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The Institute of History of Philosophy (E.A. 3276), together with the Centre d’Etudes de la Pensée Antique “Kairos Kai Logos” is organising an international conference entitled “Socrate à l’agora: que peut la parole philosophique ?” (Socrates at the Agora : What purpose does philosophical dialogue serve today?)

The conference is being held in Aix-en-Provence from 7 – 8 December, 2013.

The event aims to determine the role and status of philosophical dialogue in ancient and modern practical philosophy by discussing certain modern practices which draw their inspiration from this model.

A number of philosophical practices have emerged since the 1980s, particularly in Northern Europe, with the explicit goal of counselling and deliberating over the whole of the social sphere: daily life – in both individual and collective relations – organisations in both the public and private sectors, associations, local government, institutions, companies and all other forms of social organisation.

The notion of « Socratic dialogue » to designate certain practices was introduced in 1922 by the German Philosopher, Leonard Nelson, who aimed to put in place practices inspired by the example of ancient Socratic dialogue and the Kantian ideal of philosophical criticism. This gave rise to the Philosophisch-Politische Akademie, which still exists today. His student, Gustave Heckmann set out the rules regarding Socratic Dialogue and began practising the principles of meta-dialogue. These have been adopted more recently by other philosophers. In 1980, Gerd Achenbach set up what he called “philosophische Praxis”, making his own contribution by linking practice to philosophical training. A number were initially inspired by ancient philosophy along the lines of Pierre Hadot’s work, such as the “art of living”. In 1992, Marc Sautet revived these ideas in France when he opened a private practice that linked the idea of practical philosophy with that of Beratung, private counselling inspired by a specific philosophical way of thinking.

The practices briefly described above have gained legitimacy in a number of countries, with philosophical counselling playing a role in deliberating and decision-making bodies, frequently in the form of “Socratic dialogue”.

The idea of appropriating certain philosophical concepts and implementing them in specific practices in civil society such as within governing bodies, including the notion of philosophy as a way of life, and counselling and deliberating as methods of Socratic dialegesthai, has prompted new philosophical questions regarding both the history of ancient philosophy and modern philosophical practices.

This thought of taking up certain practices along with ancient concepts draws attention to the role of those involved and to that of assessing the relative weight of individuals and collectivities in decision making, including the representations that they have of themselves and of the world, in the implementation process of what they consider to be inspired by philosophical thought. The goal of these singular practices is to create a “free” space within which to engage a so-called second order discourse, enabling participants in Socratic “dialogues” or “conversations” to broaden and transform their communication into philosophical argument. According to “Socratic dialogue” theorists, this results in an improvement in interpersonal relations in so far as the focus is on the arguments and values involved, not on individual participants.

Overall, the philosophical practices of counselling and deliberating that have emerged from this movement can be divided into two approaches. One observes practices as they are implemented by different specialists aiming to explore the issue more deeply and find philosophical meaning: it questions the methods, presuppositions and fundamental notions of these practices. The other looks at the theoretical foundations and the institutional supports which could endow legitimacy to the practices according to the idea that the philosopher’s theoretical reference framework is not indifferent to that which is being practised.

Even so, the reference to Socrates and to Socratic dialogue is neither innocent nor indifferent. Dialogue as practised by Socrates was an important, if not cultural, event. One of the few researchers to have explored the meaning of Socratic dialogue as a cultural event, Livio Rosetti, even talks of the invention of an “entirely new literary genre”. And it is this “genre” that has inspired modern philosophical practices, which have given rise especially in the Netherlands and since the 1980s, to a specific type of professionals known as the “practising philosophers”. The Dutch example has demonstrated that the implementation and supervision of this sort of philosophical practice requires an ensemble of specific knowledge and skills.

The “Socrate à l’agora: que peut la parole philosophique?” conference aims to question the role and status of Socratic dialogue in view of current practices which regard Socrates as a regulating ideal for their activities within the framework of public philosophising. The idea is to evaluate the manner in which the “practising philosophers” practise what they call their philosophising and how they think of it, as well as to examine in what way they differ from the “genre” which they claim to have inspired them.

As such, we will be able to examine theoretically the philosophical extent of these practices, in both their ancient and modern forms, and to look at the links which these contemporary, socially accepted practices can maintain through their own development with classical and modern philosophy. The aim is to create a dialogue between “philosophers who take part in Socratic dialogue” such as Boele and van Rossem, and the specialists from the discipline of philosophy who are interested in the critical role of philosophy in current modes of thinking. Which philosophical questions do these practices answer? Which ideas and methods guide these professionals? Are they compatible with the demands of academic philosophy?

Through the renewed contemporary interest in practical philosophy, it is possible to consider that the time has come to try and clarify how philosophers and modern professionals returned to the Agora, and to begin thinking about the philosophical, ethical and political stakes of philosophical discourse as well as about the philosophical practices in which this takes shape and happens.

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