Plutarch's Table

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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The Connected Mind and Henry Miller

November 1, 2010
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Yesterday’s literary salon on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn was such a treat.  We came to the table with some sharply differing interpretations and reactions and I felt that we were able to use that controversial edge to get to some really interesting questions and insights.  As one of our participants put it, regardless of how we each felt about the book, it had us all deeply engaged – and what more could we ask of a work?  Having spent the last 15 or so years doing philosophy as an almost entirely solitary activity, I am amazed at how much more productive it can be to think collaboratively.  Yesterday I definitely discovered some corners into which my mind and imagination had never before ventured, and I think that it was the multiplicity of perspectives and the deep sense from everybody that what we were talking about mattered, that made this possible.  This got me thinking about a great talk I saw recently on TED, about collaboration and the connected mind. A great quote at the end of the talk, in case you haven’t the time to watch it all – “chance favours the connected mind”.  A Milleresque sentiment, I think.

Thanks to our wonderful hosts and to everyone who came out and contributed so generously to what turned out to be a highly enjoyable and stimulating discussion.


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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