Defining a Philosphy of the Table

I have been reflecting on whether there is anything definitively different in the kind of philosophy that I have been advocating in this space and in others, the kind of philosophy that finds its place at the table and over the stove and in the garden and on the front porch, the kind of philosophy that does not artificially separate itself from the rest of everyday living. While it is obvious that this kind of thinking occurs differently, I wonder whether it proceeds differently, whether the difference in its practice results in a difference in its conclusions. In other words, does the rhythm of the household and the neighbourhood produce a philosophy that is different in substance from the philosophy that is produced by the rhythm of the academic institution and the professional thinker?

The following are some ideas that might contribute to a discussion of this question.

1. The questions posed by a philosophy of the table are always undertaken in the context of relationship if not of friendship. While neither relationship nor friendship is foreign between professional philosophers, of course, institutional philosophy rarely appears in these contexts. Except for the kinds of exchanges that sometimes occur in an interview or in a discussion session, the relationships that might exist between professional thinkers are most often obscured in what these thinkers produce. A table philosophy, however, simply cannot exist apart from the relationship that defines it. Apart from this relationship. it ceases to be what it is. It proceeds solely from the space created by crossing of our gazes.

This does not mean that the product of professional philosophy does have among its sources the conversations of friendship. It merely means that these conversations are most often covered over when professional philosophy produces itself as such. Where a table philosophy need have no product beyond what is produced in the relationship between the thinkers themselves, a professional philosophy appears only in a product that always distances itself from the relationship and usually marks this distance deliberately.

2. A philosophy of the table, as the preceding distinction indicates, also differs from a professional philosophy in what it produces. Where the aim of professional philosophy is almost always contribution to a body of knowledge that is supposed to be held in common, a table philosophy has as its aim only to produce change in those who are gathered around the question. Its product is a different thinking and a different acting in its participants, and the body of knowledge to which it contributes is only the shared memory of the conversation, always ongoing, among them.

The product of an institutional philosophy almost always appears in a form that is defined and reproducible: a book, an article, a paper, and interview. It almost always has the appearance of a finality. It appears as definitive. The product of a relational philosophy, however, never appears in this kind of form. It appears only in its multiple and provisional and undefinable influences on those who share in it. Accept that it causes people to think and be differently, it has no product of any kind. It can never be reproduced. It can never be published. To try and reproduce it in these ways would only be to remove it from its context and submit it to the structures and conventions of the institution.

3. An institutional philosophy also gestures differently from a philosophy of the table. The characteristic gesture of a professional philosophy is the citation: a reference to the established body of reproducible knowledge, appearing always in a present tense. “Kant writes,” or “Heidegger argues,” or “Derrida demonstrates.” A philosophy of the table, however, has as its characteristic gesture the shared memorial: a reference to the undefinable and unreproducible history that lies between the participants, appearing always in a past tense. It says, “Do you remember when we were talking on your porch last fall?”, or “This topic has always preoccupied you ever since that first discussion group, hasn’t it?”, or “We’ve always agreed on that point.” This gesture to a shared past is not just a remembering. It is a memorial. It does not merely recall the ideas that were shared. It also celebrates the relationships and the times and the places and the activities that defined these ideas. It refuses to make the ideas separate from the relational contexts that produced them.

These kinds of memorial do appear in a professional philosophy at times, of course, and I count some of them among my favourite philosophical writings. However, even in these cases, institutional philosophy does not produce the effect of a memorial, at least not to me, who did not experience the people and the occasions being memorialised. Jacques Derrida’s memorial in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas moves me very much, both intellectually and emotionally, and it may even function as a memorial for those who knew them both and shared with them, but it can never be for me a memorial in the sense that I am describing. A philosophy of the table, however, cannot help but be such a memorial. It proceeds solely by means of these gestures to its own shared past, recalling and celebrating and mourning what has passed before, becoming ever more complex as the conversation winds through the years.

4. An institutional philosophy also differs from a table philosophy in that it is to a much greater degree produced for the occasion rather than by it. In almost every case, a professional philosophy is produced in advance to be delivered as a polished discourse for a particular occasion. Even in those instances that have the appearance of being improvised, like an interview or a question period, it is always the case that what is produced on these occasions is produced largely for rather than by the purposes of these very occasions. In contrast, a philosophy of the garden and the kitchen is produced largely by the occasion and by the season and by the task being accomplished and by the people present and by the weather and by the topic that circumstances have suggested and by what is being eaten and by everything else that makes that moment irreplaceable. This kind of philosophy takes the moment into account in order to honour the moment, not in advance of it, but in the midst of it. It does not permit itself to be abstracted from the occasion on which it finds itself.

I could perhaps say more, and I am tempted to do so, but I wonder how others might respond to what I have said so far. I am aware that the distinctions I have made cannot be maintained absolutely in every case, that institutional philosophies do include and have the apperance of including elements of a table philosophy, and that table philosophies are constantly situated within contexts that are at least partially produced by institutional and professional philosophies. Though I think there is a useful distinction here, I am interested to see whether others think so as well.

  1. TC said:


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