Philosophy, Dreams, and Coffee (10_2022)

Philosophy, Dreams, and Coffee: Interview with Maria João Neves

by Sarah Virgi

October 2022 – Nowadays, academic articles have become the stage where the development of philosophical research takes place. But publishing is a serious business. It requires a long (and often painful) process of research, redaction, review, and corrections until the articles attain their final printed form and can be shared with others. “But then who reads them?”, asks Maria João Neves, “perhaps only one or two doctoral students, who are interested in those very specific topics.” They rarely reach the larger public, even though knowledge is lacking outside of academia. This is one of the reasons that led Maria João Neves, Doctor in Philosophy and specialist in the work of María Zambrano, to recover the living power of philosophy and bring it out to the public. In her own words, philosophy is not there to “overfeed points of view” (engordar os pontos de vista). In that case, “it is preferable to cumulate less knowledge.” 

For some years now, she has been writing a philosophical column for a regional newspaper – Cultura Sul, Jornal Postal do Algarve –, which reaches a wide variety of people in southern Portugal. In addition, Maria João Neves also organizes a monthly philosophical café in Tavira, where people from various backgrounds and professions come together to discuss philosophy over coffee or wine. The hotel AP Maria Nova Lounge, which hosts these sessions, gives a wonderful setting for this purpose. It provides an open and relaxing atmosphere where anyone can enter and participate in the discussion, as she tells us during our interview. Soon some of the conversations and arguments that developed in this space will also appear in print.

With these initiatives, Neves seeks not only to bridge between what she describes as the closed academic environment and the common people but also to rescue the vital energy of the spoken word. For her, it is crucial that words do not lose their sound and timber, for this also contributes to their meaning and, therefore, to their transformative power. This approach to the importance of orality and sound in the practice of philosophy is partly informed by her philosophical research on musical aesthetics and the way in which music and sound are vehicles of meaning and human experience. 

The Spanish philosopher María Zambrano (1904-1991) revealed to be a central figure during Maria João Neves’ philosophical growth. Her fascination for Zambrano’s conception of the human experience of time and consciousness led her to develop a phenomenological method of interpretation of dreams, which she later came to apply in philosophical counseling, as well as in musical analysis. Zambrano’s taxonomy of dreams provided a model that could be applied to reality, namely to the way in which we understand and engage with our dreams. And it can also serve as a tool to evaluate and classify musical pieces which have not yet been transcribed into a music score, like jazz.

Maria João Neves’ career shows that philosophy can be practiced in many ways and that it can make valuable contributions to our philosophical development and understanding both within the stage of academia and outside of it.

About Maria João Neves

Dr. Maria João Neves wrote her Ph.D. on the philosophy of María Zambrano, in 2002. Later on, she continued her post-doctoral studies in musical aesthetics, where she applied the taxonomy of Zambrano’s phenomenology of dreams to the study of time in music. In addition, her research also focused on developing a method of phenomenological analysis of dreams, based on Zambrano’s taxonomy, applied in philosophical counseling. Aside from her academic career, Neves writes a philosophical column for Cultura Sul (Jornal Postal do Algarve) and organizes philosophical cafés in Tavira and other cities in the south of Portugal.

The Interview

This interview was conducted on 29 September 2022.

Sarah Virgi: How was your first encounter with philosophy? What was it that arose your interest in this discipline from the very beginning?

Maria João Neves: My interest in philosophy started quite early. I didn’t even know yet that philosophy existed, but I already had a great tendency to pose questions from a very early age. I also had a great tendency for contemplation. In primary school, I remember that I used to prefer to watch my classmates’ bags while everyone else was playing. I took on that function in the group, so that I could be left alone, contemplating and observing. When the time came when I had to choose the path that I would pursue, it was very difficult. I had very good grades in all subjects, both in the humanities and the exact sciences (letras e ciências). Philosophy was, in a way, the scientific subject that I found, which encompassed the most ground.

SV: Later on, you wrote your doctoral thesis on the work of the Spanish philosopher María Zambrano. Which aspect of her work fascinated you in particular? And why?

MJN: It was really a fascination. [When I got to know her work], I had just finished writing my bachelor thesis about how the expansion of lucidity threatens life. I was extremely concerned about the way in which the expansion of thought is a threat to human life. And I was not simply concerned about it; rather, I was suffering deeply, or, as one would put it in the words of Zambrano, I was “suffering in my entrails” (“sofrida nas entranhas”) from this question. It appeared to me as a contradiction. And it is present from the very beginnings of philosophy, as in Plato’s Pheado, where he describes the sense organs as if they were nails, nailing the soul to the body. The senses are always portrayed as distracting elements, driving us away from the right path, or misleading us, as if they were something that hinders us in our lives. Also, the Philosophy courses at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa focused very much on the German philosophical tradition, in particular on the phenomenology of Husserl, and Heidegger, among other authors, in which the separation from the realm of the body was colossal. This led me to such a state of distress that I had to interrupt my studies for a year. So, for one year, I returned to dancing ballet. […]

Then, while I was in Germany, where I was thinking of pursuing my studies in phenomenology, a book by María Zambrano – The Metaphor of the Heart (La metáfora del corazón)– fell in my hands. From that moment on, I could feel a breath of fresh air, and my chest finally opened – there was hope. Zambrano speaks precisely of the fact that philosophical and rational truths do not nourish the common person. We are not speaking about academics and researchers, but of common people. This was fascinating for me, like water for my thirst. I was extremely interested in getting to know more about her thought. However, we were in 1996, and there was only very little research done on her philosophy. The Metaphor of the Heart was the first of her books to be translated into Portuguese. Then, I became aware of the existence of the María Zambrano Foundation in Vélez-Málaga (Spain), and I wrote to them. From there came the invitation to write a doctoral thesis. […] I spent several years in the archives in Málaga. There were still many writings that were not classified or even edited. Thus, I read many manuscripts by Zambrano, which were still unedited. And it was always soul-nourishing, which was precisely what I was looking for.

María Zambrano (1904-1991. Source: 
Photographic archive from the Fundación María Zambrano. Wikipedia

If you want, I can explain why I found this so fascinating. Unlike in Eastern traditions, in the West, we tend to separate body and soul. […] In the history of Western philosophy, we came to prefer the way of objectivity. This started already in the 17th century with Descartes and the separation between the res cogitans and the res extensa. From this moment on, impassibility (impassibilidade) and independence became the distinctive marks of knowledge. Impassibility means that there is no pathos (passion) among the elements that contribute to objectivity, that is science. This leads to a complete separation of a part of ourselves, and which María Zambrano’s philosophy rescues. She comes to rescue these other areas, which she calls “the shadow-areas” (as zonas de sombra). She claims that it is necessary to make a knowledge reform, otherwise, we are only working with something dead. […] When we think of life, we think of anything except independence and apathos. To live is to be connected. This is precisely what is contained by the metaphor of the heart: the heart is what connects, what pumps within us, and links all the other organs. Hence, this Zambranian reason, which a poetical reason, has to do with the heart beat, where there cannot be impassivity anymore. On the other hand, the heart beat is also the primary rhythmical unit. Hence, we come to consider yet another thing that we had forgotten […], namely the musical logos.

SV: During your career, you also worked in the phenomenology of dreams. For our listeners, who might not know this area of philosophy, could you explain what is the phenomenology of dreams? Which philosophical questions does it deal with?

MJN: In my view, this is one of the most original aspects of María Zambrano’s thought. There are two books by Zambrano on this topic: Dreams and Time (Los sueños y el tiempo) and The Creative Dream (El sueño creador). I always recommend people to read The Creative Dream, which I have also translated into Portuguese, […] because she wrote this book herself from the beginning until the end and made the edition herself. Dreams and Time, on the other hand, was composed later by a group of researchers from a series of unedited writings. Hence, the pace of the two books is very different. […]

We can find, in The Creative Dream, a taxonomy of dreams approached from the perspective of the experience of time. We all know that time is not merely the time of the clock, and we all know that there is much more to it than the present, past, and future. However, no one has ever focused on the study of those other temporal dimensions. María Zambrano’s phenomenology of dreams is concerned with that. She studies the movement of the subject on the atemporality (atemporalidade). This leads us to a very meticulous observation of different states of consciousness, which correspond to different states in the experience of time. There are three great “zones”. The first is the zone of atemporality, which is a zone where almost no time passes. This is the zone in which reality goes through many fulgurations and where there is almost no notion of time. The second is the zone of wakefulness, which is the time in which we are awake, namely the time of past, present, and future. The third is that which Zambrano calls “the spiral time” (o tempo em espiral), where the beginning is informed by the end. […] Zambrano ascribes to each of these three forms of time a conscious meaning. This tells us a lot about the state of the subject. But I will come back to this later.

I had a project financed by the BIAL Foundation in 2004, which enabled me to work together with the faculty of Medicine and the Institute for the Study of Sleep, Chronobiology and Telemedicine (Instituto de Estudo do Sono, Cronobiologia e Telemedicina), where we had the chance to capture dreams in laboratory and to receive reports of dreams. Some students of mine volunteered to make reports on their dreams with a memory filter (relatos de sonho com filtros de memória). Through this project, it was possible to test this taxonomy of dreams and to know whether this classification corresponded to what happens to real people. This took several years, where we collaborated also with the hospital in Faro. The results were published in an article that came out in the US in Philosophy and Practice. There is, indeed, something very important that Zambrano indicates and which we can say that it works in reality. […]

Let me give an example of what is being analyzed here. There is a category within the zone of atemporality which is called “obstacle dreaming”. How does one categorize a dream as an obstacle dream? What one analyzes, in this case, is the movement of the subject over the atemporality, not whether the subject dreamt about an olive or a train. What is characteristic of an obstacle dream is, for instance, if, in the dream, the subject tries to catch a train but is unable to do it, or tries to reach for a glass of water, but cannot reach it, or tries to run, but is unable to move his legs, or tries to speak, but his voice does not come out. In this type of dream, there is always great tension in the attempt to carry out an action, which, in the end, is never possible to fulfil. This is the reason why I say that Zambrano’s work focuses primarily on the movement of the subject, not on object content. […]

But what is even more interesting for me is the category of the so-called “spiral time”. […] In this case, Zambrano says that the beginning is informed by the end. This is what happens, for instance, in the experience of artistic inspiration. When we speak with someone who has had an artistic inspiration and we ask the artist why he did it in this way […], the creator ends up by saying: “it had to be so”. María Zambrano explains this phenomenon as a travel in time. It is as if the already complete work of art informed the artist while he creates. This coincides with real artists’ descriptions. For example, when Rilke writes this wonderful text entitled “Of The One Who Listened to Stones” (“Von einem, der die Steine belauscht”), the sculptor, Michael Angelo, says that he does not create anything but rather takes it from inside the stone. This is a travel in time, for it is the future that informs present actions. It happens not only with artistic inspiration but also when one feels a calling (vocação). […]

This taxonomy is extremely useful in the context of philosophical counseling as well. When someone came to counseling with a problem, […] and a dream to tell me, I knew immediately where that person was through applying this phenomenological analysis. It gives an immediate access to the information present in the dream. Zambrano never applied this taxonomy, but it is a very powerful tool, which I came to test in my project of philosophical counseling.

SV: More recently, you have also dedicated yourself to the study of the relationship between philosophy and music, perhaps also inspired by this taxonomy of time in María Zambrano. Could you tell us a little more about the role of music in your philosophical work?

MJN: I have many passions. In fact, I am a very passionate person. I started to study music at a very early stage in my life, as I started to play the piano at the age of four. So, even though I am not a pianist, there was a chance for me to know the language of music and to familiarize myself with this world. And when one follows the conservatory or the academy, one comes to study musical analysis. This is done from reading the score, that is from looking at a piece of paper. There is no need to hear the sound. Well… I found this awful! Because music is sound, and we can interpret the same score in so many different ways. This is one aspect. On the other hand, there is also music that is not written, as, for instance, in jazz, where a lot of music is not yet transcribed and which, therefore, was excluded from the analysis. So, when I received my post-doctoral scholarship, […] I began to study jazz. I chose the Portuguese musician Bernardo Sassetti as a case study. In this project, I was lucky to have collaborated with several musicians and singers from the Gulbenkian choir (Lisbon). Our work consisted in taking each musical piece as a dream. We started first with classical works, such as Mozart and Beethoven, […] and we tried to classify them following María Zambrano’s taxonomy of dreams. Thus, we trained these musicians in the taxonomy, and we subsequently tested it on these works. The musicians would listen to a musical piece once, with everyone together in the same room – this was to assure that the conditions in which the analysis was made were all the same […] – and, then, they would classify it. Thus, we began to realize that, when we took a series of works like this, they would classify it in the same way and, hence, that this taxonomy corresponded, indeed, to something real. […] Then, we repeated the same experiment with jazz pieces [by Sassetti]. Here, once more, Zambrano’s taxonomy proved its value, for it was possible to classify these pieces using this method too, and, once again, there was a correspondence between the classifications given by different musicians to these works. We are speaking of groups of about twelve, fifteen, and seventeen people, who, using a common tool, arrived at very similar, or even equal, results. These results have also been published and I presented them in a conference in Austria a few years ago. Someone should take up on this and continue to research this topic. There is still a lot to do!

SV: To what extent does music contribute to your philosophical thought?

MJN: It contributes a lot! Because this way of looking at reality fluidly, without being fixed, but rather as something impermanent and in constant movement, is a completely different approach. This has always nourished everything that I write, like a continuous bass. My way of doing philosophy is unfinished and, at the same time, transformative.

Now, in what concerns the way in which I currently practice philosophy, it comes back to orality. [In our culture], we lost contact with orality. I am very happy at the moment because I feel that I am living the true Greek way of life! For a long time, I could not do it, because I was very busy with my academic life and my duties as a university professor. Academia works primarily with books and with the written, fixed word. And this, even though we know that philosophers, such as Plato, for instance, struggled so much to write. We see it, for instance, in the Seventh Letter and in the Phaedrus, where he deals with the problems and dangers that arise from trying to fix thought on written words. However, once again, in the Western tradition, we remained on the side of the written and fixed word. But this is a word without sound. Hence, on the one hand, the written discourse is becomes fixed, and anyone can appropriate it, without that the interlocutor is able to verify that what we read is, in fact, what the writer meant. And, on the other hand, it is a word without sound. But we know from our experience of everyday life the extent to which sound is much more informative about what is being said, than the content of what is said. Thus, returning to sound and to orality, for me, is fundamental. I do not mean, however, that this should be done to the detriment of writing. We should stick with writing, let us not forget orality. 

This is why I invest in projects such as the philosophical cafés, where it is important not only to listen to others, but also where the very way in which things are said matter. I try to make people speak while being connected to themselves, which is something that is no longer so frequent… […] There is so much in the timber and in the sound of a word! I am not ready to sacrifice that! […]

SV: Since you have already touched on this matter, I’d like to ask you about the philosophical cafés that you have been organizing in Tavira (Portugal): how did this initiative come about? And what do these encounters consist in? 

MJN: The idea is not mine. It goes back to Marc Sautet, who started a philosophical café (“café philo”) in 1992, at “Café des Phares” in Paris, in an almost spontaneous way, which, I think, continues until today, even though he already passed away. Every Sunday at 11 am people discuss about philosophy at the “Café des Phares”. This idea spread widely all over the world. In Brazil, for instance, there are great names of philosophical cafés that fill huge auditoriums, where there are even screens broadcasting the event, just like a football match, with five thousand people watching it online! This is, of course, not my reality here in Tavira. I have at least fifteen people that regularly come to the cafés. For a southern city in a post-pandemic context, this is a lot!

So, the idea started with me, seven years ago, when I started to write a philosophy column Cultura.Sul, which is a supplement of the regional newspaper Jornal Postal do Algarve. This was one of the first steps I took to bring philosophy outside the walls of academia. I was tired of only writing articles for the web of science. These articles take a lot of work and a lot of research, besides all the process of peer-reviewing and proofs, until they get published, as you know […]. But then who reads them? One goes through this whole process, while perhaps only one or two people read them (besides from the reviewers, of course), namely one or two doctoral students who are interested in these very specific topics. In this way, knowledge does not reach outside the walls of academia, even though it is lacking outside that world. Hence, I began to think of ways in which I could bring it out, and the opportunity emerged, first, with these articles in Cultura.Sul, and, later, with the philosophical cafés.

[Bridging between the two] is a challenge because to put in a page of a newspaper something that makes sense and does not less rigorous than an academic article, albeit not transporting its hermetical language, is a challenge. But, nonetheless, there has been a lot of demand. I know that the articles are read. It gives me great satisfaction when various people with different mundane professions recognize me and tell me that they read my articles. Those who attend the philosophical cafés are also almost never directly connected to the area of philosophy. So, there is, indeed, disquiet and something that people lack and do not find [in other contexts].

Now, I have a wonderful space here in Tavira, at the AP Maria Nova Lounge Hotel, where the events take place and which gives me great conditions. First of all, they consented to turn off the background music, which was the first thing I asked them! Moreover, they provided us with an open space where anyone can enter, for, by principle, the philosophical café has to be open to all and be a place that anyone can reach spontaneously. It is an informal atmosphere where people can have a coffee and engage in conversation in a relaxed way. In addition, the hotel gives us flavored water and wine if we’d like to have some. It is a real symposium, almost like in Plato’s Symposium! […] All of this contributes to an informal atmosphere. However, on the other hand, I remain quite rigorous, and I do not renounce to my doctorate in philosophy simply because I am in a philosophical café. Hence, I also save the possibility of interrupting, suggesting someone to develop a certain thought, and even of correcting. Thus, even though it is informal, we keep the rigor.

It frequently happens that people continue to discuss way beyond the time that is stipulated. Then, we have to transfer the café from that space to another, and it sometimes extends until very late in the evenings! So, it has been beautiful to see that people are eager to philosophize and hungry for philosophy. They are a little tired of entertainment, an industry that has been growing significantly but which leads us to distract us from ourselves. When people discover how pleasurable it is to think, it becomes addictive!

SV: Given your experience with the philosophical cafés and other projects that you have conducted and which bridge between the academic context and the public, do you think that, in Portugal, we need more philosophers to bring philosophy out there? 

MJN: I must say that I have difficulties in thinking about what others should do. Each one should do what their consciousness tells them to. So, I would not appeal to that. For me, this makes sense; it stopped making sense to remain closed within the walls of academia. Something that does not, in my opinion, make sense at all, and which happens a lot inside academia, is the overfeeding of points of view (a engorda do ponto de vista). Already Socrates spoke about this. It consists in the accumulation of knowledge without a transformative outcome, and which only serves to fill article pages and to speak about during conferences around the world while one continues to live in separation from that. This is what, for me, should be avoided completely. It is preferable to accumulate less knowledge and use the little that one has. Kirkegaard has a good word for this: to reduplicate, which means to live in accordance to what one understands. I have seen little of this, and that would be the great change.