I’ve got to admit I was a somewhat reluctant interviewer of the man who spends his life running Socrates Cafés: philosophical dialogues in public spaces with whoever wants to come and join in. The last time I went along to a similar event it was excruciatingly awful. People just took it in turns to spout off self-importantly, as though vindicated by the mere fact they were part of a so-called philosophical debate. It went round and round in circles, never getting any deeper.
Then there is the fact that his publishers call Christopher Phillips “the inimitable Johnny Appleseed of philosophy”. Mr Appleseed being virtually unknown in Europe, all I was left with was the impression of folksy wisdom rather than intellectual depth.
Reading Phillips’s latest book, Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Passionate Heart, didn’t do much to reassure me. Phillips mixes discussion of the five forms of love in ancient Greek (eros, storge, xenia, philia and agape) with highlights from previous Socrates Café’s on the subject. Rather than helping me to pin down what these forms of love are, I was left with the impression that they can mean more or less what I want them to. Phillips is a non-judgemental host, and he usually lets his characters speak for themselves without correction. It’s as though he opens up philosophy’s toy box so everyone can play, and doesn’t mind that we’re left with a mess strewn all over the nursery.
However, after talking to him and seeing his methods in action while on a visit to Bath in the west of England, I am, if not quite a convert, then certainly much more sympathetic to his work than I was beforehand.
It helped that Phillips was not the kind of arrogant attention-seeker you would expect someone whose vocation it is to stand up among strangers and get them talking. Quietly spoken and with a gentle manner, the Phillips ego seems remarkably under control.
So how did Phillips end up as an itinerant philosophical facilitator?
“You know it is funny because it’s not like it was always in the back of my mind that this was something I wanted to do. It would just completely leave my thoughts, and then in times of crisis that it would come back to me. I mean, when I started a group in 1996, I didn’t like what I was doing, even though I was making good money as a freelance writer. I just felt like I was repeating myself. I had a niche writing about unsung heroes, people in their little patch of earth make a lot of difference in the world. But I kept saying to myself, ‘I like writing about them, but I’d rather be one of them.’ I had this idea of just leaving my wood on the woodpile.
“Then a really good friend of mine committed suicide. I think there were a number of different reasons, but I think by and large she just felt she was never going to reach her higher aspirations. And you know, after that happened, I had just left a marriage of eight years, so that collapsed, I was just miserable in my job. And I remember I just sat down one day and I said, ‘What in the world do I have to do to make sure I never reach that same point of despair of my friend?’
“It wasn’t like something just immediately clicked, but it happened over weeks of questioning, things like, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to work or make any money?’ And I harked back to this great professor I had at college. He used to take us to the local watering hole afterwards, if anybody wanted to continue what we were talking about in class. Sometimes he would give us a night time class, and we were sometimes still at it until two or three in the morning. And strangers would sometimes sidle over and join in. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to wile away the hours having these kinds of confabs?’”
Nice idea. But how did he trnalstae that into a real life?
“It was just a serendipitous stumble. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I wish I could tell you I had some grandiose moves to plan, have the cafe and write a book.
“I was living in New Jersey, at a time when Americans were just screaming at one another: this was in 1996. There was really a lot of one-up-manship, a lot of browbeating, interrupting, nobody looking at each other. And I thought that we call ourselves a democracy, but how can you have a vibrant democracy when people generally don’t care to open themselves up to engage in dialogue; where they really try to sympathetically immerse themselves in other viewpoints; where there is actually a method to the discourse; where you don’t simply say what you say, but why you think what you think using cogent, compelling reasoning, which is what all of my political philosophy lecturers taught me.”
“I didn’t want to be a Socrates impersonator,” he insists, but there was something in the old sage which he wanted to emulate. “I think it’s not just having the courage of your convictions, but having them challenged from time to time. It’s healthy to have them scrutinized and then to allow other people to present alternative and compelling perspectives and have those scrutinized in turn, but without trying to reach any sort of consensus. It’s a healthy exercise.
“So I just went to a little slip of a coffee house in Monte Clare, New Jersey. And I approached these people. I just took a deep breath and walked in and I just said, ‘I have had this idea of having philosophy discourse. I’d like to have it in a place where there’s a lot of ambient traffic, where people who are going to walk by will look in and could just see something going on, maybe a bunch of oddballs, and want to come over and join in. I just was hoping that maybe you would be interested in having me do something like this.’ And they were quite enthused.
“It was a community cafe. There were just three owners. And they said, ‘Let’s do it on a night where we have no customers.’ It was a Tuesday night, work night. So we started at 8:30pm one night, and decided to call it Socrates Cafe. It didn’t matter to me. The name came after the fact. So we had this dialogue on ‘What is the examined life?’ And it was great, about 25 people came. There was some very well-to-do executives, there was a homeless man, just a very diverse group of people. It exceeded my expectations.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Soctrates Café is now at the heart of the non-profit Society for Philosophical Inquiry Phillips started with his wife Cecilia. His latest book is the third in a “Socratic trilogy” and he has also written two books for children.
Getting people together to talk about big issues is a pretty good thing, I’d say. But what makes it philosophical? The key is the question the group decies to dicuss.
“We try to expand the range of questions from traditional questions, which are great, to maybe questions that aren’t so traditional, but that enable people to look at foundational matters in both an abstract way and in a pragmatic way too. So just recent dialogues I’ve had in the US, some people want to talk about, ‘Should we go to war in Iraq?’ You ask that question and people will start screaming ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. So you ask, ‘Well, how can we tinker with this and tweak it, to look at the issue in a way that lets us go far afield and look at maybe other conflicts. And the person thought for a long time and said, ‘Well, what is a just war?’
“A big issue in the US not too long ago, was gay marriage. And again, there was somebody who said, ‘Well, I’m going to talk about that.’ And so we thought about the way to handle that, and eventually we came up with, ‘What is an excellent marriage?’
“It’s very participant driven. They propose the question, they choose the question. And on any given night, they choose, we don’t pick a question in advance. It’s just whatever question that night leaves them feeling the least expert and most perplexed.”
Reading his book and then seeing him in action, I’m struck by how a Socrates Café seems to differ quite profoundly from Socrates. Whereas Platos’ protagonist is constantly drawing that contradictions and tensions and then leaving people feeling they know nothing. With Phillips, it seems to be more about making everyone feel they have something to contribute, even though it is true that he does challenge people from time to time.
“Last night, there was a guy and we were talking about the fact that for the Buddha, the whole focus of life is to do away with desire. And I said, ‘What does that amount to?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s having no end point, having no goals, doing away with all of that.’ And I said, ‘But isn’t doing away with desire, isn’t that a goal?’ And so he just was tongue tied. He had never thought about it that way. I wasn’t trying to be cute. But in and out of the dialogue, we do point out things. Some people don’t enjoy it. I have to say, earlier on, I was probably more faithful to what you’re describing than I am now, because I just felt like it didn’t necessarily help the evolving discourse. Pointing out loopholes in thinking is not just for me to do to them, but for them to do to me.
“It’s certainly not, ‘Whatever you think is fine, or what I think is fine. Let’s all hug.’ But I try not to push people any farther on that given night than they can go, because otherwise they may not want to continue. The idea of having it on an ongoing basis is to let it become habit forming, because these days people – and I can only speak about Americans, I’ve found the dialogues over here really great – but Americans are so thin skinned. Quite often they are so intolerant about other views. It’s like they have these strong convictions and yet they don’t want to talk about them.”
However, I was still concerned that at times he’s just too willing to let things go. The point in his book I must struggled with was when people were talking about Billy Graham/ Phillips wrote, “Graham’s message of unconditional love and universal fellowship touched a chord far and wide,” and he repeats various eulogistic tributes to the evangelist without any critical comment. “Everyone has a home under Billy Graham’s tent,” says one. “He knows that you combat extreme hate with extreme love, extreme ignorance with extreme illumination.”
This is the same man who said (a later retracted) “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not say for sure, but I think so.” It’s also the man who said to Richard Nixon of the alleged Jewish control of the American media, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain,” and outspoken enemy of communism and supporter of US foreign policy during the cold war, including the Vietnam war. Isn’t it the case that Phillips.perhaps for good reasons, is only interested in seeing the positive side of people, not the negative?
The question, and in particular the Graham example, seems to trouble him. “When I’m making my points I tend to take the most positive elements,” he says, but is clearly unsatisfied with his own lack of an answer. It clarly concerned him because a few days later, he sent me an email, unbidden, to clarify his position on this.
“I’m sure you could tell, after six nonstop days on tour, I was unusually harried and tired (and hungry!), and I’m sure I didn’t acquit myself very well in our conversation. What I wanted to make sure I clarified regarding the Billy Graham material is that it of course would be the easiest thing in the world for me to poke huge holes in most of his thinking regarding Christianity, and if I were writing a Christopher Hitchens-type book on religion, I might well have done just that. But there’s not a single thinker I know of whose existential-ontological views I agree with wholeheartedly, yet I do find nuggets in their works that help me further develop and evolve my own views. I also mention thinkers in that section such as Adorno and Simone Weil, and I don’t agree with their ultimate outlooks either, yet nonetheless they have had a considerable influence on certain notions of mine and my approach to living.
“On the other hand, I could also take on a guy like Hitchens, if I ever wrote a book on religion, and at the very least point out that many who consider themselves non-religious and irreligious are just as capable of inhumanity and downright barbarity as many so-called religious people. It all boils down to what type of book I’m working on and what type of philosophical approach and method I’m taking, and what my ends are and what the context is in any particular undertaking.”
I’m glad he bothered to send that, because for me it does help me understand and respect what Phillips is doing. Most of philosophy is more critical and negative than a Socrates Café. But Phillips is trying to open things up for people, get them thinking about bigger issues. I’ve realised that my instinctive desire to judge anything that goes under the label of philosophy by the standards of “proper philosophy”, whatever that means, can lead me to underestimate the value of many thngs that fall outside of that domain.
“One hour, two hour contact, you’re just scratching the surface,” says Phillips “And the whole idea is to just present lots of compelling perspectives, compelling alternatives to those perspectives, so that people will leave it and continue to enquire into whatever we have been talking about for those one or two hours. I consider it a success if there’s more questions at the end than at the outset. I don’t mean that glibly. I just mean that it’s not about closure.”
So what is the end the discussion is aiming at?
“Of a Socrates Cafe dialogue? It’s just becoming a more expert questioner. I think that is the healthiest habit a human being can have in a democracy. Otherwise, what do you become? You become passive, you become lethargic, you become apathetic and you can allow a President or a small cabal or a sociopath to launch a war in Iraq.”
Is there perhaps also a more personal goal? After all Phillips was moved to start this after a period of crisis. So is there perhaps a therapeutic function too?
“That’s tricky. I know there’s all this group called philosophical counsellors who clearly think that a philosopher would be a better therapist than a psychologist. I don’t subscribe to that. I think it probably does have its therapeutic component, but if therapy means that you can emerge from a dialogue being more perplexed than ever, more confused in some ways, maybe having certain things resolved and clarified, only to muddy the waters in other areas, then I guess it is therapeutic. But I don’t try to help people come up with answers, I try to help them get better ways of asking things.I think that certainly I’ve noticed a lot of people who come and find it makes life more worthwhile.
“I know that when I’m left to my own devices and when I don’t connect a lot with people, I can get pretty bleak, pretty pessimistic. But whenever I have a real proper discourse with people, it makes me realise, as clichéd as this might sound, that I’m not alone. There are lots of people of goodwill out there, but that they also tend to feel rather helpless.”