When members of the Algonquin Round Table had soirees they didn't have 'outcomes' in mind. They wanted an argument
On Thursday night I hosted a salon. If that sounds a bit pretentious, I'm afraid it can't be helped. I didn't actually organise it. I didn't, thank God, have to cook. It was set up by a "knowledge networking business", who booked the venue, invited the guests and ordered the food and wine. All I had to do was slap on a bit of makeup and turn up.
If it wasn't exactly Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table, it was still an awful lot of fun. We talked about books. We talked about banks. We talked about business and art. We talked about big issues, like unemployment and debt in the western world; and small issues, like the rise of the twirly moustache.
What we didn't talk about was our jobs. We didn't talk about our children, or where they went to school. We didn't talk about being happily married, or unhappily married, or happily single, or miserably alone. We didn't talk about how much our homes had gone up in value, or what plans we had to downsize. We didn't have to bother with any of this. We could, for just one evening, forget about the details of our lives, and think about ideas, and the world.
Voltaire probably didn't talk about his Tuscan holiday at the salons he went to in Paris. Rousseau and Diderot probably didn't talk about villas in Greece or Spain. Madame Geoffrin, Madame du Deffand and Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, who hosted some of the most famous salons in 18th-century France, don't seem to have talked all that much about the best place to get your foie gras.
Queen Christina might have talked about her love of Italy in the salons she hosted after abdicating from the Swedish throne in Rome. But she's much more likely to have talked about philosophy or art. Like so many of the women who hosted salons – and it was mostly women who hosted salons – she found, she said in her autobiography, that "the things that females talked about" triggered "an insurmountable distaste". And so, it seems, did Gertrude Stein. People didn't come to her salons in Paris to talk about cupcakes and nude shoes.
It's hard to say whether the key ideas of the Enlightenment actually came out of soirees in Paris, or whether writing that tries to be like cubism actually came out of discussions in a crammed flat on the Left Bank. But it doesn't matter. Salons aren't meant to have what a public sector manager would call an "outcome". They're not about "delivering best practice" in thinking or anything else. They're not even about "brainstorms", or whatever it is you're meant to have in the "pods" offices now have which seem to work on the basis that the best way to have a good idea is to sit on a bean bag and pretend you're five.
Salons don't try to do anything or solve anything or persuade anyone about anything. They're not trying to push a political agenda, or even a particular idea. You can try to win an argument if you want to, and you can turn anything into an argument. But if you think less about winning an argument and more about what other people say, you'll probably have a nicer time.
We live in a world where people seem to think you only change your mind if you're weak. You're meant to have a view and stick to it. You're meant to be as clear as Dorothy Parker said she was when she was "young and bold and strong". She thought, she said in her poem The Veteran, that "right was right" and "wrong was wrong". It was only when she got older, she said, that she understood that "good and bad" were "woven in a crazy plaid". She understood, in other words, that you can only be absolutely clear about what's good, and right, and clever, and just, if you're very stupid, or very young.
• This article was amended on 24 July 2013 to remove an incorrect reference to Queen Christina having been taught by Diderot.