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Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips

Socrates Cafe

A Fresh Taste of Philosophy
by Christopher Phillips
W.W. Norton, 2001
Review by Janet D. Sisson on May 25th 2003
Volume: 7, Number: 21

Christopher Phillips gave up a career as a journalist to offer himself as a facilitator for 'Socrates' Café', a forum for free discussion that can be held in any kind of environment, from seniors' homes to schools, from bookstores to prisons, as well as in coffee shops.  The book is an account of Phillips' experiences.  He claims that the kinds of discussion that occur in the cafés he hosts can help people to reach a wider perspective on life and give meaning to lives that hitherto lacked it.  The writing is at a popular level, and there are no essays into deeper metaphysical or political questions: ethical questions tend to be kept at a personal level.  The exception to this is the final discussion "Why ask why?" in which more justification is given for the 'Socratic method' as it is practiced by Phillips and Socratic virtue.  This discussion takes place in an elementary school.

Phillips believes he is doing something important for popular culture in America. He gives a picture of his activities in several ways. First, his own personal journey towards starting his Cafés; second, his accounts of what goes on in various cafés with various populations; third, his views on the intent and effect of his work for himself and the participants. He places himself in opposition to academic philosophy, as bringing philosophy back to the people, providing opportunities for people to discuss questions and problems that arise for them in a situation propitious for this endeavour. This is to be seen as an extension of the work Socrates undertakes in Plato's portrayal. Phillips thinks that there is a real need in society (he speaks only of the US), to provide means by which people may learn to engage in questioning. I am not sure if the material he cites supports his claims for either the need or the success of what he offers, and indeed, he does not press the point as more than a journalistic claim. However, I sympathise with his view, and agree that critical and questioning discussion is one of the most important freedoms that help to secure democratic societies against fascist tyranny.

The general tenor of Phillips' observations is that people given the opportunity to attend a Café will raise questions of a kind thought to be philosophical.  The cafés involve diverse characters and views in the discussion of well-known philosophical questions, portrayed as arising from ordinary people encouraged to question and to respond with conviction and honesty.  It is difficult to know how typical the discussions are of those that Phillips has facilitated, the more so as he admits that they are not recorded at the time, but are rather his own reconstruction.  He walks in the shadow of Plato, whose own works do not record the exact words of Socrates, but are rather dramatic set pieces for the discussion of philosophic themes, and so are to be read and discussed as arguments and not as historical records.  The names of the participants and sometimes the Café locations have been changed to protect anonymity, so there is an additional layer of fiction in addition to Phillips' own use of his memories and reconstructions rather than actual reports of the discussions.

What does talking do for people?  Clearly, it can help them to appreciate other people's point of view and to have others give them back responses to their own expression of views.  In some cultures, this kind of discussion is found in cafes, pubs, or other gathering places, such as marketplaces or public gardens.  It is very important to a free society that people feel able to converse about topics of mutual interest, to share ideas and find where they agree and disagree.  It also matters that they can learn to disagree with some amity and do not regard their own views as fixed and unchallengeable.  If group discussions of any kind serve to encourage people to take their cognitive commitments more seriously and to become open to alternatives and to the requirements of reasons open to others, then these provide a service that is essential to true democracies.

How can people learn to converse dialectically?  The interpersonal part is not prominent in Phillips' descriptions.  The reported conversations mostly develop between the facilitator and individual participants, and only occasionally does a conversation develop among many participants.  The reports may make the proceedings seem like vaguely connected comments, rather than developing discussions, but good discussions often are like this.  Phillips ends with the claim that philosophical discussion is the road to a truly virtuous life, in which the good of others is as important as one's own good.  There is thus a general advantage to be gained from the attitude to belief that is gained in open-ended unprejudiced discussion.

I am a philosopher who helps to facilitate Philosophy Cafés in Canada, but I also teach Philosophy courses in Universities and Colleges.  My major interest is in the work of Plato.  I found this book very difficult to review.  I admire Phillips' emphasis on the need for free and honest public discussion, and sympathize with his aversion to the way some academic philosophers narrow the scope of discussion to what fits the needs of large classes in humanities teaching, or view their own prejudices as dictating what philosophy should be.  However, this is not the only kind of philosophy to be found in universities, and when our experience is simply rejected, this does not help us to teach philosophy.

Two main points: the exercise is a useful one, but you might not know from the book that Philosophy Cafés are held in many places in Europe and in Canada.  Phillips' Café project is part of a movement that has many practitioners.  Secondly, the background for this enterprise is very different from that for the conversations of Socrates.  Plato uses the figure of Socrates as a way of introducing the idea of intellectual discussion in order to promote the pursuit of truth, not as a path for personal discovery.

The modern idea of finding or testing the self is not one that the ancients seem to have held, so to treat opportunities for dialogue as a means of self-discovery is a modern attitude, not the aim of Socrates own original dialectic.  American scholars have sometimes encouraged this reading of Socratic endeavors; Phillips' fondness for this line of argument perhaps owes more to idealist or existentialist thinking than to Socrates himself.  This does not undermine the aim of Phillips' cafés, but suggests his practice is more modern than he pretends.  In the Republic, Plato thinks of dialogue as engaged in by people of a mature age (a lot older than some of Phillips' café members, who include school children).  The students in Plato's ideal city (a select élite of the citizens) come to dialectic as the summit of their investigation of their beliefs, not to become self-fulfilled but so that they will be able to govern their city well.

Today's facilitators in Philosophy Cafés would agree with Phillips in thinking that anyone can learn from participation in a café.  The pressures of North American life have made it difficult for people, in the course of normal social life, to learn the art of broad political discussion, of the kind found in the bars of Athens to this day.  The effect of this kind of discussion extends beyond the purely personal and requires that the participants engage with each other in true dialogue.


© 2003 Janet Sisson


Janet D. Sisson, Mount Royal College, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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