Nocturnal Philosophising

Well, I survived the My Night With Philosophers event at the Institut français, and so I’m now heading home after a long night of heady philosophy for some serious sleeping. It was an excellent and astonishingly well-attended event. I suspect that the organisers were surprised by the turn-out: you could see the light of panic in their eyes as the foyer filled up with more and more people, as the photocopier began to malfunction, as the coffee supply failed to keep pace with the incessant demand, and as the queues for the sessions grew longer and longer…

But, for all that, it was a wonderful, graciously organised, friendly and stimulating night. The people at the Institut did a remarkable job at programming and organising the event, and the volunteers did a good job at staying sane and cheerful throughout what must have been an exceedingly busy and very, very long night for them all. There was some thinning out of the crowds from two o’clock onwards, but at four o’clock in the morning the main lecture theatre was still densely populated, and most of us were still awake and alert, coffee or no coffee.

You can fit a lot into twelve hours, although inevitably I missed some of the things I would have liked to have attended as there was simply too much to do. By five, more or less sated when it came to philosophy, I managed to get into the café for a proper coffee, the queue having at last died down. I ordered a cappuccino. A woman from the BBC who was standing next to me at the bar stammered something like, “It’s five AM, they’re playing Celine Dion, there are philosophers dancing: that’s how a night should end…”, then she headed off through the crowd with two large gin and tonics. I found myself a corner and wrote up some scribbled notes in my notebook. All around me people chatted about Derrida, about politics, about Quine, about how speaker x was pretty darned hot, about how one might best go about plotting a revolution, about how next time they’d bring a thermos flask, and about how they really hoped there would be a next time.

There is a perception—a misperception, I think—that in Britain we don’t really “do” philosophy (whilst in France, presumably, it’s all they do. Oh, and go on strike, of course). But the fact that an event like this can draw in such massive crowds suggests that there’s a real appetite for this stuff. Even some philosophy sceptics I talked to last night seemed excited to be there, and were willing to acknowledge that there are worse things to do with your time than spend the night with a philosopher. Or, in fact, with a whole crowd of them…

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