“We have effectively transformed the space of the Brooklyn Library into a space of philosophy-eager insomniacs,” joked philosopher George Yancy to open A Night of Philosophy in New York City a little while back.
Surrounded by a large crowd in the library’s grand atrium, the Emory University professor set the tone for the evening with a rousing keynote speech about the usefulness of philosophy during an age of crisis. ”A lot of people are a bit lost, and we think philosophy may have answers,” echoed Bénédicte de Montlaur, cultural counselor at the French Embassy who co-organized the event. “What does it mean to be woke for 12 hours?,” she mused, playing with slang term to frame the nocturnal gathering.
For the third year, thousands showed up for the New York edition of the global all-night “ideas rave party,” which first convened in Paris in 2010. About 50 scholars—many flying in from France for the event—delivered 20-minute lectures tackling the wide spectrum of American upheavals: sexual consent, transgender norms, tech anxiety, and of course, politics and “democratic entropy.” A steady fount of free coffee fortified the crowd during the 12-hour marathon which ran from 7pm to 7am the following morning. And as the French often do, there were fantastic acrobats too.
“It’s very important to have a structured way of thinking and develop critical thinking which is what philosophy is about,” explained De Montlaur, noting that the rigorous subject is still taught in French high schools today. She explained it’s not so much as quoting the writings of dead philosophers but building the muscle for sorting out issues in our modern lives with logic and reason.
Beyond bettering one’s capacity for rational thought, A Night of Philosophy is also about rediscovering a sense of community, explained László Jakab Orsós, the Brooklyn Library’s VP of arts and culture. Orsós recalled that last year’s event was held over the same weekend when president Donald Trump enacted his notorious travel ban which barred citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the US. Mass protests gathered in airports across the country and some outraged New Yorkers found solace in the philosophy all-nighter at the Brooklyn public library’s main branch last year.
“It was revolutionary in the most positive sense and there was a tangible energy in the room. We [the people] were here because we wanted to negotiate this tragedy,” Orsós recalled. This year’s crowd, in comparison, was more pensive, he observed. “We spent one year under duress. People are tired, anxious and really angry and you feel it’s a slower pace. It’s a more deeply-situated devastation.”
The planning of this year’s event was heavily informed by the May 1968 protests in France, explained De Montlaur and Orsós. What started as a student strike in Paris triggered the social revolution across the country—and became a watershed event in French history.
“May ’68 was a time when everything was possible, everything was questioned again. I feel that we are at this moment,” said De Montlaur.
French humor too
The evening wasn’t without humor too. A Chinese history scholar working under the pen name “Jul” added a special element to the event. Before his 4am lecture, the renowned Paris-based political cartoonist sketched jokes based on things he observed and overheard that night. His best barb was based on Trump’s fat finger gaffe, misspelling “coverage” for “covfefe” in a May 2017 tweet.
“That tweet was pure poetry,” laughed Jul.
But Jul tells Quartz that his favorite moment of New York’s Night of Philosophy was one he chose not to caricature. A man locked himself in a a men’s bathroom stall while belting songs in French and Chinese for what seemed like hours. Jul says that it was a classic moment akin to a philosophical gathering in ancient Greece—reminiscent of Diogenes, the shameless 400 BC philosopher who loitered in public spaces in naked squalor.
Why wouldn’t he immortalize this quintessential “only-in-Brooklyn” Saturday scene? “Well, it was a very private moment,” he smiled.