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Thoughtful Pause

St. Louis' Philosophical Cafe offers everyone -- not just academics -- the opportunity to discuss the great questions of life


The young professionals arrive first, juggling lattes and briefcases as they climb to the mezzanine of the Library Ltd. cafe. Then a grad student straggles up the stairs -- grad students always seem to straggle -- followed by two shy but friendly middle-aged women. A Zen practitioner with a sense of humor. An engineer. And Buddy Goodman.

The yuppies take him in slowly, first noting the ink-stained fingers (a retired printer?), ball cap and windbreaker (could be blue-collar, could be shabby-genteel). Eventually they will register the passionate intelligence, as Goodman pins a brash young attorney to the mat with a few well-chosen words. But first, Dave Hilditch -- who teaches philosophy at Webster University and instigated this freewheeling, deliberately amateur Philosophical Cafe at great risk to his scholarly image -- must explain the procedure.

He does so gently, his long craggy face disarming. Anyone can suggest a question or idea that bears reflection. The group votes on the evening's topic, then goes at it for 90 minutes. Hilditch guides the discussion, steering away from cant and Kant alike, offering deft summings-up.

He describes the Philosophical Cafe as a new movement, one that's wresting philosophy from the bony clutches of dessicated academics and returning it to laypersons. Goodman can't restrain a small, amused smile. "It's not new at all," he remarks later, in private. "We were doing this in Paris, when I studied existentialism at the Sorbonne."

The Sorbonne? Plots do thicken. "Actually, I haven't been interested in philosophy for the past 40 years," he continues smoothly. "I dropped it. Got more interested in mythical, instinctive things." Now retired -- after a checkered career running small companies, finding jobs for executives, fighting for civil rights, organizing academic education for call girls (so they'd be free to pursue another line of work) and hunting jobs for the homeless -- Goodman has both the time and the inclination to think. But what first drove him, a randy young American fresh from World War II heroics, to re-cross the ocean and study existentialism instead of easing into his family's successful dry-goods business in the old Washington Avenue garment district?

"Well, if we are going to do remembrance of things past," he begins wryly, "I first read Will Durant's History of Philosophy in high school. It was very exciting, opening my mind to Aristotle, Nietzsche, Rousseau ... but it didn't give me too much guidance in my life."

Then came the war, whose atrocities shook the stuffing out of his pacifist opinions. Goodman surprised himself by enlisting, and says he spent most of the World War II years climbing mountains in Italy, heavily bearded, carrying a bayonet and 20 hand grenades and using them often. "I fell in love with an Italian girl and deserted for a day," he adds, eyes glinting with nostalgia and irony in equal parts. "Later I wrote play about desertion called The Land Between." His eyes darken. "I saw a lot of 'lands between.'"

When Goodman came home, armed now with the GI Bill, he enrolled at Washington University and "took everything that wasn't practical -- sociology, art, drama and comparative literature." Then he headed for Paris, which was already flooded with young Americans re-examining their mores. "We were seeing how we had been fashioned in very neat compartmental ways, and we were trying to escape all that," he says, alluding to sexual as well as political awakenings. "What existentialism taught was that you must become engage -- personally involved in life." That means you look for what is authentic, he adds. Get outside of yourself. Rid language of its prejudices. "That is how you prove who you are," he finishes triumphantly. "If you don't do that, how do you know who you are?"

Conviction still roughens his voice, four decades later. "Those two years in Paris shaped my life," he admits. "It was the only time where philosophical thought was inexorably related to engagement, to making choices about how you lived. Talking about ideas, it was like sex! People from Senegal or Vietnam, bourgeois French girls with their hair cut very short, snipped in different directions in defiance of their mothers ... we'd all mix together in Montparnasse. Americans were lionized, invited to all the salons."

He says so matter-of-factly, too tuned to human nature's vagaries to buy the flattery. "The big question in Paris then," he continues, "was, 'Why didn't more French people oppose the Germans? Why did we cooperate?'" While that question burned, half the countries of the world were freeing themselves, and civil-rights movements were coming to life. "Liberty, equality and fraternity," he murmurs, marveling at how neatly his experience in Paris fit the triptych.

It's a rainy Monday evening, and the suggested topics for the cafe scatter like free-range chickens. "Is destiny fate?" a woman asks tentatively. "Can violence be used to contain violence?" offers another. "Whether spirits are real," murmurs a man. "What is security?" suggests Hilditch -- as an untenured professor, he's been musing about this.

The circle ends with Goodman. "Love and pride," he says. "The struggle between them." Seeing bemused looks, he explains, "If you don't have love, you sometimes have pride. But love saves you from pride." He glances warmly at his second wife, Jo Goodman, a quiet blonde whose insights, rarely voiced, carry enough simple force to turn a discussion.

Still, violence wins, and the floor is soon bathed with the blood of Kosovo. Hilditch drains off some of the emotion with a hypothetical puzzler: If someone's holding 10 people hostage, is it OK to kill one innocent hostage along with the kidnapper? People nod sagely, make fine points about saving the good. Goodman asks impatiently: "How do you know who the good guy is before you act?"

He cherishes the role of provocateur. "When I first heard about this cafe, I was afraid it would be like the Great Books discussions I used to go to," he confesses, "everybody talking about themselves and their own ideas, and never about the author and what the author was saying." Instead, the old excitement of ideas kicked into gear -- so forcefully that he started worrying he'd get arrogant, intoxicated by the talk. "Maybe, maybe next time I won't go," he confides. "I don't want to dominate or anything. I felt funny last time, I always do if I talk too much. But some people are so laid-back, I want them to get passionate.

"Europeans use their hands a lot," he adds. "When they argue, you see the hands and elbows and fists flying all over the place. We used to get up on the bed and stomp and shout, be passionate. But Dave has another idea: Keep it cool and laid back, let everybody have their turn, be calm and ... philosophical." Can he adjust to this bloodless peace? "I think I can," he says.

As for soft-voiced Hilditch, his "first impression of Buddy was, 'Oh no. This guy is really coming out of left field.' But I was wrong. He's a perfect example of the 'working intellectual,' somebody who's committed to the life of the mind even though they're not academics. I admire his passion. He's thirsty for a genuine intellectual ex-change, and this strikes me as something that is increasingly rare. People are afraid of conflict, so they paper over substantive differences, and there's a pervasive relativism about values -- 'What's true for me may not be true for you' -- which can undermine productive conversation. Buddy's no relativist. And he's not afraid of the face-to-face."

Hilditch started these monthly, free-and-open-to-the-public cafes last fall, following the model of the Socrates Cafes on the East and West coasts. They, in turn, had taken their cue from Paris, where the first "cafe-philo" started in 1992 as an informal weekly gathering of sociable academics. One happened to mention their meeting place during a radio interview. The next Sunday, a handful of strangers showed up all bright-eyed: "Is this where the philosophers meet?"

Forced into graciousness, the group opened their talks to the public, and the crowd built each week. Now about 20 cafes-philo meet weekly in Paris, with 100 or so more across France and clones in Brussels, Bonn, Geneva, London.

And St. Louis.
Will a cafe-philo fly in the land of beer, baseball, irate talk radio and Reader's Digest? "It will if people realize it's practical," says Hilditch, whose monthly cafe started with a handful of acquaintances and grew to 25 people. For the ancients, he points out, philosophy was a routine questioning of values and assumptions, an everyday practice aimed at finding the good life and living it wisely. It was not, in other words, the paid hobby of eggheads.

"Professional philosophers have too often detached ourselves from the nonacademic world," admits Hilditch. "The love of wisdom -- which is how Aristotle defined philosophy -- is not an abstract, bloodless intellectual interrogation. Philosophical conversation is a face-to-face with other viewpoints. It puts our very selves into question."

The sprouting of similar discussion groups across the country has gained recent notice. National Public Radio's To the Best of Our Knowledge last month featured the "philosophical movement," opening with eager questions for the organizer of the New York philosophical cafes. And the New York Times last year examined the movement's birthplace, interviewing Parisians who crowd into the tiny Cafe des Phares on Sunday mornings. One woman said she comes to clear her head. A man said he found it a pleasant relief to talk to strangers without being taken for a flirt or a drug addict. Pascal Hardy, one of the movement's founders, said, "Everyone is taken for what they say and not for what they represent socially."

An appealing notion. What if it does take root in Midwestern soil? "It would be a pleasant problem if we grew large enough to have to start another cafe on another evening or afternoon," Hilditch says with a shrug. He also hopes to establish cafes in high schools and nursing homes, and eventually open "a center for philosophical wisdom" he'd call Eidos, where people could learn and talk without the pretense, expense and expectations of formal coursework.

Goodman nods, favoring the idea: "I have lived for 50 years since Paris, and only now am I beginning to understand these terms." He decided, back then, to be a freethinker and to live each choice deliberately. "What I didn't know," he grins, "was how much it takes out of you."

The Philosophical Cafe meets at 7:30 p.m. on the second Monday of every month on the upper level of the Stacks Cafe at Library Ltd., Forsyth and Hanley.