"Informal, spontaneous & not standing on ceremony": the enlightened coffeeshop returns


The stories of English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries are well known. They were places for the people to gather, drink coffee, learn the news of the day, meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern. The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse. Coffeehouses also played an important role in the development of culture, politics, financial markets and newspapers.

We have countless coffee outlets today - though few brim with the culture of the classic coffeehouse. Yet some adventurous souls try to maintain its spirit in various forms.  

Bill Murray and GZA & RZA of Wu-Tang Clan talk it out in " Coffee & Cigarettes ".

Bill Murray and GZA & RZA of Wu-Tang Clan talk it out in "Coffee & Cigarettes".

We've previously blogged about the Death Cafe - an initiative that urges us to get together and start talking about death and dying over a cuppa and a piece of cake - and below are some other great examples.

Common for all of these is that they set a stage for open and honest conversation, for exploration and expansion of new ideas and of ourselves and others. And provide a vital alternative to just losing ourselves to Google Search and social media.


Café Philosophique

In the beginning of the 90s French philosopher Marc Sautet founded Café Philosophique, in the French tradition of literary cafes of the Enlightenment from the 18th century. It's now a grassroots forum for philosophical discussion with 'café philos' world wide.  

Here's the story of how it began (from Wikipedia):

Sautet started the idea of philosophy cafes in the Place de la Bastille neighbourhood of Paris at the Café des Phares on December 13, 1992. He would gather some friends at his 'café philos' each Sunday at 11 AM and opened up philosophical debates ("conceptual fisticuffs") for some two hours. 

Marc Sautet at  Café des Phares  (Paris 1994)

Marc Sautet at Café des Phares (Paris 1994)

The first meetings started with only a dozen or so people. Soon university students showed up, followed by eccentric citizens off the street, off-duty cab drivers, and idle wealthy women. This became a weekly event that grew in popularity to about 200 people at each meeting. Sautet returned philosophy to the general public in Café Philosophique. 

The concept was to bring people together in a public-friendly forum where ideas could be discussed without concern for accuracy and philosophical rigour. A cafe tended to have this type of atmosphere where people were relaxed drinking coffee and carrying on conversations. The concepts discussed were in the spirit of tolerance and openness and the themes ranged from the Santa Claus myth to truth to beauty to sex to death. They posed such questions as What is a fact? and Is hope a violent thing? Sautet made the discussions seem fun and exciting.  

There is currently one UK 'café philos' running in London, South Kensington. More here.


Cafe Scientifique

Are you more into science and technology? Don't worry, there is also a Cafe Scientifique


Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to have a conversation about the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings have taken place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

The first Cafe Scientifique in the UK was held in Leeds in 1998. From there, cafes gradually spread across the country. Currently, some seventy or so cafes meet regularly to hear scientists or writers on science talk about their work and discuss it with diverse audiences.

Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.

Find your local group here. If there is not a Cafe Scientifique in your city or town - here's how you start one



ConsciousCafe provides a space for conscious, deep and thoughtful discussion to take place. This can be at an event or a discussion group, online or via social media.

The invitation:

We arrange local events and discussion groups to bring you together with likeminded people who want to explore and expand personal growth, to increase self-awareness and to engage in conscious conversations which create deeper connections with one another.

If you have found ConsciousCafe you are likely to enjoy thoughtful conversations about how you want to live your life, what your values are and what you can do to help create a better world for everyone. You will be interested in exploring other people’s points of view and in connecting with others at a heartfelt level.

ConsciousCafe runs groups in different parts of the country (and we are expanding abroad too). We bring people together for great conversations and connections. 

Get a feel for their events with the video below:

The RSA's Enlightenment coffeehouse

Our last example closes the loop from the coffeehouse's 18th century beginnings,  as the very crucible of European Enlightenment thinking. The think tank and network The Royal Society of the Arts (founded in 1754 in London) is about to launch a new "Enlightenment Coffeehouse", refurbishing two floors of their original building, and opening in August. 

Musing on what a 21st century coffeehouse would be like, RSA fellow Graham Henderson wrote:

Sometimes it appears to be the very self-organising quality of the Enlightenment coffeehouse that made it such a creative space, with a particular establishment  quickly recognised as a centre for the arts, commerce, scientific enquiry, political gossip or esoterica. So I would also suggest that the creation of themed areas of interest is crucial to the success of the 21st-century coffeehouse. The RSA’s existing model should be well suited to bringing together like-minded Fellows around particular ideas or projects, because that is the way in which it already operates.

Informal, spontaneous, and not standing on ceremony, it is nevertheless possible that the Enlightenment coffeehouse itself helped to engineer a transformation in manners, and it was this that made it an acceptable platform for the smart and well-connected citizen to exercise influence, and to enjoy status.

Clearly, like the social media of its day, it delivered manifest satisfactions: little dopamine hits of recognition presumably measured in face-to-face encounters rather than the number of followers or hits accumulated. It was also a remarkably successful platform for enterprise and for the development of a flourishing environment for the arts, commerce and manufacture.

Perhaps the RSA coffeehouse can also set new standards for civility? In any event, I look forward to taking my first cup of steaming java at the RSA coffeehouse when it opens its doors.

PRACTICEpat kane