Ethical Friskiness

Monday March 1, 2010

Frisky Coffee

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 , 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…”

# · David Chapman

Are you really writing about coffee and philosophy? How wonderful…

My impression from Sea-Legs was that you disagree with Levinas about almost everything, other than our theoretically infinite responsibility to each other. (Which, as you pointed out, is also a Mahayana tenet.) I confess that I knew almost nothing of Levinas before reading your book; that might be true of other readers. To me he came across as a dour and disagreeable character, who seemed also to have little useful to say. Perhaps that was not your intention, and it may have been an idiosyncratic reading on my part.

However, it left me unsure why you framed so much of your story as a response to him. Why should we care what he says? Maybe the coffee book can make this clearer… or have less to say about him.

# · Jayarava

Clearly Emmanuel Levinas was not English or referring to English cafés. There is minimal social intercourse casual or otherwise here. Even the staff want to limit how much they have to interact with strangers. It’s quite depressing. It might be more true of the English pub I suppose, though I seldom visit them. The only casual social intercourse I’ve had in English cafés (in 8 years now) has been with Americans and Australians.

I guess that Levinas is French? First saying something ‘it is a place’ then enigmatically taking it back ‘it is a non-place’; a place of social-intercourse, but also of isolation. He can’t make up his mind, but then at the end we see why he is so equivocal about life: he seeks only to “tolerate the horrors and injustices of a world without a soul”. Oh, the pathos. Is this, perhaps, the mournful cry of an ex-Catholic who has given up God, but not guilt?

And you see him as playful? He sounds morbid. I don’t doubt you will find a more lively tone judging by your blog.

Years ago a library I was working in bought a book on coffee and I recall a Turkish proverb from it: “Coffee should be: as dark as night; as strong as a camel; and as sweet as love.”


# · Will

I should probably also speak in Levinas’s defence, because his phenomenological approach to ethics – although it is cast in the form of a peculiarly gloomy kind of drama that I find unpalatable – is one that has a lot of merits; and he does get at some of the central problems of ethical experience. So I remain grateful to Levinas, even if I don’t buy the whole story (although Levinas tries very hard to insist that this is not a story he is telling…)

Jayarava – I commend you on your astuteness – but with all that “place” and “non-place” stuff, what else could Levinas be but French? I probably haven’t made myself clear enough, but I certainly don’t find Levinas playful (leaden jokes about tea-drinking on one side). One of the things that I have the most difficulty with in Levinas is the fact that he is suspicious of playfulness, and he claims that in playfulness there is a disavowal of our responsibility. This seems to me to be mistaken. As for the kinds of cafés Levinas is talking about, we are safe to assume that he is not talking about your local greasy spoon…

# · Matt Anthony

Will….I enjoyed “Ethical Friskiness”! It makes me miss coffee and coffee-shops, especially the “coffee” part. Being an acid-reflux sufferer, I’m supposed to stay away from coffee. I drink something called “Teeccino”, which is a horrible word meaning, “almost-all organic stuff that tastes nothing like coffee”. (but, I reward myself on the weekends with a hearty helping of local java. Man cannot live by Teeccino alone!)

Enjoy your blog…


# · leo thompson

I currently live in Vienna, and, as you can imagine, the Viennese know a thing or two about cafe’s- or coffee houses, as they’d prefer.

I read your post with interest, because Coffee Houses are close to my heart. That said, the Viennese Coffee House is an entirely different creature to the English Coffee houses- if I can apply such a term- that I’ve ‘not’ frequented. Perhaps visited once, never to return.

To wheel around the philosophical aspect of this, I’d say that in Vienna (and I’ll stop saying Vienna now because it must be annoying), the c.houses are a hive of activity. Seriously. Not ten minutes walk from my house is The Cafe Prukel, founded in 1904. The waiters are dressed like butlers and take their work very seriously. The place is what the Austrians refer to as ‘mundane’- for them quaint, grand, and a touch tatty, but certainly no flea pit..i.e. Chandeliers, buffed old furniture, ancient table cloths and tea sets. But these places are bustling with everyone from business types, autodidacts, and fly on the wall types (me) to tramps. People conduct meetings in there, go there to write, read the papers, meet secretly- one couple discussed their affair, and ended it, on the table next to me.

I for one regard this place as a sort of people zoo and can’t get enough of them.

So, yes Levinas is right on one level- you can go there without responsibility, but I am with you in the fact that these places can provide a space to watch, reflect, escape, play, or even cheat on one’s partner! The space is vital.

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