Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

Christopher Phillips, Author
Christopher Phillips, Author W. W. Norton & Company $23.95 (232p) ISBN 978-0-393-04956-5
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In an entertaining blend of memoir and philosophical reflection, a former journalist describes his adventures bringing philosophy to the masses through his Socrates Caf . Phillips travels the country starting philosophical discussion groups in caf s, schools, churches, community centers, prisons, hospices, nursing homes and senior centers. In each session, a question from a participant becomes the focus for free-flowing, sometimes contentious, communal inquiry. Questions spotlighted in this book include ""What is insanity?"" ""How do you know when you know yourself?"" ""What is a world?"" ""Does anyone have the right to be ignorant?"" and ""Why question?"" A rough version of the Socratic method is employed, characterized as ""the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of... opinions and... offer compelling objections and alternatives."" Phillips presents several real discussions in poetically ""filtered"" form, interspersed with his own lucid commentary and citations. These dialogues are lively and sometimes moving, particularly his account of how he met his wife. But the quality of participants' opinions is often low, on the sophomoric level of such comments as ""Communication is meaningless,"" and despite Phillips's efforts to probe, these dialogues yield few fresh insights. Phillips's own philosophical weakness is in romanticizing questioning as nearly an end in itself, claiming to run a ""church service for heretics,"" even though his belief that ""all so-called truths... are never the last word"" is itself a popular dogma. Nevertheless, as in the case of the usually silent fifth-grader who wonders out loud about the word ""wonder"" (""I wonder what other kids think of me.... I wonder what they see, I wonder if they see a good person...""), he winningly showcases a tantalizing method for getting philosophy to thrive more widely. (Feb.)
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