It's time for me to come clean. I've been doing something that most would say is well beneath my social station, indeed that is a betrayal of my entire profession. I have been out hustling, working the streets for money, in exchange for my philosophical services.
I don't regret it. In fact I think it's one of the best ideas I've ever had.
Let me explain. I have significant financial commitments, which I need not describe here, but which, you'll just have to take my word for it, ensure that I must constantly be thinking of ways to enhance my income. At the same time, I have decided to move to one of the most expensive cities in the world, and to do so without a moving allowance, and with considerable costs stemming from the relocation. This decision has brought it about that money is nearly always on my mind these past months, and has got me thinking like some anxious Duddy Kravitz, convinced of only two things: that everyone is out to get me, and that I've got the smarts to beat 'em.
It hasn't been easy to adapt to this new deformation, mind you. I'm a philosopher, after all, and I was long attached to the idea that this vocation entails a contempt for filthy luchre. Here at this site, I have not enjoyed turning to the readers for donations, like some grovelling caricature artist on Montmartre, when for years I had proudly proclaimed that I maintain this site strictly for the love of it. But our career choice does not exempt us from the burdens of living in the world, and if circumstances require it, philosophers are required to jump into the rat race along with everyone else. There are really only two ways they can do this: they can go with Thales, who speculated on olive presses and made a fortune just to show he had a head for business too; or they can peddle their skills as the Sophists did. I don't know anything about olive presses, or their latter day descendants in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, so I decided to take the Sophist route.
What do I mean when I say I am practicing sophistry? I mean that I meet customers and have philosophical conversations with them, in exchange for money. I got the idea when I arrived in Paris and I thought of all the tourists who have romantic ideas of what goes on in sidewalk cafés, who have some fantasy of themselves in the role of Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. I thought to myself: I can help them with that! I identified what Thales might have called a 'market niche', and I produced a flyer:
Bringing together elements of the ancient Greek elenchus, existentialist musing, modern talk therapy, and interactive performance art, this is a simultaneously novel, yet very ancient, way of engaging with philosophical ideas.
Here's how it works: You buy the philosopher an espresso, and get ready to explore the ideas of meaning, truth, God, death, fate, paradox, etc.
Rates start at 60 Euros for a two-hour session. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I saw to it that this flyer appeared in places frequented by Anglophone tourists. I created a Facebook page. I even took out an ad in the London Review of Books, somewhat mischievously under the 'Psychotherapy' heading (it will appear on August 22).
For a long time I had thought that I should keep this work secret, but I changed my mind when I realized, first, that there really is no shame in this game, and, second, that going public with it might help me to drum up some business.
I think the first inkling of an idea of this project came long before arriving in Paris, when I was working as an 'interpreter' for the exhibition of Tino Sehgal's This Situation at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal. My job was to spontaneously engage museum visitors, along with five other interpreters, in philosophical conversations based on the recitation of a select philosophical text that had been memorized beforehand. Something hit me in the middle of this work: this is often at least as interesting, philosophically speaking, as what goes on in, say, an undergraduate introductory course in philosophy. Often, it is far more interesting. The people who come to the museum are mature, curious, and ready to engage with unexpected ideas and arguments.
Much the same can be said of people who seek out philosophical conversations in Paris cafés. It's clichéd, yes, it may even be a symptom of the famous 'Paris syndrome'. But the ideas are still there. As with the museum context, moreover, the open-endedness of the situation, the fact that we aren't sure what the rules are, the fact that we are entering into a socially and institutionally unfamiliar form of philosophical exchange, ensures that in contrast with the university context unexpected insights and conversational twists are very likely to arise. (Of course, nothing beats an advanced seminar on a difficult topic, where everyone can claim some real expertise, but this is far from the only sort of exchange one has in the university, and indeed it is becoming increasingly rare these days.)
And, of course, in all three contexts --the university, the museum, the café-- money is involved. It's just that in the first two of these we have the institutions to launder the money for us, to create some distance between the activity and the remuneration, and therefore to allow us the illusion that we are not 'in it for the money'. But I have never met a tenured professor who works for free, and in this respect we are all, every one of us, Sophists. Disdain for the sort of initiative I am taking here has much more to do with small-minded veneration of institutions than it does with respect for the purity of philosophy.
The café conversations are great: they are delirious, free-wheeling, spontaneous combinations of imagination, argument, self-criticism; they remind me of my best undergrad classes, of the best moments at the Montreal museum interpreting Sehgal, of the most revelatory moments one might experience in proper psychotherapy, of the most pithy scenes from the best Woody Allen movies, and, yes, a bit of what it must have been like to be Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Café Flore. It's fun. It's not rigorously academic, but neither is, say, reading the LRB or going to the Louvre, yet we all agree that these activities are somehow para-academically edifying. At 60 Euros for a two-hour session, it's a very good deal. If you or someone you know are in Paris, you should give it a try.
I'm a Sophist and I don't regret it. In an absolute sense I wish I didn't have to do this-- lord knows I could use the time to work on my ample and serious research projects. But quite honestly this sure as hell beats, say, teaching some awful online summer course. In fact I hope to see the business model duplicated, and to see other philosophers who have the right sort of skills and temperament try the same thing in their own cities. Just don't crowd in on me in Paris. I've got this place covered.