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Socrates CafÉ

Seeking Socrates

By Izzat Jarudi

staff writer

Written by Christopher Phillips

Published by W.W. Norton & Company


Christopher Phillips is on a quest to bring philosophy down from the “ivory tower” of academia and back “to the people,” to people of all ages and from all “walks of life.” ClichÉs aside, it’s a remarkable calling to which Phillips chose to dedicate his life a decade ago after abandoning a successful career as a freelance journalist. The story of his singular dream and how he has sought to realize it is the subject of his new book Socrates CafÉ.

The title comes from his inspiration -- the life of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, whose method of philosophical inquiry Phillips has attempted to revive by facilitating public philosophical discussions. The essence of the Socratic method is the question, a way of provoking dialogue that Socrates employed on the streets of ancient Athens.

Phillips prefers to work indoors, and his mission began in the cafÉ of a Borders bookstore in Wayne, New Jersey. But since then, his goal of resuscitating the “community of questioners” that Socrates had created thousands of years ago has been remarkably successful. Phillips now leads over ten meetings a week in groups often numbering over 30 people as part of an itinerant program that has extended beyond the cafÉ and New Jersey to schools, universities, nursing homes, churches, and even prisons across America. At the same time, he has helped others start Socrates CafÉs and founded a non-profit Society for Philosophical Inquiry.

In his book, Phillips provides a history of his mission that includes the personal experiences that led him to start Socrates CafÉ, colorful re-creations of some of the more memorable discussions he facilitated over time, and an introduction to Western philosophy along the way. What links it all into a coherent and compelling account are the questions that fill the text.

As Phillips explains: “Questions, questions, questions. They disturb. They provoke. They exhilarate. They intimidate ... what connects us is a love for the question, and a passion for challenging even our most cherished assumptions.” And those questions are not limited to the topics of modern academic philosophy. In contrast to the trend in modern academia, the Socratic method does not require “allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic technique or specialized vocabulary,” and instead “‘calls for common sense and common speech.’”

Those who participate in Socrates CafÉ -- “aging beatniks, businesspeople, students, shopworkers, professors, teachers, palm readers, bureaucrats, and homeless people, among others” -- can begin the dialogue with any question: What is home? What is wisdom? What is silence? What is the difference between ignorance and innocence?

It’s refreshing to read Phillips’ vivid accounts of “ordinary” people all engaging in thoughtful philosophical dialogue with little prompting from him. As he notes, Socrates and his method “models for us philosophy practiced -- philosophy as deed, as way of living as something that any of us can do.”

Phillips’ writing isn’t always inspiring. Riddled with platitudes, his commentary often sounds like a cloying self-help book. He also falters when he digresses into trite and sometimes sanctimonious social criticism.

Nevertheless, the fascinating nature of his mission offsets his book’s stylistic shortcomings. I plan on visiting his society’s website <> to see if I can find a local Socrates CafÉ to attend over spring.

The ESG program at MIT sponsors its own Socrates cafe program.