All the Right Questions

  • There's a buzz in the air at the El Diablo Coffee Co. in Seattle, and it's not just coming from the aroma of the shop's Cuban-style espresso drinks. On a recent Wednesday evening, as most patrons sat quietly reading books or tapping away on their laptop computers, about 15 people gathered in a circle discussing philosophy. "When is violence necessary?" asked one. "What is a well-lived life?" asked another, as the group enjoyed a well-caffeinated, intellectual high.

    Known as a Socrates Cafe, the group at El Diablo is just one of 150 or so that meet in coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, churches and community centers across the country. Founded by Christopher Phillips, a former journalist and teacher, the cafes are designed to get people talking about philosophical issues. Using a kind of Socratic method, they encourage people to develop their views by posing questions, being open to challenges and considering alternative answers. Adhering to Socrates' belief that the unexamined life is not worth living, the cafes focus on exchanging ideas, not using them to pummel other participants.

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    Jan. 17, 2004

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    "Instead of just yelling back and forth, we take a few steps back and examine people's underlying values. People can ask why to their heart's content," says Phillips, whose most recent book, Six Questions of Socrates (Norton; 320 pages), came out earlier this year.

    While a modern-day discussion group based on the teachings of a thinker from the 5th century B.C. may seem quaintly outdated, Socrates Cafes have found a surprisingly large and diverse following. Meetings have been held everywhere from a Navajo Nation reservation in Ganado, Ariz., to an airplane terminal in Providence, R.I. Ongoing groups have formed in prisons, senior centers and homeless shelters. In recent months, international groups have popped up in Afghanistan, Finland and Spain. The common denominator? "People who get off on ideas come to this," says Fred Korn, 65, a retired philosophy professor, who attends the Wednesday-night meetings at El Diablo. "Outside of college, there's not a lot of opportunity to get together with people who want to talk about ideas," he says.

    For Phillips, the dialogue groups are about much more than good conversation. "It's grass-roots democracy," he says. "It's only in a group setting that people can hash out their ideas about how we should act not just as an individual but as a society." To avoid divisive dead-end arguments, the cafes frequently turn current events into broader philosophical questions. For example, rather than asking whether the U.S. and its allies should have invaded Iraq, a group asked, "What is a just war?" Instead of arguing about whether gay couples should marry, another cafe asked, "What is an excellent marriage?"

    Phillips, 44, first came up with the idea for such sessions while studying political philosophy at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Several days a week after class, he and other students would meet with a favorite professor at a local watering hole. Often other people at the bar would overhear their heated discussions and join in. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful just to have these great conversations all the time?'" he says.

    After quitting work as a free-lance writer, Phillips held his first Socrates Cafe at a Borders bookstore in Wayne, N.J., in the summer of 1996. Within a month, he met a woman named Cecilia, who was the only person to show up at one meeting. "We held a dialogue on the question What is love? and fell in love," he says. Married in 1998, the couple put their belongings in storage four years ago, and now travel year-round promoting Phillips' books and helping form new groups around the country. His first two books, Socrates Cafe (Norton; 224 pages) and The Philosophers' Club (Tricycle Press; 44 pages), which encourages children to ask questions, came out in 2001.

    The mood, tone and topic of discussion for each cafe vary greatly, depending on the participants. Typically, the topic is decided by group vote, and anyone can suggest an idea. At El Diablo, the mostly middle-aged crowd (ages 25 to 66), clad in earth tones and comfortable shoes, settled on a tough one: Do nation-states with greater power have a greater responsibility to act ethically? "Is any act that a nation makes in its own self-interest ever moral?" asked Matt Waller, 40, a technical writer. "I say no." "Well, what's the nature of self-interest?" retorts housepainter Steve Crawford, 50. "Nations don't exist in a vacuum, certainly not in today's world." After two hours of discussion, no conclusion was reached, but that's not the point. "It's calisthenics of the mind," says Margaret Friedman, 35, a writer and real estate agent who took part in the exchange.

    At a New York City Socrates Cafe, held inside the large glass atrium at Sony Plaza in midtown Manhattan, the dialogue takes on a decidedly bookish tone. The seven men and one woman huddled around a marble-topped table on a stormy night settled on a question inspired by the writer Ayn Rand. "Can you objectively infer an ethical principle?" asks Al Ostroff, 76, an artist and writer. "Kant would emphatically say yes," replies Evan Sinclair, 53, who works in marketing. "Plato would think differently," counters Larry Hui, 43, an attorney.

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