Monday March 1, 2010
This weekend, I’ve been doing philosophy of sorts. I’m writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on Coffee & Philosophy, which has been a lot of fun. The piece I’m writing is a defence of idle lounging in coffee shops when one really ought to be doing something more apparently useful elsewhere, and takes as it’s main starting point the following text from my old philosophical friend (in the sense that I’ve read his books, rather than in the sense that he and I ever shared a cuppa together), Emmanuel Levinas:
The café is a place of casual social intercourse, without mutual responsibility. One goes in not needing to. One sits down without being tired. One drinks without being thirsty. All because one does not want to stay in one’s room. You know that all evils occur as a result of our incapacity to stay alone in our room. The café is not a place. It is a non-place for a non-society, for a society without solidarity, without tomorrow, without commitment, without common interests, a game society. The café, house of games, is the point through which game penetrates life and dissolves it. Society without yesterday or tomorrow, without responsibility, without seriousness–distraction, dissolution. At the movies, a common theme is presented on the screen; in the theatre, a common theme is presented on the stage. In the café, there are no themes. Here you are, each at your own little table with your cup or your glass. You relax completely to the point of not being obligated to anyone or anything; and it is because it is possible to go and relax in a café that one tolerates the horrors and injustices of a world without a soul.
This is a peculiar passage, and one that says an awful lot about Levinas’s approach to ethics. Playfulness is, for Levinas, the very antithesis of ethical sobriety, a kind of disavowal of our responsibility towards others. I don’t want to anticipate the contents of the chapter, but my response is roughly something like this: to argue that places of respite – coffee shops, parks, Epicurean gardens – are necessary, if we are to be able to creatively reimagine the world, if we are to respond to the ethical demands upon us with any measure of grace and of skill. Or, in other words, it may be that the responsible thing, at times, may be to lurk in a coffee shop, to lounge in the park, or the hang out drinking wine and eating cheese in the Epicurean garden: at least until, as Śāntideva says, our ethical action itself becomes as joyful as the capering of an elephant on a hot day, plunging now into this cool pool of lotus flowers.
I suspect Levinas would disapprove of all this caffeine-fuelled ethical friskiness. But then, Levinas was apparently never a great coffee drinker: it seems that he enjoyed tea instead, and then only in moderation. Once, according to Simon Critchley’s book On Humour, when Levinas was drinking tea with a friend, the great Jewish philosopher refused a second cup. “Ah, non!,” he said, “je ne peux pas. Je suis mono-thé-iste…”
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
A Little Light Reading: Friday October 26, 2007
A handy resource for consciousness studies….
Self Evident Experience?: Friday February 23, 2007
What’s going on… and what we think is going on…
The Demon, Impermanence: Thursday August 10, 2006
Computer failure at thinkBuddha.org
Fluidity and Thought: Tuesday January 6, 2009
The snagging of thoughts
More on the Transhumanist Debate: Friday November 23, 2007
More on Marvin Minsky, Transhumanism and the New Scientist.
A Hedge of Roses: thoughts on ethics and aesthetics: Saturday April 24, 2010
Emmanuel Levinas’s Nine Talmudic Readings, and the pleasures of coffee.
Buddhism and Philosophy Part II - Practices of Freedom: Tuesday December 6, 2005
Philosophy and Buddhism as practices of freedom.
Effervescence: Thursday September 30, 2010
A few notes on Ernst Bloch’s “The Principle of Hope”
Slippery truths: Wednesday December 10, 2008
Toughts on Mark Siderits’s Empty Persons.
Vain, Deluded, Pigheaded, Secretive, Bigoted...: Thursday February 14, 2008
That’s the trouble with the mind – it has a mind of it’s own.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.