One summer evening in 1996, Christopher Phillips was sitting in a cafe in Montclair, N.J., waiting for people to come around for his weekly philosophical discussions. But that evening only one woman came, and she asked, “What is love?”
Later on, that woman became Phillips’ wife.
Not many people meet their significant others through philosophy, but for Phillips, philosophy has always been a major part of his life. It was his regular philosophical discussions that brought him to Penn as a new senior fellow in the Critical Writing Program.
Phillips is known for having started philosophy discussion groups called Socrates Cafes, which have spread all over the world since their inception in 1996. There are now more than 500 active cafes based off of Phillips’ model worldwide.
“It’s really about making ours a more thoughtful and inclusive world where we all realize every person counts,” Phillips said of his goals behind holding these cafes. “A cafe is anywhere you can gather with thoughtful souls.”
According to Philips, the main purpose of these cafes is to encourage people to participate in philosophical discussions. It’s not necessarily about knowing the works of a specific philosopher, but more about the discussion itself.
While a Socrates Cafe does not yet exist at Penn, eventually Phillips is planning to begin a series of discussions at the University. In the meantime, Phillips has recruited Cornel West, a notable philosopher and activist, to come to Penn next month for a one-time Socrates Cafe with his students in his writing seminar, “Socratic Method and Democracy.”
“I’m Greek and I just had this idea of doing in the modern American public sphere what Greeks led by Socrates did … where they exchanged ideals — where they thrived on disagreement, where they thought they won by having a thoughtful discussion,” Phillips said.
The word first spread about Phillips’ Socrates Cafes when a New York Times reporter walked past a discussion being held at his house. From there on, it took off across the country as other media outlets picked up on his story.
“I started getting letters and emails from people in prisons and nursing homes,” he said. “So I started going to maximum security prisons.”
One of his first cafes in a prison was held at a maximum security facility in San Francisco, where the prison guards provided a “cafe” setting for Phillips to hold his discussion. He recalled the checkered tablecloths and chairs that were bolted to the floor with some amusement.
Since that trip, Phillips has traveled all around the country and even to different parts of the world, holding philosophical discussions with all sorts of people.
The discussions of each group are determined by whatever question interests the members. This results in a wide array of topics.
“The questions can be wild,” Phillips said, citing “Why is what?” as a question he had received once.
Based on his experiences with the cafes, Phillips published his first book in 2001, “Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philsophy.” He later wrote two more books in the series as he continued with the cafes.
The books have since then been translated and sold in 25 different countries.
However, one man can’t run 500 different Socrates Cafes, and as Phillips traveled throughout the world, he met people who eventually began their own iterations of the program.
One of these people is Dennis Dienst, an organizer from Golden Valley, Minn., who helped start his local group with two other people in 2001.
“I started it because I loved the discussion part of it,” Dienst said. “I loved the opportunity to ask a question that makes people look at a topic differently.”
Dienst’s group holds meetings at a cafe by a local library with about 20 people every week.
“It’s a very safe place,” Dienst said of the cafe. “It’s a great way to allow people to have a conversation about things and nobody gets too fired up.”
“You can actually learn to talk to people that you disagree with. And that’s a great skill,” he added.
Another person who became inspired by Phillips was Glenn Whitehouse, an assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Whitehouse initially found out about the program in 2003 through senior citizens at the university’s Renaissance Academy. Since then, he’s brought it to the school’s philosophy group as well.
“Philosophy started from the streets, and it kind of migrated to the academy,” Whitehouse said. “Now Christopher Phillips is bringing it back to the streets.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Christopher Phillips met his wife at a cafe in New Jersey, not at his house. _
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