to finish.

Other Events

I also offer Literary Salons, which work something like book clubs, and I periodically host my own Salon evenings.  Check Upcoming Events to see what’s happening.

Contact me for more information at

Le Volpi e l’Uva

September 21, 2010
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This was taken in Florence, at my favourite enoteca called “Le Volpi e l’Uva” (Foxes and Grapes).  I had my first taste here of a truly great Italian Gewurztraminer, and remembered for the first time since those miserable years in grad school that the really valuable philosophy is done by those who are able to find life enjoyable.

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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.

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 for information about my philosophical therapy services.