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Socrates Café
September 26, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

Chris Phillips used to be a journalist and photographer, a public school teacher, and a college instructor with three master’s degrees. Today, at forty, he’s underemployed, deeply in debt, and completely ecstatic about how his life has turned out. While studying for a master of arts in teaching at Montclair State University in 1996, Phillips chanced to pick up Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, the seminal collection of existentialist and proto-existentialist texts that Walter Kaufmann compiled in 1956 as a means of preparing humankind for a genuinely philosophical form of life. Something Phillips read in Kaufmann’s introduction to the book soon sent him rocketing across America, visiting jails, hospices, nursing homes, and other public venues — all on his own dime. “I didn’t have any master plan when I started doing this,” he told me recently. (I’d tracked him down in Baltimore, though he lives now in Scottsdale, Arizona.) “I just had this little idea: Let’s give philosophy back to the people.”

This essay is more than a decade old; Phillips is in his early fifties now.
posted by cgc373 (23 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating. Thanks for posting.
posted by josher71 at 7:16 AM on September 26, 2011


[Deleted a bunch of comments - let's try this again, ideally actually discussing the article. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 7:39 AM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Philosophy is the most dangerous of humanity's inventions, and - if you ask me - it should be locked up in a secret government warehouse along with the Ark of the Covenant. Nothing good ever came out of philosophy, but it has ruined MILLIONS of lives. Let me fill you in on the history of philosophy by way of explication of the abovementioned thesis.

Philosophy was all started by a guy called Phil and his wife Sophie, who were always arguing. They argued so much that they decided to solve their problems by betting on a race between Achilles and a Tortoise, but they couldn't even decide who won. Then Sophie tried to poison Phil by pouring hemlock in his ear. Phil thought that was bad form and told Sophie she was nothing but a cavewoman. Later, Phil taught their son, Alexander the Great, to be great, but he died. Sophie started to doubt everything and took to lying in a shopping cart all day, which was her "Day-cart" period. They wanted to go to Germany but it turns out they can't, so they went to live in France but they felt "nothingness". It's a pretty sad story, this philosophy, but the important point is that Phil and Sophie still argue and people find them really boring.

And that's my essay on philosophy. Big shout-out to the other kids in the freshman year and double that to all the Phi Beta Kappas out there. And, if you wanna email me my BA now, Professor Mathowie, that's cool too.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:40 AM on September 26, 2011 [26 favorites]


Richard Armour would be proud.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:15 AM on September 26, 2011


Phil Donahue used to invoke "the wisdom of the masses" when turning to his audience for opinions or questions but I've always found that perspective (oddly enough) rather patronizing. Opinions are not equal. Philosophical musings not based on hard knowledge are little more than a circle jerk -- enjoyable as that may be.
posted by binturong at 8:48 AM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to forgive the author for making up the word "Socratizing" eck because of the wonderful overall story. One person with an idea, properly implemented, can change many minds.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:15 AM on September 26, 2011


When I lived in DC, a couple of friends hosted a salon. They held it every other Tuesday, until schedules got complicated and they had to shift it to Thursdays (and it was renamed Every Other Tuesday on Thursday). Different people would present or facilitate each time, and it was a good mix of presenting on a topic and facilitating a discussion about something (which was usually based on a reading suggested at a previous session). There was a core group of people who showed up nearly every time, but people were always bringing friends and new-in-town roommates and so the discussions never felt stale, with the same people saying the same things every week.
posted by rtha at 9:29 AM on September 26, 2011


Timely, in an odd sort of way.

I saw his book in the Chicago Borders the summer of 2001, was moderately intrigued, and made a mental note of it. Then I never heard his name or the phrase "Socrates Cafe" mentioned again.

I assumed the whole enterprise, which ripened during the boom years of the late 1990s, was drowned, washed up, and left for dead by "The Events Of Nine Eleven®".

Fast wind forward to just a few weeks ago. I took my accumulated Borders gift cards on a shopping spree and among many others, picked up the trade paperback edition of his book. I was just getting started on rounding up what had happened to Chris Phillips and whether there were in fact any Socrates Cafes happening at all these days, because other than in the book, I've never heard of a single instance.

More:
Socrates Cafe Homesite
Christopher Phillips Home Site

Thanks for the reminder!
 
posted by Herodios at 9:30 AM on September 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting article. Interesting progression of an idea. Reminds me of what metafilter can be ... when not derailed by posturing 'experts', clowns and people who need to 'win' arguments.

(RTFA)
posted by Surfurrus at 9:31 AM on September 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting and laudable enough project, but there's an air of naive individualism about the whole thing that kind of bothers me around the edges. It's like every five years or so someone loudly rediscovers that philosophy is just the search for right living! check it out, folks! and reinvents some new flash-in-the-pan salon movement without even the longevity of a cultural fruit fly like Chautauqua or the Lyceums before that.

That academic philosophy that everyone loves to deride survives because, for the time being and in the recent past at least, academia has had a relatively durable institutional footing that allows a few people to make a living doing it, while voluntarist cheerleading for individual readers without any institutional, financial, or political support isn't going to create another venue for philosophy that has any chance of surviving in American culture. It's a lot like building a political movement: reading groups and consciousness-raisings are great starting-points to awaken individuals' interest, but then you also need some form of more durable institution-building for them to invest that interest in, or else it dissipates again as they find another fad. I can't help but think that the real defect here is that philosophy-fad readers tend not to be interested in political thought so much as they like the view of philosophy as atomized individuals' quests for self-culture.
posted by RogerB at 10:50 AM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've heard of Socrates Cafe before, and I never thought it sounded like a promising venue for interesting thought.

Philosophy is hard, it is rigorous, it builds upon achievements that seem technical to the uninitiated, and much of the most interesting philosophy does not have direct application to questions of "how to live" that would be engrossing to people in a Borders coffee shop. Lots of philosophy does not lend itself to a "drop and join us at Borders in if you have a free hour" type format. Yes, there is a self-help dimension to some philosophy, but Phillips' disdain for professional philosophers rubs me the wrong way. It mischaracterizes philosophy to criticize it for being professionalized or technical. Professional, technical philosophy that is uninteresting to lay people or dilettantes is as old as philosophy itself.

I suppose some philosophy, however watered-down, is better than no philosophy, though, so perhaps I should not be criticizing him.

And this statement, from someone's comment above, reflects an unfortunate ignorance about what philosophy is: "Philosophical musings not based on hard knowledge are little more than a circle jerk ..." One would have to have Socrates' sense of humor to endure this kind of ignorance at the Socrates Cafe.
posted by jayder at 11:13 AM on September 26, 2011


jayder: I think you misunderstood my statement. I was making the same point as you -- that philosophy is a discipline that requires study. It is a cut above a mere exchange of opinions (informed or otherwise), which is what I take these Socratic cafes to be. Thus my comment that cafe discussions NOT based on hard knowledge have little lasting value. You seem to think I meant the opposite.
posted by binturong at 11:54 AM on September 26, 2011


I read the book shortly after it came out, and liked it quite a bit.

Opinions are not equal. Philosophical musings not based on hard knowledge are little more than a circle jerk -- enjoyable as that may be.

That's true. It requires a really skilled moderator who can seamlessly weave in his own expertise. Understandably, when Phillips talks about bringing philosophy to "the people," he understates his own importance in that formula.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:11 PM on September 26, 2011


Binturong -- my apologies. I misunderstood you.
posted by jayder at 12:40 PM on September 26, 2011


The notion that in order to be legitimate, philosophy must be "rigorous" and based on "hard knowledge" speaks very much to the notion of philosophy as an institution, not as an activity. Such litmus tests of legitimacy do ensure a certain (broad) unity of purpose and output, but they also serve to reinforce the legitimacy of the institution itself. Or, if you look at it backwards, the only way people are able to do any activity professionally is if they have the backing of some institution that legitimizes the "professionality" of that activity; and the only institutions of that sort that survive are ones that simultaneously legitimize their own existence as institutions.

So it's kind of impossible to "do philosophy" outside of the academy, because the academy decides what philosophy is and isn't. "Giving philosophy back to the people" is a fool's errand, because by philosophy is "not of the people" almost by definition.

That's if you go by the academy's conception of what philosophy is. And I'd argue that if you don't -- that is, if you think that philosophy is an activity broader than what the academy says it is -- then there's no need to worry, because that sort of philosophy is something we all can do naturally. Learning all about academic philosophy may give you some ideas that apply to other aspects of your life, but in my opinion, they mainly apply to... academic philosophy.

I think all this institution stuff also applies to art and science. (Although science is more directly connected to engineering and hence business, so it's not quite such an echo chamber.) Learning a lot about art history isn't going to teach you how to express yourself creatively, unless you happen to want to express yourself on the subject of art history.
posted by DLWM at 1:11 PM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


The notion that in order to be legitimate, philosophy must be "rigorous" and based on "hard knowledge" speaks very much to the notion of philosophy as an institution, not as an activity. Such litmus tests of legitimacy do ensure a certain (broad) unity of purpose and output, but they also serve to reinforce the legitimacy of the institution itself. Or, if you look at it backwards, the only way people are able to do any activity professionally is if they have the backing of some institution that legitimizes the "professionality" of that activity; and the only institutions of that sort that survive are ones that simultaneously legitimize their own existence as institutions.

I'm not sure where legitimacy even becomes an issue, except to the extent that people like Phillips claim that philosophy is dominated by academic philosophers. Are there laypeople who are resentful that their dabblings in philosophy are not regarded as legitimate? Are they seeking recognition as serious philosophers?

Kind of like the average person can dabble in architecture by building a shed in their backyard, ordinary people can engage in philosophy themselves. Most of what they do will be small in scope, like the backyard shed, and will not gain attention in the world of professional philosophers. It's not maligning the backyard shed builder to say that their shed is not a big contribution to architecture. Nor is it an indictment of professional architects that they are not interested in the amateur's work. It would be silly of the shed builder to expect to make an impact on architecture with such a small, amateur work. But the shed may be very nice and be of great usefulness to its builder. So its lack of professional legitimacy does not detract from its value for its builder. Activities like Socrates Cafe are encouraging people to engage in small exercises in philosophy, like building a backyard shed is the layperson's exercise in architecture.
posted by jayder at 1:36 PM on September 26, 2011


It's interesting that the guy got started on this by the Kaufmann book on existentialism. In my youth, I became very taken with another book by Kaufmann, "Critique of Religion and Philosophy".

I learned a lot of things from this book (for example: "positivism" and "existentialism" can be thought of two kinds of radical rejections of traditional metaphysics), but, what struck me the most was perhaps the Socratic passion that Kaufmann brought to the discussion. I remember fervently underlining the part where he says that the message of all great philosophy is, "you must change your life!"
posted by thelonius at 2:08 PM on September 26, 2011


In this day and age when otherwise intelligent adults accept things they see on Fox news as true, I'm in favor of anybody who wants to bring critical thinking to "the masses." It's not necessarily taught in the US public secondary schools, or even in US universities.
posted by tuesdayschild at 2:38 PM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I remember fervently underlining the part where he says that the message of all great philosophy is, "you must change your life!"

Yeah thelonius I had that same experience. The thing which is hard for us laymen to get is that all those philosophers in Kaufmann's book are now almost completely out of vogue in the academic, Analytic schools. The current crop seem like neo-medievalists arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin and death and such stuff (cafe metaphysics is a pejorative description as far as I can tell at the schools) is just passe. There are tons of great philosophy in the library, but when you go to class it seems to be pretty sparse.
posted by bukvich at 2:54 PM on September 26, 2011


I went pretty far down the road of academic philosophy, and I found that something like Gadamer's idea of merging of horizons is real....I took logic from a student of Quine, OK? High church of "analytic philosophy" And Quine's deflationary theory of meaning isn't really that far from Derrida. metaphysically.
posted by thelonius at 6:13 PM on September 26, 2011


jayder, would you agree that there is both Philosophy the professional academic discipline and also philosophy the general activity? (A la the Church vs. the church.) If so, I think it's important to differentiate between the idea that philosophy is an amateur version of Philosophy on one hand, and the idea that Philosophy is a narrowed-down and institutionally-legitimized version of philosophy on the other. Cause they say pretty different things about whether Philosophy or philosophy is the important part of the concept, and to what extent one would allow that what is considered of philosophical interest might be influenced by institutional-level problems like politics or financing. Which, again, I think is kind of important because philosophy is usually viewed as something purer or truer or deeper than, say, architecture.
posted by DLWM at 10:13 PM on September 26, 2011


Kind of like the average person can dabble in architecture by building a shed in their backyard, ordinary people can engage in philosophy themselves. Most of what they do will be small in scope, like the backyard shed, and will not gain attention in the world of professional philosophers. It's not maligning the backyard shed builder to say that their shed is not a big contribution to architecture.

I think you could make a pretty good case that, for Socrates, the real work of philosophy is building those backyard sheds. His whole shtick was that he didn't have any positive knowledge; he was wiser than everyone around him, but only because, unlike them, he knew that he wasn't wise. He didn't go around trying to transmit some elaborate philosophical system, he helped people to deconstruct their own beliefs until they realized that they didn't know what they thought they knew, that their stated beliefs are unfounded (or, arguably, to help them remember truths they know innately but have forgotten). The goal here would be to lead people to live better lives, not to generate original insights that would constitute "big contributions" to philosophical knowledge. So in a sense, these Socratic cafés are more true to the foundational project of Western philosophy than most of the subsequent philosophical tradition.
posted by twirlip at 10:18 PM on September 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of Plato's typical moves was, making an analogy to a practice or activity......techne, in Greek? What is the strength or excellence of a shoemaker? Making shoes. Of a doctor? Healing the sick. Of a general? Fighting wars. Each are judged by their own standards: it's crazy to blame a general for not knowing how to make shoes, but it is fair to blame him for not knowing how to hire shoemakers.

A big question then becomes: what is the "strength or excellence" of being a human person?

I think Plato is wrong about almost everything in metaphysics, but there is something really compelling about the way that he develops his thought by analogy to practical activities. And, I think, that's a way that people still do philosophy, naturally, in the demotic way that this dude is kind of romanticizing. The master electrician eventually starts to think about what it means to do electrical work, and he seeks to improve his daily practice with whatever insights that this thinking brings him.
posted by thelonius at 6:57 PM on September 29, 2011


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