From Spanish “Tertulias” to TED Talks: A Journey Through Intellectual Gatherings

From Wikipedia: A tertulia (Spanish: [teɾˈtulja], Galician: [teɾˈtuljɐ]; Portuguese: tertúlia [tɨɾˈtuliɐ]; Catalan: tertúlia [təɾˈtuliə]) is a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones, especially in Iberia or in Spanish America. Tertulia also means an informal meeting of people to talk about current affairs, arts, etc. The word is originally Spanish (borrowed by Catalan and Portuguese), but it has only moderate currency in English, used mainly in describing Latin cultural contexts.

In Spain, Good Conversations Define the Good Life

“Tertulia” is a charming word in Spanish: when I think of it, my mind pictures a lively conversation among friends, made up from snippets of many such conversations I’ve had in my life. The feelings this word evokes in me are warmth and lightness, intellectuality and wisdom. What’s wonderful is that these groups of attributes often do not go hand in hand: the cerebral and the emotional usually follow different paths; I love how a single word can weave such disparate worlds together harmoniously.

And I even like the way it sounds. When I say it out loud, those soft vowels roll off so neatly, interspersed with a generous number of consonants that produce a melodious cadence: Teeer-tuuu-lia…

Though I suspect any Spanish speaker would grasp its meaning, it is not commonly used in everyday vocabulary. While it might sound slightly old-fashioned or even a bit comic to Latin American ears, it encapsulates a timeless and refined concept without being pretentious.

More fascinating is that “tertulia” has no direct translation in English or other languages; it is a genuinely Spanish term that first appeared in writings from the 16th century. The origin of the word is uncertain, but there are many theories about its genesis. I like the one that suggests that in the times of Philip II of Spain, rhetoric enthusiasts started meeting to discuss the teachings of Tertulian, a Roman Empire-era author whose words had lasted more than a millennium and a half. They gathered in inns, salons, taverns, and theaters, engaged in passionate readings and discussions, reviving the legacy of their intellectual patron. Over time, these meetings became so prolific that their participants came to be known as “tertulianos” or “contertulios,” and thus the term “tertulia” was born to describe the gathering itself.

During the following centuries, these intellectual groups continued to form throughout Spain to discuss arts, literature, and politics. Whether in Madrid, Salamanca, or Segovia, it seems every city had at least one café associated with a group of intellectuals. It’s easy to imagine that the coordination of when, where, and whom to invite fell to a founder or an enthusiastic contertulio who saw the need to keep some order: to expect these meetings to arise spontaneously but regularly would be naïve; any human activity involving more than two people requires someone to take charge, a rule that applies as much in the 16th century as it does in the 21st. Having a famous figure among the tertulianos could only enhance the prestige of the tertulia, and it is well-known that many of Spain’s great writers were part of such groups: Cansinos Assens, Valle-Inclán, Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, García Lorca, and Machado, to name just a few.

Spanish tertulias have survived kings, dictators, and prime ministers; wars, revolutions, and pandemics. I know they have not disappeared and that across the country these intellectual circles continue to emerge. However, I’m not sure how common they are today, whether they are more or less popular than in the past, or even if those who participate in them see themselves as descendants of the tertulianos from four hundred years ago. In any case, the activity has evolved, and today the word “tertulia” is associated with radio and podcast discussions, to the extent that the Royal Spanish Academy even offers it as an alternative definition (Tertulia: f. Radio or television space in which various participants discuss a topic under the direction of a moderator).

A tertulia is not an accidental formation in human relationships but rather a space deliberately designed. I can identify at least three explicit intentions within it. The first is an intellectual intention, which sets it apart from a simple casual meeting among friends, one of those in which we sit and talk about the first thing that comes to mind: it is a space intentionally created to stimulate the mind.

The second is an intention for regularity: it is thanks to prolonged conversation, sustained over months and years, that allows contertulios to express their opinions, shape their minds, and dare to shape the minds of others.

The third is a fraternal intention. Although there may be friction, tension, and even strong oppositions among several of its members — how terrible it would be if everyone had the same opinion! —overall, the tertulianos are more akin to a group of friends than a group of indifferent individuals. And it is because to sustain such a social interaction over time, there needs to be a minimum of social chemistry that sparks an interest in attending the next meeting. If a tertulia is a bore filled with dullards, I rather prefer to stay at home and seek that intellectual stimulation by reading a book or watching a documentary.

Knowledge in our times is hyper-specialized and lives compartmentalized in small, hard-to-access silos. The exchange of ideas happens on an industrial scale, in universities around the world, in the laboratories of large companies, in conferences of experts on very specific topics, and through millions of pages published each year in specialized journals. I firmly believe that this elevation of intellectual conversation is a positive and fascinating facet of our times.

However, I also believe that spaces like the tertulia are necessary, allowing individuals to dive in and talk about topics they are not experts in but merely someone with genuine intellectual curiosity. Sure, we live in a world where absolutely all information is just a click away, and we have to juggle to maintain honesty without falling into the Dunning-Kruger trap, where we believe we are experts on a certain topic just because we’ve watched a couple of YouTube videos. But still, we can all perfectly discuss art, science, politics, philosophy, and history without being masters in any of these subjects.

And it is indeed a delight to play with ideas, to exchange them, attack them, defend them, discover some new ones, and bury others. The promise of the tertulia is simply that doing all this is even more enjoyable when you do it among laughter and with a drink in hand.

The Diversity of Intellectual Encounters

Of course, neither the Spanish invented the idea of intellectual meetings nor is the tertulia the only form of these. In essence, the tertulia shares traits with the literary salons that once populated Paris, the clubs in London, or those that were so prominent in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the Scottish Enlightenment, the meetings in Vienna’s cafes at the end of the 19th century, and the philosophical circles in Germany.

There are good examples of intellectual groups that achieved distinction due to the notoriety of their participants. In London, the Bloomsbury Group, which included Virginia Woolf and John M. Keynes; in New York, the Algonquin Round Table, which had Dorothy Parker and George Kaufman, and the Reality Club, created by John Brockman; the Apostles in Cambridge gathered Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; the Lunar Society in Birmingham included James Watt, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Kelvin; and the Inklings in Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. But, of course, these groups are not exclusive to the Anglo-Saxon world. Just to give an example: in the distant Caribbean coast of Colombia, the Barranquilla Group brought together Gabriel García Márquez with Álvaro Cepeda Samudio and Alejandro Obregón.

The degree of formality (or informality) of these groups provides an axis on which to think about the plurality of intellectual groups. Searching for information about Spanish tertulias, I found references to the German stammtisch, but as I understand it, the intention of these meetings is more of social enjoyment. I also found references to the Italian academies of the 17th century, which were definitely well-structured, with an agenda and a secretary in charge of the minutes. Tertulias are halfway between these two extremes.

The size of these groups also defines their nature. In its most modest manifestation, an intellectual group gathers just a handful of friends; when large, they can be formed by a dozen or two dozen people. On a larger scale, there are well-organized events that can convene hundreds or a couple of thousand people and require well-defined logistics and funding. Some of these in England come to mind: the annual Wired Magazine conference, the Hay Festival, or the wonderful philosophical festival How The Light Gets In. Although the emphasis shifts to the talks given by experts, these events are not merely lecture programs where attendees remain passive; the richness consists in using the informal environment to connect with others and exchange viewpoints.

Stretching the concept of an intellectual group to its limit, and with some risk of distorting its essence, we reach TED Talks and the World Economic Forum in Davos, which involve thousands of participants, while millions more follow it closely around the world. Social dynamics on such a scale are not those of a group of friends discussing art and literature, however, the intense talks and debates—many of which occur away from the cameras—maintain that goal of exchanging opinions and influencing each other’s intellectual conceptions.

And What’s All This Intellectual Chatter For?

Enthusiasts of intellectual gatherings see formidable properties in them. For example, Jimmy Lee Byars, an American artist, held in the 1980s that “if you want to reach the frontier of human knowledge, gather the deepest and most advanced thinkers, seat them in the same room, and allow them to exchange the questions that most trouble their own minds”. So convinced was Byars of this premise that he set about seeking the most important thinkers of his time. After several failed attempts to achieve his vision, he finally met John Brockman, a cultural entrepreneur, and together they founded the Reality Club, which in some form still lives on in the virtual forum Edge, gathering the most influential thinkers of our times. Byars’ enthusiasm is understandable and surely shared by anyone who has organized one of these intellectual encounters.

Reflecting on this issue, I have surprisingly discovered that I am skeptical that a group of good, noble, and brilliant minds, all gathered in a salon and discussing the mysteries of the cosmos and the soul, hold the key to unlocking the doors that Byars promises.

The knowledge that global human civilization possesses has been woven over thousands of years, with strands that have been asynchronously picked up by millions of people, connected to each other by vast and deep networks, spread across time and space. It is both tragic and beautiful that the vast majority of what we use to advance knowledge comes from anonymous sources, people we do not know and will never meet, nor with whom we could chat for a couple of hours, sitting at a bar. (Moreover, if we did meet them, it is very likely that they would not be people we would like to hang out with, and that an evening with them would be more of a torment than a delight; it is always easier to obtain distilled knowledge than to have some chemistry with others.)

From the grumpy Heraclitus to the enigmatic Gödel, the history of human knowledge is plagued with people who did not enjoy the company of others, or who simply did not have highly developed social skills; misanthropy is not scarce in the guild of thinkers, intellectuals, and scientists. I even venture to suggest that the taste for sitting down to chat about intellectual issues with others is rather a rarity, shared only by a minority. And yet, I am sure that, even if no one had a weakness for gathering to “exchange the questions that most trouble their minds”, humanity would continue to push the boundaries of knowledge without any problem.

The discussions that take place in tertulias, philosophy festivals, and large intellectual debate events can shape public conversation, an impact that is not small. But it is essential to put such impact into proper perspective. Even the World Economic Forum in Davos, which every February sets the global agenda for much of what will be discussed for the rest of the year in technology, business, and politics, does not achieve direct transformations or revolutionary commitments. Surely, behind closed doors, deals are made and agreements reached among its elite participants, but the real impact of Davos is closer to that of a glamorous gala of the rich and famous than the sinister conclave that many conspiracy theory adherents believe they see each year in the Swiss mountains.

Is There Anything Worth Talking About?

Nick Trefethen, the mathematician, in his book of short essays “Trefethen’s Index Cards,” reflects on the meaning of conversation in our lives and suggests that the central theme of human interest seems to be dominated by the question ‘How can I live better?’, which, although relevant, ends up dragging almost all our chats to trivial topics, exclusively personal and fleeting in time. He finds such an observation disheartening: “The alternative I yearn for [are chats about] ‘What is truth?’ The topic should be the universe, not just our narrow culture; the goal should be explanations, not just a string of facts.” In the end, he notes that all conversations really lie on a “damned continuum,” and distinguishing between them is impossible, concluding that “the trick is to maintain enthusiasm [for chatting] despite the fact that nothing makes sense.”

Although I find his nihilistic conclusion hard to assimilate (especially knowing that Nick is a wonderful conversationalist), I agree with that argument that in reality all our chats are part of the same human conversation, which we maintain throughout our lives, and that on some occasions they focus on the last restaurant we went to, juicy office gossip, or our problem with the tax return, and on other occasions they focus on our country’s economic system, the virtues of a painting we recently saw, or the discoveries of deep space made by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The real value of tertulias, and other intellectually inclined forums, does not lie in that utilitarian aspect thought by Byars, through which we would expand our human knowledge, but rather it is to fit harmoniously into that continuum of conversations, halfway between the superficial and the profound, between the mundane and the eternal. The ultimate goal of conversations held by intellectual groups is the same as that of any other conversation: the sheer joy and enjoyment of connecting with others.

If someone is looking for some practical advice on how to find something like a tertulia in which they can participate, I would recommend without hesitation joining a book club. Not only have they become more popular around the world, but they immediately pose a topic conducive to rich discussions; and although they are more enjoyable when face-to-face, you can hold them via video conference without any major issue—no one will judge you if you have a glass of wine while sitting in front of the computer. Let’s not forget that, whether reality or myth, the first tertulianos formed what were essentially primitive book clubs to read Tertulian, their favorite author. If they could do it four hundred years ago, you can certainly do it in this 21st century.

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