Sunday, June 28, 2009
Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy
© Christopher Phillips, 2001
Although I have never taken a single philosophy class, I consider myself a student of philosophy. I discovered it in the autumn of 2006 after a friend asked me to listen to a Christian apologist named Ravi Zacharias. Listening to Zacharias, I found myself in the novel position of really thinking about life in a serious way. In an attempt to deal with his arguments, I would often write about the topic at hand. The result of this process was that I found myself thinking about everything, turning that principle of freethought (of which I approved) into practice for myself. Philosophy became all the more interesting when I realized through the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus that it could be put into practice -- could be lived. One YouTube account, "PhilosophicalMedia", contains a few episodes of a show in which the host tries to look at philosophers whose work involved a different way of thinking about life, or a different way of living. The videos have such titles as "Seneca on Anger" and "Epicurus on Happiness". One of the videos is on Socrates, and at one point in the video the host puts the Socratic method into practice by going out into the streets and badgering people with questions.
I like to see people grapple with philosophical questions: it seems to me that we are at our most human when we are engaged in philosophical inquiry. When I spotted this book in the library catalogue and skimmed through its description, I immediately became excited because it seemed as if this book would take philosophy to the streets. As it turns out, that is not quite the case -- but I was so interested in what the book actually was that I didn't realize that book wasn't what I had expected until hours after I finished it. Christopher Philips does take philosophy to people -- he just does it in a more civilized way than Socrates himself. The book is his account of hosting hundreds of "Socrates Cafés" in which people voluntarily gather to ask questions -- and discuss those questions. At first, these meeting sessions are held in actual cafes, but the author will host them in prisons, nursing homes, libraries, and schoolrooms. Each session starts out with Phillips asking people to submit a question: once someone comes forward, people begin discussing that question and asking questions about the question until hours have passed and people have immersed themselves in philosophical inquiry. The people who come are not just curious or philosophically-minded adults: some are children, and at one point Philips hosts a meeting that consists only of children and senior citizens. Through the course of the book, Phillips and his congregants discuss love, friendship, age, emotions, and all manner of things until the book ends with two questions on metaphysics.
What surprised Phillips was how meaningful philosophy and the cafes became to people. Although it is clear that Phillips has hosted hundreds of these events all around the country, he apparantly invested a lot of time in one or two of the groups, developing deep friendships and even falling in love with and marrying one of his fellow "Socratics". From what Phillips has written, the discussion groups create a lot of intellectual and emotional intimacy between people, and they regard the weekly sessions as vital, finding in them religious communion even though religion is never discussed. What Phillips aims to do with these clubs and with this book is to foster a sense of philosophy in more people, seeing the decline of intellectual life -- intellectual life being actively thinking about things, rather than just knowing facts -- as detrimental to people's mental health and to society in general. The records of the cafes are tied together with thoughts by Phillips, who attempts to connect what he and his fellow Socratics are discussing with what other philosophers have discussed. Sometimes "cafe sessions" are linked with such an essay.
The book was a treat to read, although some of the discussions toward the end were too metaphysical in nature for me to follow enthusiastically. I confess that I may have enjoyed the book more for its concept than for the writing itself: the linking essays were sometimes unfruitful reading, and Phillips sometimes repeats himself. What I like most about this book is that it shows people grappling with questions, rather than giving up and accepting trite responses.