On an exceptionally rainy recent night, 16 strangers gather at the Princeton Public Library for the second meeting of Princeton’s own Socrates Cafe. One participant carries Christopher Phillips’ bestseller, titled "Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Cup of Philosophy" (W. W. Norton, 2001). Most have not read it. All, however, have heard, by word of mouth and media, that this unique circle of inquiry – an informal forum for exploring life’s big and little questions that is sprouting up all over the country and the world – is available on the fourth Tuesday of every month, in an upstairs conference room at the library. The next meeting: Tuesday, January 24.
This month’s gender-balanced group spans ages, types, background, and interests. Facilitator Kelly McGannon, a sprightly blonde doctoral student in the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University, says that the launch meeting attracted 22 participants, and the December event a baker’s dozen: an equal mix of men and women, graduate students, a pilot, a psychotherapist, an editor, even a mother-daughter duo, and Esther Mills, the host of "Talk to Me" on Princeton’s TV30, who will interview McGannon on Wednesday, January 11, at 6:30 p.m. Reflecting Princeton’s multicultural mix, participants included an Asian woman from France and a Colombian woman. Many are repeat attendees. Princeton’s Socratic "Anything Goes!" proves headier than New Year’s Eve, a workout for our most important muscle – the brain.
McGannon is warmly welcoming. She reminds that our purpose together is active listening. She then oversees the question selection process, saying, "We will democratically decide." The October meeting’s topic was, "What is human nature?" November’s proved somewhat incendiary: "Is there any such thing as a good war?" December’s topic, "What is patriotism?" won over nine others, including "Is technology killing culture?"
From that moment on, however, winning and losing have no place in a Socrates Cafe. Apart from McGannon’s affiliation with the university, the education levels and professions of the participants remain unknown. Groups gather to examine not the personal, but the universal, the multi-layered gray areas in between stark black and white.
These "cafes" are the brainchildren of Christopher Phillips, 46, who has been nicknamed "Socrates-in-a-turtleneck." Phillips views himself as "the Johnny Appleseed of philosophy." Criss-crossing the country in person and in the pages of his seminal book, "Socrates Cafe," Phillips is pledged to re-ignite the love of the question. His ultimate vision is to enhance the human condition, the actual state of the world.
Phillips and his wife, Cecilia (they met at a Socrates Cafe), seem to personify T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock challenge: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" In August, 1996, Phillips launched the Socrates Cafe in, of all places, Montclair. The couple, who live in Virginia and Mexico, also head the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry (www.philosopher.org). Approximately 300 gatherings now occur worldwide, most weekly. Each is coordinated by a volunteer facilitator. Concerned over proliferating shallowness and materialism, the couple dreams of resuscitating the spirit of Athens at its peak, of enriching the 21st century with Socratic inquiry, worldwide, at every economic and educational level.
To participate in a Socrates Cafe, you do not have to have read Phillips’ books (he is also the author of "Six Questions of Socrates" and "Philosopher’s Cafe" a children’s book). Nor do you have to have taken a course in philosophy. It’s simply fine to come bearing an attitude of I-don’t-know-anything-about-philosophy, but-I-know-what-I-like!" Although politics simmers below the surface, participants fend off partisanship. The Socrates Cafe discussions, and I’ve been to three of them now, have not descended to diatribe or polemic. What remains paramount is precision of inquiry, fairness, and mutual respect. If dialogue is the Socratic goal then "polylogue" is the electrifying reality at Princeton’s Socrates Cafe.
The road of discussion of "What is patriotism?" at the December meeting took many turns. In true Socrates Cafe style, more questions than answers emerged; for example, "Can patriotism become corrupted?" The group, says McGannon, concluded that it couldn’t, that its essence would prevail regardless of who was in power or what events were transpiring. She raised the query, "When have you felt patriotic?," and some participants said they felt patriotic under Kennedy, after the tsunami, and during World War II.
The question, "Is there a difference between patriotism and citizenship?," brought up "Can non-citizens be patriotic?" This led to "What is citizenship?" Relative consensus evolved that true citizenship requires sacrifice, whether soldiering or Abigail Adams’ melting the family pewter into bullets for the Revolution. An essential facet of citizenship may be speaking the language of the country. The resonant question was "Is it possible to be patriotic, yet ashamed of your country?" The bottom line at Socrates Cafe is that what’s important is the question itself; conclusions are not absolutely reached; rather discussion widens and widens. Phillips downplays his personal role, elevating participants, and writes: "The `common man/ woman’ is very much beyond common." In his first book, cinematic episodes take place in settings from coffeehouses to elementary schools: "Children not only love questions; they LIVE the questions!" He writes that Socrates Cafes particularly soar in maximum-security prisons.
Phillips’ second book, "Six Questions of Socrates," is described in the book jacket as "a modern-day journey of discovery through world philosophy." It could easily be called, "Around the World with Six Questions." In the book questions of virtue, moderation, justice, good, courage, and piety are considered by people of Japan and Mexico, Navajos and Sioux, neighbors of the World Trade Center soon after 9/11, Koreans, and American prisoners. Phillips also moderates a reunion of early Socrates Cafe participants, compromised children from the Mission Hill Section of San Francisco. What this book shares with the first is emphasis on questions. Questions of nationhood seem to predominate over questions of personhood.
At the Princeton Socrates Cafe psychotherapist Janet Black says she appreciates the balance that McGannon engineers, despite the incendiary nature of the November meeting’s question regarding "good war." "The precision of the Socratic process eliminated personal bias," Black says. "This is not a place for people with an axe to grind. Interestingly, it did seem to matter what answers emerged. It may not matter whether answers are reached."
Airline pilot and television producer William Newland calls his two Socrates Cafe experiences "Viagra for the mind," adding that he is delighted that "it regularly challenges my assumptions." Janet Stern – whose "hats" include "editor, Arts Council of Princeton, zoning board, TV30, and film buff" – relishes McGannon’s opening reminders that set the tone: "Where else do you force yourself to listen, to reflect? You tend to know when you must speak – after a lot of listening. It opens our minds."
R. Sloane Franklin, a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary writes in an E-mail about the opening meeting in October: "McGannon has done a truly wonderful thing in creating a space for open discussion. It certainly seems a viable foundation for meaningful communal action."
At any Socrates Cafe, the question is the order of the day or night. As Phillips writes: "Many have only the flimsiest idea of the question’s power and potential." In lower schools and senior centers, staff are regularly confounded by participation and profundity in Socrates Cafe meetings, even in the normally tongue-tied. Phillips continually urges everyone to give free rein to his/her sense of wonder, which Plato called "the mark of the philosopher." Phillips is always pushing "The Fourth R" – reasoning. Readers of Phillips’ books, which together form a kind of thousand and one nights of Socrates Cafes, are steeped in wisdom, brilliance, intellectual and moral courage, pathos, and humor.
Christian Science Monitor writer Craig Savoye reported on a Chicago Socrates event at a shelter for homeless women: "It was something between a place and a state of mind." The "Socrates Cafe" book jacket includes a quote from Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles, which praises the book for its "morally energetic and introspective exchanges with children and adults from all walks of life," which come to reveal sometimes surprising, often profound reflections on the meaning of love, friendship, work, growing old, and other large questions of life. Phillips also draws from his own academic background to introduce us to the thought of philosophers through the ages. Socrates Cafe is an engaging blend of philosophy and storytelling."
McGannon calls the Princeton gatherings "antidotes to general apathy." My own journaled November notes read: "Tonight we experienced America at its best, democracy as it is meant to be." Credit for parity could reside in the fact that last names are neither asked nor given, let alone educational degrees. No turf given means no need to defend it.
As Phillips writes: "To know is not the most important thing. Seeking is." And I found that at the Princeton Socrates Cafe journey becoming destination, and replenishment is its outcome. McGannon launched this opportunity in Princeton because she had grown up with monthly discussion groups in her parents’ Ohio home. She earned a bachelors in 1999 from the department of humanistic studies ("think really and wildly interdisciplinary," she says) at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and an M.A.R. (masters in arts and religion) from Yale University Divinity School. She then accepted a job back at St. Mary’s, where she and some Yale colleagues, who had come to St. Mary’s to pursue their PhDs in theology, formed an ongoing "more academic" potluck discussion group in South Bend.
Arriving in Princeton to pursue her Ph.D. in medieval art and architecture, McGannon was surprised not to find similar opportunities within either the town or gown communities. After reading Phillips’ book in the spring of 2005, a Google search revealed no Socrates Cafe in the Princeton area. She E-mailed Phillips and, after receiving approval for a Princeton launch, she first considered area coffee shops but then deemed them too noisy, too small, or both.
McGannon then approached Princeton Public Library readers’ services coordinator, Sue Roth, who was intrigued and requested a proposal. When I ask McGannon what proposal factors most likely succeeded, she answers, "Well, Sue read the book. And, I was persistent." This last may be an understatement. McGannon first received a green light for Cafe gatherings for three months – in October, November, and December. But when the launch meeting drew an intense crowd of 22, meeting dates were immediately set into May of 2006.
Determined to transcend boundaries, if Kelly McGannon has her way, Princeton will soon be hosting Socrates Cafes for children.
Socrates Cafe, Tuesday, January 24, 7 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. An informal discussion group, based on the Socratic Method and Christopher Phillips’ book, "Socrates Cafe." Facilitated by Princeton University doctoral student Kelly McGannon. 609-924-9529.