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  • Writer's picturegabriellehalpern

Being a philosopher doesn't mean shutting yourself away in the world of Ideas, but welcoming reality

Philosopher Gabrielle Halpern and artisan-hotelier, Cyril Aouizerate, co-founder of Mama Shelter hotels, founder and president of MOB Republic: MOB Hotel and MOB House publish the book "Thinking Hospitality - The Artisan-Hotelier and the Philosopher". This is the second book in the "Hybridations" collection created and directed by Gabrielle Halpern at Editions de l'Aube. After a philosophical-gastronomic immersion with "Philosopher and Cook: an exquisite mixture - The Chef and the Philosopher", co-written with Guillaume Gomez, come and discover the mainsprings and joys of hospitality!

Summary of the book: "What if a hotel were more than just a hotel? What if it were both a mirror and a blind spot of our society, reflecting and hiding its needs, habits, prejudices, anxieties, fantasies and metamorphoses? As part of a long history of hospitality - which was synonymous with security and survival for travellers - the reinvention of the hotel industry can initiate a new relationship with the living and the non-living, provided that it accepts to play a new role within the community, society and nature. What if the hotel sector were a pretext for thinking about the magnificent question of hospitality?"

How do you conceptualise hospitality and how is it reflected in your respective activities?

Gabrielle Halpern: The word "hospitality" immediately makes me think of a phrase by Sarah Bernhardt that I like very much - "hospitality is a quality, made of primitive flavour and ancient grandeur". Faced with big capitalized philosophical questions such as Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Nature or Truth, hospitality might seem a pale-faced intruder... It isn't on the philosophy syllabus for the final year of secondary school, and yet, to my mind, it is a great philosophical question, both universal and timeless. To ask about hospitality is to ask about the relationship with the other; and in life, the subject, the issue - if not the problem - is always the relationship with the other! It also addresses the question of borders, of the threshold, of inside and outside, of the foreign and the familiar, of gift and dependence. As a philosopher, this question fascinates me, because it is vast and staggering. I've been working with it indirectly for years through my research in philosophy on hybridisation, because these two notions are ultimately very close. What makes me agree to leave myself in order to take an interest in the other? What makes me make a little space within myself to make room for the other? Under what conditions am I able to welcome the other? Under what conditions am I able to overcome my fear of being overwhelmed by the other? Hospitality is part of hybridisation, because it carries with it the ethics of the relationship with the other. It also refers to the gift without counterpart, to the act of giving freely; in a society like ours, is it still possible?

But above and beyond my research work, hospitality is a certain way for me to be a philosopher. How does it translate into my daily activities? When I studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, we were in 2008, in the middle of the financial and economic crisis, the world was collapsing around us and many people said to me "but where is philosophy going to take you? It's useless"! These remarks horrified me! They horrified me all the more because I felt that if people were wondering about this, it was perhaps because, over the last few decades, the philosopher had disappointed, that he or she hadn't been where he or she should have been, that he hadn't been present when needed, and that he had therefore lost legitimacy, his usefulness. In fact, we spent our lives commenting on texts by Descartes and Spinoza... So what is the role of the philosopher in the city? I was obsessed with this question! So I looked for this role of the philosopher in many worlds - political, academic, religious, economic...

Today, I would say that philosophers can't be in one world or another, they can't confine themselves to a single identity; they are necessarily at the heart of a thousand worlds. Their responsibility is to be engineers who constantly build bridges between professions, between worlds, between ideas, between identities, between human beings. Their role, which is at the same time a duty, is to hybridize, ceaselessly and relentlessly, and to bring meaning to these hybridizations.

But in order to carry out this mission - and this is what I've come to understand in recent years - they have a duty to ask themselves this question: what is the role of the City for philosophers? The philosopher must welcome the City in himself and in his work, instead of remaining locked up in his office or in his research laboratory. He must show hospitality to reality, instead of disdaining or ignoring it.

To understand the world, to play a full role in the city, the philosopher must be hospitable to others and "let in the crowd of men and the crowd of the living"[1], to quote Jean Jaurès. Being a philosopher doesn't mean shutting oneself away in the world of Ideas, it means welcoming reality.

Cyril Aouizerate: You quote the words of Sarah Bernhardt, "antique", "primitive", and in fact... Let's take up the images of the inns of yesteryear. I often say, somewhat to tease my colleagues in the hotel business, that in the end, for the last 1000, 1500 years, we haven't really invented or reinvented this field, this question of hospitality. In the days of the inns, these places were already restaurants, with a family kitchen, with a wooden staircase that led to a corridor, which in turn gave access to rooms. Today's hotels have rectangular rooms as they used to be, they have a lift instead of a staircase leading to the rooms... But it is clear that hotels haven't innovated very much, probably because this sector of activity is linked to real estate and requires very large amounts of capital. So it's in the hands of conservatives, who want to have a monopoly, a domination, and we know very well that it's this kind of mindset that prevents creativity. On the contrary, I try to always have a feeling of anxiety, a feeling of insecurity, to force myself to be constantly on the edge of the precipice - to do things that are anachronistic, things that are unthinkable, but not senseless, to take risks. This is what can save the hotel business! In medieval or post-medieval times, the roads were dangerous, there were physical, natural dangers, and there were human dangers too. The inn was therefore a place of safety during the journey, and during a stopover, one could take care of one's horses and mules. They were given hay, water and a rest. The inns had a catering function, a resting function, but they also had a security function. The question I ask myself today is: what can or should the function of a hotel be? If I'm really honest, if one is completely rational, I think that in reality there is no longer any reason for hotels to exist! The only justification for their existence lies solely in the question of service, i.e. in the fact that there are still men and women who, when they go on a trip, don't want to make their bed and don't want to cook. So it's the service, that's all it is. Everything else can be found elsewhere. I say this on purpose - sawing off the branch I'm sitting on - because I think we can only make progress if we tell each other the truths, even if these truths are scary. We have to be much more realistic about the possibility of survival of our activity, because I believe that it's by asking ourselves these questions that we'll be able to find new ways to make the hotel both a functional place and an essential stopover for tomorrow's travel, whether it's professional or leisure. I think it is time, if we want this world of hospitality to be more creative, to take many more risks.

I don't see myself as a company director so much as someone who has a mission. For a long time, I believed that there was something in political commitment that could contribute to the fulfilment of a collective project through individual emancipation, especially intellectual emancipation. I quickly decided, probably because I have neither the talent nor the patience, that I would opt for another path, by working on micro-organisms, a bit like a madman in a laboratory. And my micro-organism is the hotel! What am I trying to do within this micro-organism? To encourage encounters and, beyond that, the plurality of encounters. There is a first point, which is the question of democratisation. I have always created places that are open to as many people as possible because of their prices. If you can't come and drink a beer at the same price as a beer next door, there is little chance that I will have residents or neighbours who frequent my hotel. But I'm not interested in creating a closed hotel; I want it to open up to the city and to be conceived in continuity with the rest of the neighbourhood, with the rest of the territory.

[1] Henri Bergson, quoted in Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, notes p. 289-290.

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