Find the deeper meaning at 'Socrates Cafe'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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?

The participants go on to talk about change. They also think about the difference between intentional versus unintentional violence, such as an earthquake. After two hours, they bring the discussion full circle and ask again, Why is there so much violence in the world? The answer they come up with: Because this world is ever changing, and along the margins of such change, violence can develop.

In his globetrotting, Phillips often leaves Socrates Cafes in his wake. Following a booksigning in the university town of Oxford, Miss., several audience members gathered spontaneously and started one at a bookstore cafe. One of the founders was blues musician Steve Cheseborough.

"The point of this is that anyone can do philosophy; you don't need any training in it," Mr. Cheseborough says. "We've had some philosophy students come by, and I don't know if they really get it.... You don't want someone coming in and dropping names like Hume. That's OK, but then you have to be able to explain it ... and be ready to defend it, using your own logic."

Participants in the Oxford cafe are a diverse lot, he says: an architect, retirees, a small-business owner, a minister. The only common thread is their intellectual questing. Typically, the group spends a few minutes brainstorming and then votes on which topic they will explore. Phillips claims that a group of any size will work, but Cheseborough thinks the ideal is five or six people. With groups of 15 to 20, he says, some start speechifying and others clam up.

Nurturing minds in a shelter

Each person's journey to a Socrates Cafe is different. Ms. Zuccarello, director of education at Deborah's Place, found her way to the idea after reading a magazine article about poverty. A prison inmate told the author she was poor because she couldn't participate in the "moral life of the downtown." Without opportunities to go to the symphony or museums, or to read great literature, she felt poor in thought.

That revelation led Zuccarello to overhaul the education program. Out went the résumé-writing and interview-skills courses, and in came a curriculum to enrich the mind: philosophy, the arts, ethics, literature.

She found "Socrates Cafe" in the philosophy section of a bookstore and decided to start one at the shelter nearly a year ago. Since then, the questions have ranged from "Why do bad things happen to good people?" to "What is respect?"

No hierarchy here

As the women dissect today's question, about friendship, the conversation bounces around the room like a superball. When one woman begins to speak in generalities, Zuccarello queries: "But how do you know your friend is a friend?" The woman mentions how long she's known an acquaintance. Another one tests her Socratic wings: "So how long do you need to know someone before they're your friend?"

The group discusses the essence of friendship – unselfishness, shared experience, love. One participant, with utter seriousness, insists the only true friend is someone who gives you money. She is shouted down amid hoots and hollers. Staff and residents air their thoughts freely, ignoring the power relationships that exist outside the walls of the conference room.

It may seem like a baby step in the face of poverty, but Zuccarello says the discussions echo far beyond the one-hour weekly gatherings: "This afternoon, the women will be hanging out in the learning center, and I guarantee you they're still going to be talking about the meaning of friendship, exploring it with staff, asking questions. Socrates Cafe makes inroads, starts a broader dialogue, and then the work goes on – that's the beauty of it."

• See www.philosopher.org

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