Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Find the deeper meaning at 'Socrates Cafe'

By Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002


This homeless shelter for women in Chicago is hardly reminiscent of ancient Athens, where Socrates once prodded artists, craftsmen, politicians, and passersby to expose their faulty logic. But no matter how humble the setting, a philosophy revival is going on here.

Skip to next paragraph

Residents and staff members at Deborah's Place are engaged in a boisterous discussion of the question, "What is a friend?" The query is never truly answered, but it stretches their minds.

It's all part of the Socrates Cafe – not the latest franchised coffee shop or a smoky bistro full of bohemian wannabes, but something between a place and a state of mind. The brainchild of writer Christopher Phillips, Socrates Cafes are gathering spots – in schools, hospices, jails, and, yes, cafes – for people who love asking questions instead of taking things at face value.

"When people's basic assumptions are challenged, passions can run high," says Patty Zuccarello, who sometimes adds a dash of inspiration to the women's-shelter talks in her role as facilitator. "No one is pretending to be Socrates here, but certainly we're becoming more reflective thinkers."

While other kids grew up wanting to be like Michael Jordan, Mr. Phillips was smitten by Socrates at an early age, having learned about the hemlock-sipping father of philosophy from his mother's old textbooks.

Despite his interest, he abandoned philosophy as his college major. He says his professors spoke in monotone voices, read from prepared texts, and took umbrage at questions.

But Phillips took great pleasure in discussions outside class, in local lounges. For years, while scratching out a living, he dreamed of dragging philosophy out of cobwebbed ivory towers and back into the streets – or at least public places – where Socrates practiced the art.

Five years ago, he strolled into a cafe in Montclair, N.J., to launch some philosophical conversations. The Tuesday evening confabs in Montclair took a while to catch on, but eventually became a happening, with people driving from as far away as Philadelphia. One day, Phillips received a letter from a man in a nursing home who asked if Phillips could conduct a cafe there. Phillips soon began traveling the United States, helping to establish about 80 philosophy groups.

He eventually wrote "Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Look at Philosophy," which is part travelogue, part philosophy primer, and part how-to on running the meetings. Phillips has been on the road for a solid year, including a recent trip to Mexico, where he worked with street children; he and his wife have even given up a permanent address. They met when she was the only one to show up for a discussion and he apparently did a superb job answering her question: What is love?

Not argument, but discovery

Like Socrates himself, Phillips never charges for his services, which he calls "nurturing the fourth R" – reasoning.

"It's not a book-club discussion, where there are a series of non sequiturs, or what you see on television, where people are pompous and interrupt, and he who talks loudest and browbeats the most wins," he says. "It's a dialogue, where people discover their unique philosophical perspectives and worldviews as they lock hearts and minds with other people."

To explain his interpretation of the Socratic method, Phillips uses a post-Sept. 11 question posed by a woman at a Socrates Cafe: Why is there so much violence in the world? Before the discussion goes too far, Phillips challenges the assumption that there is a prevalence of violence in the world and raised a different question: What is violence?