Plutarch's Table

Happiness 2 | November 22, 2010

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.



  1. Can you do home delivery, for those who can’t make it?

    Comment by john mullarkey — November 22, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    • A virtual salon? I’ll work on it. In the meantime, you’ll get your chance in June, when I’m in England. Should I open up a London branch?

      Comment by Joanna Polley — November 22, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  2. Thanks for opening my mind up to another way to connect with people in a group activity. Thanks Vic for the amazing food. I really hope you offer more of these! I think your idea around monogamy for the next one is excellent. The film “the last night” made loads of people engage in debate. Sign me up for your next one regardless. It’s like brain gymnastics and we all need to keep questioning our firmly held beliefs and values. I’ll bring the cookies again!

    Comment by Jane — November 22, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

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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 for information about my philosophical therapy services.







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