Darío Sztajnszrajber at Ciudad Cultural Konex (Photo via Ciudad Cultural Konex / Ignacio Sanchez)

It’s a rainy Tuesday evening and a public holiday, but the Ciudad Cultural Konex’s upstairs theater is packed for a sold-out event. Darío Sztajnszrajber, Argentina’s most popular philosopher, is wearing a navy blue sweatshirt, Converse sneakers, and slim grey sweatpants that reveal an inch of lime green sock. He is preparing to give a two-hour lecture on Plato’s Symposium, the power relations implicit in monogamy, and the first time he fell in love.

Although philosophy remains a niche subject of study in universities, a small number of popular philosophers have tapped into a growing interest in lectures, seminars, and even live shows dedicated to the study. “Seven years ago, this boom of events with ideas and popular philosophy… was just getting started,” said Noel Yolis, director of programming and content at the CC Konex. Since then, it has taken off. In 2016, the Centro Cultural Kirchner put on its first annual Night of Philosophy featuring both local and international speakers.

Mid-way through the lecture, Sztajnszajber asks who has read the Symposium—about half of the audience raises their hands. If this were one of the classes that he teaches at the UBA or FLACSO he might be disappointed, but in this setting, it’s not really the point. Practitioners of popular philosophy aim to make the discipline accessible to the general public. “He translates it into common language,” said Pablo Martínez, a lawyer from Villa Urquiza.

Sztajnszrajber wears many hats as a philosopher. In addition to teaching at the university level and offering public lectures, he hosts the radio program “Mentira la Verdad” (Lie the Truth) on Canal Encuentro, and develops shows combining philosophy and rock music. At the CC Konex, he paces around the stage and peppers jokes and personal anecdotes into his lecture. Still, he doesn’t put his academic work on a higher plane than lectures that are open to the public. When I asked why he hopes people come to an open talk, he said that the question was confusing: “I don’t think there’s a difference between asking [why I want someone to come to an open talk] and asking why we want someone to study formally.”

Diego Singer at Centro Cultural Matienzo (Photo: Brendan Bresnahan)
Diego Singer at Club Cultural Matienzo (Photo: Brendan Bresnahan)

 

Diego Singer, also a professor at the UBA, represents a more traditional approach to popular philosophy. Singer has offered workshops for over a decade and given public lectures at cultural centers for nearly as many years. In a recent lecture at the Club Cultural Matienzo, Singer discussed Nietzsche’s critique of German society. He brings a stack of books onto the stage and punctuates his speech with quotes (“Nietzsche says…”). He stays seated as he speaks, but gesticulates forcefully with his left hand when he reaches an important point.

For Singer, public lectures can serve as a starting point for those interested in engaging further with philosophy. “I don’t expect that people take away a profound understanding, but rather that they can think in a new way.” He added that, while his talks are open to anyone, he does not simplify the subject matter. “Philosophers are difficult to read and to understand. It’s an effort. For me, one does it if it’s significant for them.”

Mara Gassibe, a social communication student who lives in Villa Crespo, went to see Singer at the CC Matienzo. “It’s for people who have personal curiosities… it’s for analyzing life,” she said. Sandra Lauriti, a psychoanalyst from Almagro, said her interest was both personal and professional. “We [psychoanalysts] are first cousins with philosophers.”

Some students of philosophy also find the open talks useful. Silvia Azarloza has studied philosophy since 2003, including under Singer. She says that public lectures give her a fresh perspective. “People that spend a lot of time studying philosophy have a common language,” she said. “At these events, not so much. It’s much more heterogeneous.”

Not everyone is pleased with the trend. The philosopher Guido Mizrahi offers seminars at Café Tolón in Barrio Norte, as well as online courses for distance learners. Mizrahi told La Nación that, without a certain level of rigor, a popular talk is not really philosophy (he declined to comment for this article). Yolis, for one, isn’t concerned: “It opens doors. It seems completely positive to me.”

Ultimately, many attendees take a lighthearted view. Guido Blanco, of Buenos Aires, saw Sztajnszrajber speak at the CC Konex. “It’s good,” he said, “for finding a certain color in life.”

Philosophy in 12 Books with Darío Sztajnszrajber will be hosted at the Ciudad Cultural Konex every Tuesday until July 10. Next week’s topic is Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Diego Singer’s next open talk, on Judith Butler, will be held on Sunday, May 13 at Bók og Kaffi in Bella Vista, Buenos Aires Province.