Justine Kolata has recently completed a PhD at Cambridge, where she researched conceptions of Bildung (self-cultivation) and Die Schöne Seele ('The Beautiful Soul') in German philosophy.
She is also the founder and director of The Public Sphere Salons, an organisation that works to revive Enlightenment salon culture. I spoke to Justine to learn more about the organisation and her experience of running salons.
Justine Kolata. Image by Justine Kolata.
Ciaran: Hi Justine, so could you start by talking about your personal and philosophical background?
Justine: I became interested in philosophy in high school, and I gravitated towards ancient Greek philosophy in university because I was passionate about the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. I've just finished my PhD in German philosophy. My dissertation was on the relationship between the philosophy of the Beautiful Soul, especially in the work of Goethe and Schiller, and European salon culture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Ciaran: The ancient Greek philosophy which first interested you, was there a thread there to your present interests? Insofar as the public realm played a role in that period, with the notion of the Agora and so on. Or was the public dimension a more recent interest?
Justine: Yes, German philosophers of this time period were obsessed with reviving Greek ideas. They took certain distinctly Greek concepts, such as Plato’s theory of the forms, and elaborated upon them in new and compelling ways. And, of course, the Agora could be understood as an early form of the salon.
Ciaran: Could you tell me a bit about how your salons came about and how they've developed?
Justine: I started the salons formally about five years ago, although I have been hosting salons informally ever since I first read about salon culture in high school. I founded The Public Sphere when I realised that salons address so many of the issues I care about, building community, fostering critical exchange, reviving the art of conversation, which I fear has been largely lost in the digital age.
I began the salons in Berlin and continued them when I moved to London where they took off. Over the years I have hosted hundreds of salons, salon festivals, salon series. I have hosted salons for art galleries, non-profit organisations, museums, and started salon programmes for companies. My salon activities have taken many different forms. Almost every country has historically had some sort of salon culture, so there is endless inspiration to draw from.
Ciaran: So it sounds like your salons expanded pretty quickly?
Justine: Yes. I am often asked if I ever publicise for the salons, I never have and I prefer not to use social media. It spread by word-of-mouth. I find that many people are really desperate to discuss ideas. Outside of a university setting it is hard to find a space for meaningful conversations. I attribute the success of the organisation to this need.
Ciaran: I guess that speaks to, as you said, the importance for you of building communities. Do you get people returning?
Justine: Yes, there is always an evolving core group and that is really important because then you get to see what peoples’ perspectives are on different topics and you form a more complex understanding of a person’s worldview. It also leads to friendships and collaborations outside of the salon which would not happen without this sustained contact. But every salon I host also has many new participants. I try to find a balance between the two.
Ciaran: So I want to just dwell a bit on the role of the salonnière - the salon host - and your experiences of this. By the sounds of it this was something that you found yourself doing or had an interest in, even before you discovered all about salon culture. If you can think back to when you were first starting to do this, taking on that role, did it change your conception of what it means to be having philosophical conversations?
Justine: Yes, absolutely. The role of salonnière is one that requires great practice and the development of an important skill set. In the past aspiring salonnières learned the art of moderating conversation from more experienced salonnières in apprenticeships. Analogies have been drawn between the role of salonnière and a conductor. It is a difficult yet critical task to harmonise the various voices in conversation as one would harmonise different instruments in an orchestra. As a salonnière I have learned to weave the conversation together and to balance the various perspectives while providing coherence, direction and structure.
Simultaneously, I must also consider the subtleties of human emotion in group dynamics. A salon is about learning from the collective knowledge, accepting that you may be wrong and having your own ideas challenged by listening to perspectives that you may not necessarily agree with, but then ultimately forming your own worldview. Engaging in a salon is a subtle art for both the salonnière and the participants, one that requires critical reflection, openness, a willingness to listen, and empathy.
A 2019 Public Sphere salon. Image by Public Sphere Salons.
Ciaran: I'm interested to know more about what motivated you to set up your organisation. You mentioned earlier that you think salons can do their bit in providing a kind of remedy to some problems in society, and a revival of salons is timely with respect to the sense of despair about the public sphere that has arisen in recent years.
This might be due to a perception that people are more atomised and polarised, or due to the traditional forums where people talked with one another being in decline, or perhaps the view that the web hasn't turned out to be the amazing public forum is was praised as being initially. Was this sense of decline in the back of your mind when you were setting up your salons?
Justine: In establishing my salon organisation I was very much driven by a consideration of the state of the public sphere. In my opinion, it is a tragedy that spaces for public exchange in physical space, such as piazzas where people can congregate or town halls, are in decline. Few examples of salon or coffee house culture exist anymore and I want to change that. An online public sphere is no substitute for interactions in the physical realm. I believe it is our responsibility to revive public spaces that bring people together for debate and critical exchange. This is imperative if we want to bring about a truly participatory democracy.
Ciaran: When it comes to what salons can offer in this respect, something stuck out for me in a piece you wrote a few years back for The European magazine. You note how, historically:
Salonnières and their guests were expected to act as model citizens, exercising the virtue and compassion practiced in [these] space[s] in all areas of their lives. Thus the salon’s value system became the larger normative framework of the Enlightenment.
Do you think that the 'model citizens' of today's salons are the same as they were then?
Justine: I believe that the way a public sphere is structured is critical to the way humans interact with one another. For example, in their anonymity, internet exchanges can often ignite incendiary comments which spread hate, lies, and irrationality because there is less accountability than there would be in physical space. Online threads can devolve very quickly since the format is such that comments are often disconnected from others.
Whereas, in a salon, people often strive to be better because they are seen. There is more accountability and they are forced to be kinder and more tolerant so as not to demonstrate their own moral failings. They also know who they are hurting which makes acting cruelly harder. It is easier to be a coward online. Equally, when people meet in a salon they must substantiate their ideas and develop a clear logic. Successfully contributing to salon discourse requires intellectual work and deep reflection which is not necessarily the case in online forums.
Perceptions of what qualities a model citizen should have necessarily evolve with time and new challenges. Many of the virtues and values of enlightenment salon culture are still applicable today. This is a topic we could discuss endlessly! Evidently it is also important to expand upon past understandings of what makes someone a model citizen and an ideal participant in a public sphere. The point I want to emphasise, however, is that there is something timeless about the format of a salon and the need for interactions in physical space will always be paramount to eliciting the best human behaviour.
Ciaran: One thing that sticks out for me there is your comparison between how people can present themselves online, as opposed to how they can do so face-to-face in a salon (or elsewhere offline). It makes sense that people are probably more inclined to bring the best of themselves out in the latter.
Because the role that the salonnière plays has remained the same by the sounds of it - encouraging and cultivating the best from those in their salon - I can see why there'd be complete continuity with salons of the past. In a way, between now and then, nothing's essentially changed. Obviously culture and society has around the salon format, but it's still just people sitting together and chatting.
Justine: Exactly. The salonnières’ role was to bring out the best qualities in their participants, encouraging considerate behaviour. In many cases salonnières did not want their salons to be overtly political, not because they did not want to participate in political issues, but because they wanted people to engage in the most timeless questions that were not bound to a specific group or period in time. They asked the most fundamental questions about the human condition which are still relevant today.
Ciaran: If there's a presumption that the public sphere is in disarray in the way you've described, do you think there's also then a danger of overemphasising that, such that we might overlook its true health? Is the public sphere really impoverished right now, or are we just maybe looking at the wrong places? Especially if we're fixated on the internet and the damage that has done. I ask as a few years back I looked into what groups existed in the UK and in Ireland that were 'philosophy groups', in the broadest sense, outside of universities.
This would now be out of date I imagine, but I was astounded - I found almost 200 groups. They was all manner of reading groups and meetups all over the place. Some of these some might argue aren't 'philosophical', but it still makes me think, if we assume that there are no forums in society anymore, or good ones for conversation of exactly the kind you've been talking about, is that because we have a too rigid idea of what that looks like and where it happens? Do you think that what it takes to engender the kind of atmosphere that you get in a good salon, you might get close to elsewhere but it wouldn't quite reach the dedication that goes into a salon?
Justine: In general I would argue that there is not a flourishing culture of philosophy and debate. Any efforts are usually small and not widespread or they have become too artificial and corporatised. Since a smaller demographic is reached in a less formal capacity, fewer positive outcomes, such as the establishment of artistic and intellectual movements, are produced.
Also, I would argue that often the terms “salon” and “public sphere” are used very loosely. A networking event where there is a Q&A, for example, is not a salon, although sometimes people call it that. Our understanding of these terms has become less rigorous and not as genuine.
A 2017 Public Sphere salon on 'the illusion of reality'. Image by Public Sphere Salons.
Ciaran: One thing that came up when I first looked at the Public Sphere Salons which interested me is the relationship between salons and cities. I was looking at the advice you give to people who are thinking of starting their own one, and you say explicitly that it helps if you are likely to live in the same city for some time.
You mentioned yourself that when you started this you were in Berlin, and obviously this could just be a coincidence, but do you think there's a connection there? Something about cities which lends themselves to salons and salon culture? And if so, do you think that that's something intrinsic? Do you think you couldn't really achieve the same thing elsewhere?
Justine: Salons can take place anywhere. It is a universal format that then can be adapted in different ways. In running salons in different countries I realised how much they reflect the cultural traditions of the place but the format itself remains the same. This is the beauty of a salon, it is both culturally specific and universal. The most important thing is that salons are maintained. If they are started they must be continued. They cannot be one-off events otherwise all the benefits they offer would be lost.
City salons are fruitful because there are so many interesting and different voices present but people are often isolated from one another and could benefit from community life. In the countryside salons are valuable because people often have more contact with one another so it is easier to sustain the discussions.
Ciaran: One thing that really strikes me about the concept of salons, is that they almost seem to occupy an intermediary position in society. In the article I mentioned earlier you said that:
The salon was a microcosm of life; the grief, the beauty, the intellectual thirst, the banality, the joy, the courage and weakness of humanity were all represented, but in a concentrated form that seemed to spontaneously induce personal revelation. False ideas and prejudices could not be left unexamined.
What I find really interesting is this idea that salons, and the nature of the conversations found within them, are a kind of a "microcosm of life". I read that to mean that conversation that happens elsewhere - if it's not institutionalised with a particular and halting end in mind, like in a scientific or political environment - we don't just engage in it with a goal of "achieving" something, like an agreement. At the same time, as you say, a salon is a concentrated microcosm and as such, it's much harder for things to be left unexamined, where they might be in other everyday discussions. This fascinates me because, if someone asked what 'the point' of a salon is, you could argue it's a misguided question given that salons are, in a way, open-ended. At the same time, they are also intended to be something other than 'just' everyday conversation.
So, would it be accurate to say that a salon is trying to occupy something in the middle of these two poles? Where we aren't going, for example, "What's the agreement we're gonna come to now?", whilst at the same time you're not resisting people being challenged in a manner that would elsewhere be meant to lead to closure; it's more than just a conversation where things simply move on.
Justine: A salon occupies an interesting intermediate space between public and private life. They historically took place in homes so they were private in that sense but they were opened to a public.
I often think of salons as a “rehearsal for reality”. Ideas are discussed but they are thought about and debated before they are turned into action. Salons are a testing ground for different ways of thinking and being. They both arrive at certain pragmatic outcomes, such as contributing to the artistic landscape of the time or catalyzing ideas that inform policies, but they do not demand pragmatic outcomes and this is where their beauty lies. Ideas are undertaken and relationships formed for their own sake, not for any specific utilitarian end. Creativity is allowed to flow unhindered by questions of feasibility, which ironically leads to more tangible outcomes than a space burdened by such demands.
Ciaran: Is this where the role of art and aesthetics - which I understand are part of your salons - comes in?
Justine: Yes. I believe art and aesthetics are extremely important to salon culture. Playing music, at the end of a salon, for example, is a unifying experience because it acts as a point of connection between participants. It is a universal language which captures the non-instrumental, unquantifiable spirit of the salon. Historically the visual arts and music were essential to salon culture.
Ciaran: It seems that there's a thread of real optimism behind the idea of salons, and not an unwarranted one; they really have worked before and can work still in bringing people together, as your own salons attest. The consideration of art makes me interested to know though, what you think about the inclusivity of salons today, given the historical association with the arts you mentioned. I suspect some people will assume salons are inherently elitist, by virtue of associating them with rarefied, high-brow culture and arts.
As I understand, there's nothing intrinsic to salons requiring that any particular artistic element plays a role, and you've spoken about the variety of places that you've put them on. But, I wonder how adaptable salons are to the present day, to different environments, to different people who may not relate to the aesthetic experiences which traditionally were part of them. Of course, it's likewise elitist to assume people wouldn't enjoy a poetry reading or classical music, for example. Still, the perception may remain, and so do you think this association is an issue for salons today? And, beyond that, how flexible are salons anyway do you think?
Justine: There is a common misconception that salons were historically elitist. Ironically this critique is often grounded in a gross elitism that falsely assumes that people of lower economic classes are somehow uninterested in or incapable of cultural or intellectual exchange.
It is of course true that salons were spaces where a bourgeoisie congregated and those who were illiterate could not participate because engaging in a salon required the ability to read. However, at least in the case of the Jewish salons I have studied from the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Germany, the literature reveals that they were radically inclusionary for their time. They were some of the first spaces where people from different religions, socioeconomic positions, and genders came together as presumptive equals. The Jewish women who ran these salons overcame the discrimination they faced as women and Jews to create a vibrant intellectual environment founded upon principles of egalitarianism.
There are many accounts in the literature which prove that their model was successful in integrating segregated groups. We can learn from these salonnières insights into fostering structures for respectful exchange in a diverse multicultural society, while expanding upon what a salon meant historically and envisioning this space for discourse in new ways. At its most basic, a salon is nothing more than a space to discuss ideas, and discussing ideas will always be valuable and necessary to a vibrant and healthy society.
Ciaran: So really the perception I suggested some might have about salons comes from focusing on the wrong things, and as such overlooking the emphasis on egalitarianism you mentioned. I suspect, within salon discussion, therefore, someone couldn't just say "Well, I'm the expert"?
Justine: Exactly. No one is an expert in a salon, everyone is an equal contributor to a shared conversation. A salon in its truest sense is a space where people come together to learn from each other and no one assumes that they are superior or their opinion is more important than the rest. To take part in a salon means to make oneself humble and to be willing to learn from many different types of people and to hear disparate perspectives. It should not be a display of one’s erudition or the blind acceptance of the majority’s opinion without critical reflection. Participants of a salon must go into it assuming that they will evolve from their predetermined assumptions and learn something new, otherwise what would be the point of conversing?
Ciaran: Thank you for the discussion Justine, it’s been really fascinating to learn about your work with the Public Sphere Salons and about salon culture more broadly. Is there anything you wanted to add before we wrap up?
Justine: I think that we’ve covered everything, yep.
Ciaran: Great, thanks!
Justine: With pleasure!