How Philosophy is Almost Nothing or Everything

Mériam Korichi is a philosopher, theatre stage director, and the creator of the wildly popular Nights of Philosophy, which are all-night philosophy and art events that she has staged seven times including in New York, Paris, London, Berlin, Helsinki, and soon in Lima.  I spoke with Korichi about her thinking behind the events. 

Meriam Korichi
Mériam Korichi © Astrid di Crollalanza

I understand that the Night of Philosophy started when the director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure at the time asked you to organize an event to celebrate academic philosophy.  What is your philosophy behind the Nights of Philosophy?

I’m not sure that there was a philosophy behind it, but I came up with the idea of an all-night event that juxtaposes philosophy and art – theatre, music, and visual installations – inspired by the location.  When I invented the Night of Philosophy I was already a theatre stage director, a dramaturge, and was involved in the contemporary art scene.  So, it was interesting to do an artistic event that involved philosophers.  I am also a trained academic philosopher so I knew how good philosophy can be – and how bad it can be.  Academic philosophy tends to provide a shelter from the outside world and I was reacting to that closure and wanted to open it up.

Why all night? 

Because at night we see things from a different perspective.  Daytime is busy. You have things to do. You have to look after the ends of your actions.  At night, you sleep, it’s a break, it’s a parenthesis.  It’s a moment when you have time and are liberated from busyness.  The link between philosophy and night is historical, too.  For example, Plato’s Symposium and Hegel’s Minerva:

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

What do you think about the fact that you have inspired philosophy events around the world, such as the recent Night of Philosophy and Ideas in Brooklyn? 

The Night of Philosophy and Ideas in Brooklyn was organized on the model of my event but I did not organize it.  I gave the new Brooklyn Public Library’s VP of Arts and Culture advice as he wanted to use my concept.  But it was very different to my event.  That’s why it was called A Night of Philosophy and Ideas.  Ideas are not necessarily philosophical and they open up to thoughts and methods that are not my focus.  My focus is philosophy and art.

It depends on the goal of the event, but we are at a time when people need to feel more empowered and need to experience something different than the normal system of thinking.  I view these events as a way to empower people: to put them at the center of a world and to give them choices.  It’s not only about giving people intellectual food, but rather giving people the possibility to listen to a lecture, to drink, or to see a performance, and not to impose anything on them.  It’s a staging, not a festival or program.  It is delicate. It’s exactly the contrary of programming.

Unprogramming? 

It’s unprogramming through a very tight program, but it has to be full and shouldn’t be one thing imposed on everyone.  It should be like presenting a world to the participant, who will need to ask themselves: do I go left or right?

It’s not about people or names, either.  It’s about simultaneity, that is, creating multiple ways of looking at things.  It’s important not to embrace only one point of view, but to create a dialectic which blurs what should be thought.  Maybe there is not one right thought.  At the core of these events is diversity of thinking and different ways of looking at things.

The Nights of Philosophy are very successful.  Thousands of people participate.  Why do you think they are so popular? 

Yes, each time it is very popular. I have done seven Nights of Philosophy so far, and I’m going to be doing more in Helsinki, Paris, Berlin and, probably, central Europe next year. And very soon I will go to the next one in Lima on April 21, 2017.  I would like to come back to do one in a museum in the U.S. There is a real thirst for these events.

They’re popular because they’re very different.  They’re a novelty.  Philosophy has always been privileged and attractive. These events give people a chance to judge that by themselves.  I think people also like the multiplicity, the opening up, the all-night long experience, and the fact that they don’t know what’s going to happen.  Uncertainty is very interesting.  Life is like that.  You really don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Most of the presentations were lectures, but why no questions and answers at the end? 

My original concept involves philosophers giving 20 minute talks without questions at the end.  It is very difficult to ask a philosophical question because there are none.  There are only problems in philosophy.  The conference rooms are dedicated to the elaboration of philosophical positions.

Some people would say that philosophy is all about questioning and conversation. 

No, it’s not.  Philosophy is ultimately about truth, but how we get there is at stake in philosophy.  Debating is not a way to get to the truth.  It’s not philosophy.  Debate is language.  It’s speaking.  Philosophy is not critical studies.  It’s a way to elaborate problems and positions.  For instance, in France, when you prepare for the Agrégation de philosophie, there are no questions at the end of your presentation because it is impossible to ask real philosophical questions out of the blue.  At academic conferences, those who pose questions have been working on the topics for a long time and know how to elaborate.  Philosophical questions are, actually, problems.

Are you saying that questions that people would ask at Nights of Philosophy would be superficial?

No, I’m not judging, but you will not get a meaningful answer.  It’s better to create an informal, free space for conversation, and that’s outside the conference rooms.  The philosophers are there and during the night, there is time to talk, to exchange ideas, to consider how they encounter one another, to elaborate, and to explore how you can conceptualize, grasp, and comprehend them.

What do you hope is the most important thing that visitors will take away from your events? 

Philosophers give a whole different perspective on things that you may never have experienced before. It can be many things: a new thought, a change of perspective, an encounter, an experience of being suspended in time, a pure quality of time where thinking and existence meet.  Even if it lasts just a moment. That can happen at these events.

Can you tell me more about your next Night of Philosophy in Lima?

The University of Lima is celebrating its 100th anniversary and the Centro de Estudios Filosóficos wanted to run A Night of Philosophy.  It will be very exciting.  There are two ways I engage in the series of events that I create: the ones I stage take between five months and a year to put together and with those, I engage with local artists; and others, such as the Brooklyn and the Lima events, for which I am the advisor or the consultant.  I’m helping them with the method, but I’m not choosing the artists or philosophers, or shaping the form of the event.

Art is a way to touch philosophical concepts – or to confront them.  Art can be an ally or an enemy of philosophy.  That’s why I bring philosophy and art together.  Philosophy is now turning away from its pure linguistic analytical hard core and is coming back to worldly problems.  The vivacity of the philosophical scene, worldwide, is extraordinary. So, I thought, let’s see how art and philosophy can create a championship for the meaning of things.

In your events, how do you synthesize that agreement and confrontation of art and philosophy? 

It is conceived all the way through the night.  I create a path and I choose carefully.  It’s not about the philosophers, but rather it’s about the topics, which they are completely free to choose.  It’s like a puzzle.  I have plenty of pieces and I bring them together to create a picture.

I wanted to disturb both the philosophy and the art world.  It’s more important than we think. When you do philosophy events outside the academic box, you displace the philosophy world. You disturb it because it’s not everyday life.  And you disturb everyday life too, of course. You take philosophy beyond academia. We also need to question institutions.  We need to consider what’s important in life, and that’s philosophy’s concern.  When we build problems and question what’s important, we verge on cynicism, and we have to deal with it.

It reminds me of Vladimir Jankélévitch, who says that philosophy is almost nothing and still possibly everything, and everything is in this ‘almost’.  Philosophy can either be everything or really nothing.  You can make philosophy nothing with just writing papers void of deep sense. Philosophy is very near non-importance with all the sophistication and sophistry that can characterize it when it looses tracks of its original motivation.  Philosophers sense that.  They know.  You know when you read things that are pertinent and when they are not.  We need to expose philosophy to that real and legitimate question: what is important?  If you find what’s important and think about your relation to it, then you can do anything.  You can write limitless difficult papers because you know what you’re doing is important.  If you lose that thread, then philosophy is nothing compared to literature, music, and art.

So, your Nights of Philosophy help people to discover what’s important in life?

And what’s not important.

I understand you recently directed a play at the Frick Museum in New York City – can you tell me about that? 

When the French Consular Services in New York City invited me to conceive my fifth Night of Philosophy for April 2015, I walked into their building on Fifth Avenue and saw a boudoir.  I immediately thought we should stage the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir in this antechamber, which we did.  It was a crazy 5 ½ hours of Sadian philosophy.

Charlotte Vignon, the Decorative Arts Curator at the Frick heard about this, got in touch with me, and said she wanted to do a live event celebrating the 18th century spirit, in relation with the special exhibition she curated at the Frick on Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court.  I proposed then to stage The Constant Players, which is a comedy written by the French eighteenth-century playwright Pierre de Marivaux.  Marivaux is less well-known in the U.S., but just as important as Pierre Beaumarchais.  I adapted the text for the Frick and designed very precise staging through different rooms of the museum.  It was 50 minutes for a small audience, instead of 12 hours for thousands of people as with the Nights of Philosophy, and in both I play with the dramaturgy of simultaneity.

Mériam Korichi studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris, and as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard and NYU. She has several books published by Gallimard including Letters on Evil: A Correspondence between Spinoza, and Blyenbergh, Notions of Aesthetics, Notions of Ethics, commentaries on The Outsider and The Plague by Albert Camus, and a biography of Andy Warhol. In 2016, she published a Treatise of Good Sentiments, a philosophical treatise. She works as a dramaturge and a theater stage director, and also writes on contemporary visual artists. 

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