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Christopher Phillips worked for years as a journalist, writing about “unsung heroes” for Parade and other publications. But profiling do-gooders left him with the nagging sense that he should do more himself. And too many nights on the road, observing the habits of his fellow citizens, left the Alexandria resident with the feeling that American discourse “has gone by the wayside.”
“I was struck by the idea that we were all becoming islands unto ourselves,” says Phillips, in a phone interview that sometimes takes the tone of a sermon. “Like MSNBC: He who talks loudest, winswhich I thought was anathema to a participatory democracy….Even a cursory study of the history of great civilizations shows that they crumble from within. They don’t need an outside aggressor.
“We have a sort of attenuated democracy here,” he continues. “So I thought, What can I do to remedy this?” Inspired by his mother, who raised him on the principles of Socratic dialogue, Phillips held his first Socrates Café in 1996. For the past five years, he has traveled across the country, fostering exchanges in diverse quarters including schools, libraries, nursing homes, churches, hospices, prisons, and, of course, coffeehouses.
Each Socrates Café brings people together to discuss a question posed by a facilitator. Participants look at the question from all sides, break it down into its simplest elements, and draw on each others’ opinions, experiences, and knowledge to find answersor at least more questions.
Although Phillips still plays “the Johnny Appleseed of philosophy” by hosting cafes around the country, he is now only one of a number of facilitators. (“I didn’t want it to become the Chris Phillips Show,” he says.) To spread the word, he founded the nonprofit Society for Philosophical Inquiry in 1997. The organization’s Web site (www.philosopher.org) explains how to start and to facilitate a Socrates Café, lists ongoing cafes nationwide (now more than 50), and carries a boldfaced statement repudiating any ties with “certification programs”: “Those who aspire to engage in philosophical inquiry in a meaningful and fruitful way with the public do not need a certificate, or a formal background, or a superfluous titlein fact, sometimes titles and pedigrees
can be impediments to good philosophizing.”
Phillips’ work is unpaid, but along the way it has gained him a wife (she was the sole attendee at an early cafe in Montclair, N.J.) and a couple of book contracts. He is currently touring to promote Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy. Already in its fifth printing, it interweaves re-creations of Socrates Cafés, accounts of Phillips’ own journey toward enlightenment, and simple descriptions of the ideas of philosophers.
Some of Phillips’ most insightful dialogues have taken place at prisons. “The first dialogue I held in a prison, with 70 inmates…it was supposed to go for 45 minutes,” he says. “It went for two hours.” Phillips describes the prison group, which discussed the meaning of wisdom, as “breathtakingly diverse. They had obviously examined their lives. In many ways, they were freer than many people on the outside.” Pamela Murray Winters