Philosophy and Bar: Reconciling Antipodes

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Editor's note: The following piece was written in 1998, reconciling the place of the bar in academia. The author has since become a professor of Philosophy here, at the University of Guelph.--Ed.


Amit enters a local pub in Sandy Hill to get a drink when he sees Joe ‘the beard’, a friend from the University of Ottawa, sitting at the bar talking to someone. Amit had not seen Joe since Amit defended his doctoral thesis in philosophy six months ago. Joe, too, is trying to complete his doctoral degree at U of O in political science. Not having shaved his thick beard for long, the nickname, ‘the beard,’ was given to Joe by students involved in student politics, where he has been active for a couple of years now. Amit sits beside him and orders a beer.

Amit: Hey bud. Long time no see.

Joe: Hey, look who it is: my friend the philosopher. How you’ve been? Let me introduce you to my buddy here. This is Dewayne, and this is Amit my philosopher friend.

Amit and Dewayne exchange greetings, and then Joe asks: Tell me, how does it feel to be a doctor?

Amit: Given that I am unemployed, broke, and dispirited it very much feels like I am still a student.  How about you, what are you up to these days?

Joe: Well, actually it is good that I ran into you. I have a project that might interest you. I am trying to put together a collection of essays on different aspects of life at the bar, and I am soliciting papers from friends in different disciplines. I wanted to ask you to write a small piece on “Philosophy and Bar”. What do you say?

Amit: The idea of the collection sounds interesting, but I am not sure about the piece on “Philosophy and Bar”.

Joe: How come? What do you mean?

Amit: Well, because philosophy is not what takes place at bars, or what first comes to mind when thinking of bars, or at a bar.

Joe: What do you mean? Aren’t we talking sort of philosophy right now, here at the bar?

Amit: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we are talking about philosophy here at the bar; and no, in the sense that this conversation is not consistent with our typical understanding of either philosophy or bar. Philosophy, in so far as it can be uncontroversially understood, refers to our most sober thinking, and, as we all well know, the bar is not a place for sober thinking. That is to say, while there are sober people in the bar, generally they don’t go to bars to remain sober. In that sense, bar and philosophy are not the best of co-joiners.

Joe: But why the hell not?

At this point Dewayne who has been listening to the conversation with a puzzled look shouts: Watergate!

Joe and Amit turn toward him with inquiring eyes.

Dewayne: Watergate man. (and turns away)

Joe and Amit look at each other and Joe continues: I think you should spell out in more detail why philosophy and bar can’t be suitable co-joiners? And, whether under any conditions they can be co-joiners at all?

Amit: Well, let’s start by finding out what kinds of people go to bar. Would you agree that in general there are two kinds of people who go to the bar: happy people, and those who want to forget?

Joe: Okay… in general, ya.

Amit: Would you also agree that respectively the attitude is either one of joy, alegria, and celebration, or of forgetfulness and resignation by and large?

Joe: I suppose so.

Amit: Now I tend to think that people with the philosophical bug in them are neither (a) happy nor (b) forgetful.

Joe: I don’t know about that. I mean, it certainly is far from being self-evident. You have to fill in the blanks here. By the way don’t you think that I haven’t noticed your Socratic method (raising his eyebrows).

Amit (smiling): Well, to say that philosophers are generally not happy people shouldn’t be too difficult to demonstrate, wouldn’t you say so?

Joe: I don’t know, aren’t there happy philosophers somewhere?

Amit: Let me put it this way, as you know, the business of philosophers is to seek the truth, and truth, as we all know, is usually difficult and bitter. Dealing with truth, therefore, entails a certain degree of stress and unhappiness.

Joe: That’s a neat way of putting it, but still the claim that doing philosophy equals being unhappy seems like a controversial claim, which needs further elaboration.

Amit: Does it? Consider this: Philosophers are the ones who continuously stop and ask, “what is it?”, “how is it?”, “why is it?”, etc. But the fact of the matter is that if you are happy, if you are having fun, you are not concerned with these questions. In the middle of everyday life, when people go about living their lives, philosophers come by, interrupting what the laymen are doing, and ask these questions, whose immediate relevance escape most people. That is why most people find philosophers’ never-ending line of questions annoying (and by the way that was what got Socrates killed). People who live their lives, particularly those who live a happy life, don’t think about these kinds of questions. When one is having fun, it is unlikely for her to stop and ask, “Why am I here?” Similarly, in a middle of a jubilation of a victory party at a bar, for example, the question of “why” never comes up. To ask “why” means that the questioner is disturbed, that he or she is not having fun, that he or she is unsettled, unhappy, and philosophers are an unhappy bunch.

Joe: Okay, suppose that philosophers don’t go to bars to have fun, but given that they are unhappy, maybe they go there to forget the reason for their unhappiness, to suspend their burden and to resign, ah?

At this point Dewayne suddenly shouts even loader than before: Watergate man, Watergate?

Amit smiles and asks Joe: What is his deal?

Joe: Oh, he is a high school buddy.

Amit: Is he a student too?

Joe: No man, he is a working man, a truck driver. Anyway, you were saying …

Amit: To try to forget or to resign is unlikely because it is inconsistent with the attitude of questioning. And consistency, as you know Joe, is one of the greatest virtues in philosophy and contradiction its greatest sin. To ask questions such as “why”, i.e. to be a philosopher, requires a continuous renewal of the question. Specially, when the ordinary man decides that he has had enough and that he wants to live a little, philosophers appear and say things like, “but an unexamined life is not worth living.”  Philosophers cannot forget, they do not want to forget, and they will not let anybody else forget. Indeed, historically the reason why people have rewarded philosophers’ irksome queries with hemlock is to force them to forget and leave people alone.

So, given that the bar scene is host to those who want to have fun and/or those who want to take a break from the burdens of life, and given that your typical philosopher is neither a fun person nor capable of taking a break, it follows that philosophy does not take place in bars.

Joe: But this is so counterintuitive. I have seen philosophy profs many times at this very bar. You are telling me that philosophers don’t go to bar at all.

Amit: Hey, when did I say that? You asked to conjoin philosophy and bar and I said that our most general understanding of what these two words mean makes it difficult to do so. There might be a sober philosopher doing his gig in a bar, but then this should not count as being in a bar since being in a bar means enjoying the relief that is the gift of intoxication in the company of others. I took your initial focus on ‘bar’ to mean a place distinct from a library, or a bus-stop, or a coffee shop, and I took that distinct element to be the possibility of intoxication. Wasn’t that what you meant?

Joe: You crazy philosophy people! Ya, I emphasize bar as a fun place with an uninhibiting effect on people’s interaction. And in that sense I still can’t see why bar is not a great place for intellectual dialogue and philosophy. Think about it, doesn’t intoxication work as a catalyzer that removes our inhibition and releases us from the formal constraints of professional discourse, allowing for a freer discussion. So, you see, philosophy and bar need not be opposites and, as such, I believe one can meaningfully talk philosophy at bar.

Amit jokingly says: You just want to find some support for your drinking, don’t you?

And continues: But as for your argument, it is true that under the haze of intoxication, which allows for fewer distinctions, one behaves with fewer constraints. But this is a double sword. For, while it releases us from our negative limitations, it also erases the positive control that frames our activity. Also, doing philosophy has less to do with freedom and more with rigor because as one can easily see philosophy can survive oppression but not the lack of rigor. And if intoxication has any effect it is to deprive us from rigorous thinking and astute acting.  So, while drunk at a bar we might, in a generous way characteristic of most drunks, think that our conversation is a deep and philosophical one, but any sober witness listening to us would attest that it is not.

Joe: But what about us, what about what we are doing right now?

Amit: What about it?

Joe: Aren’t we doing philosophy?

Amit: You tell me. Are we drunk? The only place in Plato’s dialogues where Socrates and his interlocutors don’t understand each other, are not convinced by each other, and even don’t remember much of their conversation afterward is at the end of Symposium where everyone is wasted. Before the drinking gets out of hand everyone admits that the price of getting drunk would be the loss of rigor and meaning.

Once more Dewayne loudly cries: Watergate!

Amit looks at Joe and this time asks Dewayne: What about Watergate?

Dewayne mumbles: I don’t know man. What happened there?

And turns away.

Joe laughs out load and Amit starts to laugh too, then he continues:.

So, to come back to your question of whether we are doing philosophy or not, I have to say that in so far as our discussion is meaningful and intelligible then we are engaged in an intellectual conversation. But then again we could have this discussion anywhere else. What makes this place unique is the possibility of getting drunk and losing control over the meaningfulness and intelligibility of our talk in which case it won’t qualify as philosophical conversation.

To sum up my friend, philosophy and bar, as a place for pleasant drunkenness, do not mix. One has to make up one’s mind and decide which one to pick.

Then he jokingly continues: In fact, I believe that there was a time when the saying, “she wants to have her cake and eat it too”, was explained by saying, “she wants to do philosophy at bar”.

Joe: But what about the Dionysian philosophy as the example of joyful intoxicated philosophy. Wasn’t that guy a philosopher drunk?

Amit: Ya, that’s better. Now we are getting to the good stuff. Dionysus lived that philosophy and did not do it. The distinction is one of attitude, an ethos. Doing philosophy, or being a philosopher, entails stopping and asking those questions. Living philosophy, however, is to answer those questions through one’s practice and one’s life. If you indulge what I remember from my linguistic undergrad, the infinitive of copula, “to be”, characterizes the former attitude, while the latter attitude is marked by the gerund of the same verb, “being”. The first attitude views the reality as what is and its truth as necessary, universal, and eternal, while, for the second attitude, reality only becomes and its truth is contingent, local, and temporary.  For our purposes, this distinction throws a new light on the question of the compatibility of philosophy and bar. For, now we can say that while one cannot do philosophy at bar, one can live philosophy at bar by having a good time, by affirming the moment. Therefore, philosophy and bar are co-joiners only in so far as philosophizing is taken to mean having fun.  

Joe: So, wait a second now, we can engage in philosophy at bar if we take it to mean as activity that is internal to, and consistent with the life at bar?

Amit: As our linguist grad, students would say: “That ‘sounds’ right”, and that would be what I am saying. In this sense engaging in philosophy doesn’t mean speaking with roar and smoke so to make others believe that your voice is the voice of truth. Rather, it means completely an unpretentious mode of comportment, one consistent with, and related to one’s experience at that moment. To be philosophical at a bar then is not to retreat to a corner and debate the possibility of reviving metaphysics, for example, but to enjoy oneself, to tell a few jokes, to play a game, to make a few toasts, to greet a few friends, and to dance. This is a practical philosophy, that is to say, the philosophy of doing things right, of living right. Philosophy and bar are co-joiners if the former can help us be at bar right, if it can help us being a good drunk have you heard of the Persian philosopher and poem, Omar Khayam? He advocated such an attitude of unpretentious drunkenness.

Joe: Humm!? No, I haven’t heard of the guy but the position you attribute to him seems like something that I can get behind. This is actually interesting, why don’t you just write that? It sounds like a good idea to me.

Amit: I don’t know, I thought you were looking for something more formal.

Joe: No, this is supposed to be a fun collection of different kinds of reflections on life at bar. You should do it.

Dewayne: Watergate, Watergate man!

Both Joe and Amit join Dewayne and shout: Watergate.

Joe: So, would you say that we are engaged in that kind of activity right now?

Amit:  I would like to think so. But let’s try harder and order another round.  


Omid Payrow Shabani

Grad Student

Ottawa U, 1998


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