For many years, I have been facilitating a Socrates Café © at our local library, where people ask questions and discuss answers in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive conversation. We meet once a month (including on zoom during the never-ending pandemic), and when I send meeting reminders to my fellow Socratians, I usually include a quote or a question or philosophical tidbit to whet their appetites. They, in turn, send me questions for a vote at the beginning of our meeting.
As lots of us are doing during this latest Covid lock-down, I was having a big sort-out of old papers when I came across a pile of “Dear Socratians” meeting reminders. During these homebound days and long winter evenings, it might be fun for you to discuss some of our philosophical ideas around your supper tables or, if you live alone like me, inside of your own head.
Most people are alarmed at the idea of philosophical discussions because they sound so academic and “intellectual,” but Christopher Phillips holds his lively conversations at every kind of venue – school classrooms, prisons, senior centers, and right out in the street – where ordinary people get caught up in issues they have always wanted to discuss. As Ward Farnsworth notes in The Socratic Method, Socrates “was the first to show that life affords scope for philosophy in every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.”
As a facilitator using Christopher Phillips’ methods, my first task is to get people to stop expressing opinions instead of thoughts:
At our last meeting we decided not to express what we have already made up our minds about (opinions) but reframe our ideas as philosophical questions (thoughts). We had a good start discussing the limits of human choice, but, when abortion came up, things got a lot less rational.
When our emotions are roused, the neo-cortex can be overwhelmed by the mammalian brain – all fright and flight. Thus an issue that we are already angry about or personally shaken by is going to subvert the rational tone of our discourse.
Let’s work on proposing questions that we haven’t already made up our minds about. That way, we can develop our little oasis of reason in this contentious world.
We avoid political and religious questions because these are so contentious. If we really need to ask them, how can we find calmer ways to approach them? In a Socrates Café, almost any question can be fine-tuned so it can be examined in a philosophical way.
Example 1: When Timothy McVeigh was put to death, a person who wanted to discuss why this happened framed the question as “who owns human life?” In that way the group could look not only at the particular issue, but also at a wide range of o philosophically import ideas that were related.
Example 2: Soon after we went to war in Iraq, people wanted to talk about whether this was the appropriate course of action. To do so in a philosophical way, they framed the question as “What is a just war?”
Example 3: A group of Socrates Café members wanted to examine the “gay marriage” issue in a philosophical way. “What is an excellent marriage” let them discuss it in the broader context of the institution of marriage as a whole.
Thanks for your questions! I wish we could discuss them all, but we will take a vote on just one for Sunday:
1. What brings you joy any time of the year?
2. What is intelligence, specifically defined? Is it part of a larger area of understanding? Is it broad or narrow like engineering?
3. What is courage?
4. We know about physical illness. We know about mental illness. Is it possible to have soul sickness? How would you describe it?
5. Do words mean different things depending on who says them?
Everyone seems to think that human beings invented mathematics. But how do you account for the “Golden Ratio,” the fact that in the spiral of a nautilus shell or the ratio between rows on a sunflower head display identical formulas?
The sea snail and the sunflower evolved before we did, didn’t they? What do you make of the fact that they contained discernable mathematical algorithms before human beings evolved? Is the universe mathematical?
Sometimes in the dark hours of the night, or in the middle of yet another chaotic day, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about? Is Covid 19 entirely random? Is everything on earth just whirling about every which way, with no rhyme or reason?”
I have been thinking about Stoicism lately. This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control, which is our attitude and our choice of action.
Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless for you? You might consider Cynicism, also a classical philosophy, but this one is based on the idea that people only pursue their individual self-interest and that social norms are ridiculous. Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the name derives from “dog” and it’s a dog’s life you will live doing your own thing, like chasing your tail and lazing around in the sun all day long.
In the school of philosophy called cynicism you get to be skeptical about everything and to live all careless of outcomes, like a dog.
I thought you cat lovers might like to know that there is a feline school of philosophy as well.
John Gray has published a book on Feline Philosophy:
“Rather than groping for meaning in a universe that offers none, we sure try to be more like cats, creatures that are congenitally happy being themselves…(fostering) contemplation-a mode of perception that fosters equanimity – and offers a scheme for emulating the catlike qualities that might permit us to thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.”
The question is, aren’t these just as canine as feline qualities, or are cats more “contemplative” than dogs?
There is a kind of philosophizing you could call “short-term” in that it takes place inside a single figure of speech. For example, look at antitheses, which are words expressing an idea one way in one phrase and another (usually opposite) in the second:
“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.”
“Intelligence isn’t knowing everything. It’s the ability to challenge everything you know.”
“We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”
Try writing one – they are fun (like eating peanuts).
Thanks for your questions! I am looking forward to seeing which one you vote for on Sunday:
1. What makes us human?
2. What does it mean to have a conscience?
3. When does freedom turn into license to do any and all things?
4. If we can process the death of cats, dogs, and elephants, why do we have such a hard time defining and coping with human death?
5. Why is there something rather than nothing?
Would you like to attend one of our meetings? They are the third Sunday of the month at 2PM, currently on Zoom. Just email me to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a Dear Socratian reminder.
Zee you there!