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Article by CSPP member

Stephen Hare

Philosophy Cafes: What Do They Accomplish?

To me, a philosophy cafe is a well-mannered and regulated dialogue among strangers and slight acquaintances held in some semi-public setting, in which the participants are free to come and go, and where people agree to share a single dialogue, in a somewhat disciplined although completely non-technical way, about some aspect of human life which is raised at the outset in the form of a general proposition or question. It is an open discussion given a measure of focus and discipline by the facilitator, who at the same time has to be careful not to force the train of thought into a tunnel so narrow that people lose their voices as they bump into needlessly confining walls. Probably quite early on in the discussion there will be an implicit understanding among the attendees that they won't reach a consensus, but they will treat perspectives alien to their own with curiosity and tolerance, while trying to emphasize their dissatisfaction with views that seem off key through some attempt at rational argument rather than by off-the-cuff dismissal or ad hominem attacks.

The self-selected participants are somewhat more varied in background and outlook than what we normally expect in a university class. It is true that some people have formal philosophical training and want to bring in the great thinkers. The majority, however, do not, so we try to avoid getting caught up in debates of textual exegesis as the solution to the riddles of existence. Often there is a self-professed Buddhist, perhaps a witch, or someone promoting their own personal worldview. Participants might range in age from about sixteen to seniors. Some are well educated and affluent looking, a few are what we sometimes call "blue collar" types and many are hard to stereotype at all. At the meetings (in Ottawa) there seem to have been a high proportion of non-anglophones, especially of continental European or Middle Eastern extraction, who seem to be recent immigrants. Certainly many attendees are somewhat eccentric-looking people as local social norms go, and there are often one or two people whom would often be called mentally unbalanced. In short, it is a colourful group of people, yet for the most part one with a modicum of civility. People understand that, to talk philosophy, you need to check in your guns at the door. The only general subject areas where we have occasionally run into something close to open hostility are politics and religion. (I generally prefer a more oblique approach for politics, since there is more often than not a quick drawing of battle lines between left and right if we tackle the subject head on.) As a rule the more heat, the less light.

What is most remarkable to me about these gatherings is that attendees, even those who only show up on a single occasion, often go out of their way to express profuse gratitude and appreciation for the event. "What a wonderful idea" and "Why aren't there more of these things around?" are the two sentiments I usually hear from anyone who approaches me afterwards. Of course not everyone who comes stays until the end, not everyone who stays does approach me, and I have no doubt that some people who listen in think that it's a pretty bad or stupid idea. Also, oddly, more than a few of the people who do express their fervent support and enjoyment of the evening never do make a repeat visit.

In my groups we have settled on a topic beforehand. To me a topic should be something fairly clear and direct that also easily provokes an impulse to speech. And the elements of the topic sentence are also at a certain level of generality. Something like, "Why did Princess Diana's death move many people more than Mother Theresa's did?" is, for me, too specific, faddish and entangled in the cultural moment. On the other hand, "What is a great person?" is frustratingly broad; it will probably lead to lots of interesting talk but it will be that much harder to agree upon a way of tackling the question. I think the right level of generality might be, "What kind of hero, if any, can the modern world believe in?" It often happens that the conversation will tend of is own accord towards a different but related question, and when most people want to go there I make no attempt to resist.

I may write a short commentary on the question or claim to read aloud at the beginning of the meeting in order to give people some ideas as ingredients for discussion, especially to help get the discussion going by breaking through awkward silences or inhibitions. If it is not a well-polished commentary there are a few speaking points in it that I can use to extemporize for five minutes or so.

Then the floor is open. Everyone is welcome to speak, one at a time only, and without making a habit of cutting each other off before people can finish their sentences or at least their manageably compact arguments. Otherwise I intervene to try to see that people have what I take to be no more or less than a reasonable kick at the can. Of course some judgement is required here since people have different styles of expression. The implicit rules (I only occasionally need to make them explicit) are that people cannot engage in personal verbal abuse or other forms of unsupported criticism, or use language that some people may find offensive even if it is not directed to a person present. And, of course, we must limit ourselves to one conversational exchange or thread at a time, otherwise there is no hope of a coherent dialogue. All of these problems are usually avoided by the participants without any guidance from me, though there are occasional and sometimes dismaying exceptions.

Beyond helping preserve civility and fairness, my role is to provide a sort of running commentary on what other people say-to briefly attempt to summarize the remarks of others now and then, to point out what seems interesting in these remarks, and to compare and contrast different peoples' observations. Normally many of the participants are quite engaged enough to offer commentaries of their own on each other; that is, to respond and react to one another. In practice the facilitator can often succeed in appearing to keep quite a low profile. In my view this is a sign that the facilitator is doing a good job, rather than one that the facilitator is being negligent. And it is an appearance more than a reality, since the nature and timing of the moderator's comments and interventions can have a major influence on the direction, vitality and tone of the discussion.

As suggested earlier, the greatest intellectual challenge in running these cafes, in my opinion, is in trying to strike the right balance between on the one hand a discussion that lacks focus with too many points of view to develop a well-defined and sustained dialectic, and, on the other, one in which the facilitator is too heavy handed in trying to keep that focus and as a result tends to make the dialogue dry up. The larger the crowd in attendance, the more difficult this balance is, because there will be a greater variety of perspectives and opinions on which way any question should be taken; much of the time will be spent just trying to let everyone have their five cents' worth, so there won't be as much time left over for building something new and more unified out of a collection of disparate viewpoints and concerns. From the point of view of a productive and comfortable discussion, the ideal size is perhaps from three to seven people. Up to twelve or fifteeen, things could still go quite well from the point of view of size alone, though they are less likely to. Once we reach twenty or twenty five there is a greater element of drama but in my opinion the essential qualities of a good discussion are falling out of reach. So part of what I mean by "a good discussion" is something quite informal without much in the way of logistical problems such as inaudible or difficult-to-see speakers and with few enough people so that everyone who wishes to participate in an active way has a fairly substantial opportunity for so doing without depriving others of their voices at the same time. I'm not interested in a debating-club or parliamentary style where people score points by playing to the crowd and rabble-rousing. Occasionally someone will come whose main motive appears to be to show off what he takes to be his intellectual sophistication, but such people often realize quite soon that their minds are neither as penetrating nor as invincible as they supposed, and they learn to talk less.

Incidentally, although small is perhaps better from an intellectual point of view, I make a point of avoiding a certain kind of intimacy, perhaps what I see as fake intimacy or what is for some an intimidating level of personalization, in these gatherings. In a sense of course this is a social occasion, but many people of philosophical tendencies in my experience are not especially socially adept, so I try to slant things in their favour a little. One of the thinks people mention when expressing support for the meetings is that they enjoyed the freedom of others not making too many assumptions about them on the basis of a stated personal background, or that they enjoyed the lack of personal pressure and felt freer to think by virtue of that.

Some people, of course, say they feel uncomfortable not sharing names and personal introductions, but others clearly haven't come for the purpose of getting too familiar with each other's private lives. So if people want to be anonymous-and if they want to be silent-they are free to do so; if they want to be more personal they are free to make an offering but not to try to make it a formal point of procedure. No one is pressured to introduce himself or herself, to speak (unless the person has already spoken and others seek clarification) or to take part in some kind of apres-cafe get together where people can talk more casually. When I have had enough I politely extricate myself from the group, and if they wish to continue or take the evening in a new direction that is entirely up to the hangers-on. These events are often quite psychologically draining for the facilitator even when they go very well. That may have more to do with my measure of introversion than anything else, or it may be that guiding the discussion for two hours requires so much steady attention in order to do the best possible job that the natural impulse is to retreat from the crowd aftewards and indulge for a while in a complete lack of attentiveness.

The other question that I am sometimes asked, often again by those people who express effusive support for the activity, is "Why do you do this?" I have sometimes wondered if I should take this question to mean, "What is the point of spending the time to facilitate a public discussion if you don't get paid for it, you don't attempt to develop a cult of the personality around yourself as a guru of enlightenment, and you don't even always feel that the cause of wisdom has been advanced?" In my own case I admittedly started running these events from a mixture of motives, one being to see if this could be a source of potential clients for paid philosophical counselling, another being curiosity, both about myself and the possibilties for success in the endeavour. In the end the question may be analogous to ones about why people climb mountains or collect Star Wars paraphernalia: it is an intrinsically rewarding thing to do, even if and when it is also taxing on personal resources of one kind or another. If there is an altruistic motive of filling some vaguely and only sporadically felt societal need, I can deflate that form of self-praise by saying I find some personal gratification in hearing strangers say they feel very grateful to me for providing what is still quite an exclusive service in my neighbourhood.

I have led perhaps 40 of these meetings. That is not a very large number, but it is noteworthy that only a couple of them seemed to be a waste of time. In one case I could not succeed in interesting the few actual participants in the previously-established topic. In the other, again with only a handful of attendees, one person adopted a very belligerent and inconsistent (if enthusiastic) stance while largely monopolizing the conversation with the passive consent of the silent remainder. This led to an adversarial situation between myself and the main speaker in which I lost my own composure while continuing to engage this person in debate for a lengthy period of time.

Almost always I went away thinking that, even though we often ended with pointed disagreements unresolved, all of us had learned something new about the subject; that our ideas on it were more well-rounded, perhaps even more in touch with reality, more insightful. There is doubtless an implicit principle on the facilitator's part here, one of greater understanding through greater inclusiveness or comprehensiveness, a sort of communitarian basis of reality. And that is in accord with a certain faith I have in rationalism and in the coherence and intersubjectivity of truth. Whether I am imposing that on the groups or drawing out what is naturally there in the first place is hard for me to judge. (Surely, at the least, a good case can be made for adopting this model for simplicity's sake, since there is little hope of finding common foundations if one begins by assuming there are none.)

In any case, the value of the dialogue is perhaps primarily the process and secondarily the product. It is an opportunity to talk with people of quite different backgrounds from one's own about things that matter, and to discover provocative differences as well as reassuring congruencies. There is a congenial measure of humour in these encounters-sometimes in the most unexpected conversational contexts. I think one discussion, about death, occasioned more mirth than any other that I remember. Whatever the topic, a good discussion is a kind of amusement as well as something thought provoking.

(As presented at the first CSPP conference in Guelph, Ontario, October 1999. Reproduced with the kind permission of the author.)


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