Arts Talking in circles 

Socrates Café gives philosophical types a place to question

A few minutes into the album Wild And Crazy Guy, Steve Martin asks, “How many people majored in philosophy? See, they can never raise their hands, they only get it about halfway.” The joke hinges on the confusion philosophers face in their ponderings, but it could just as easily reference the reluctance of the general population to take the first step, or have the first thought. How many people, if asked, would admit to “philosophizing” as a hobby? The capacity to handle deep thoughts doesn’t come from the Great and Powerful Oz, it requires patience and time, two commodities that few are willing to trade for a practice that yields intangible results.

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A cadre of San Antonians is making time for philosophy, however, holding meetings every second and fourth Wednesday at the Radius Building and Madhatters. Seated around a large table (or several large tables, as attendance varies) the participants, who cannot easily be lumped into any age group, background, or social strata, probe ideas and issues from multiple angles, dissecting each in search of an answer, but turning up only more questions. They are polite, funny, and quiet, for the most part, and the discussions often give way to trains of thought that Rube Goldberg would find difficult to follow. When the talk ends, there is no answer, nor even a general consensus; what is left are enough questions to fill a year’s worth of Socrates Cafés.

The San Antonio pioneers are not alone; Socrates Café is an international movement inspired by Socrates Café, a bestselling book that documented conversations between Christopher Phillips, co-founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, and thinkers from all walks of life about the Socratic Method and ways to bring the famous six questions to quotidian minds: What is virtue? What is moderation? What is justice? What is good? What is courage? What is piety? There are an estimated 150 Socrates Café groups meeting regularly across the nation.

Phillips encourages his readers to establish their own satellites and provides guidelines for hosting a successful Socrates Café. The guidelines are explained in detail on the SPI website (, but they amount more or less to “be open-minded.”

A 2003 National Public Radio interview with Phillips attracted the attention of Len Wheeler, a local prison educator, who was particularly taken with the idea that enlightenment can be achieved through rational conversation. She started an unofficial Socrates Café for her class and invited Phillips to speak with her students. Phillips and his method were so popular with the inmates that Wheeler decided to take the next logical step and set up a public group.

She was only two months behind Onashka Hernandez, another local educator, who had begun holding regular meetings at Café Revolución in July. Two years later the membership was large enough that it no longer fit the Socrates Café model, so the regulars split into two groups, with one group taking up residence at the Radius Building and the other at Madhatters.

Karen Dampeer, who now leads both groups, says the meetings offer “an oasis in a desert.” In Socrates Café, Phillips finds that desert is caused by the death of a system of thought that “utilize`s` a method of philosophical inquiry that ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ could embrace and take for his or her own, and in the process rekindle the childlike — but by no means childish — sense of wonder.”

How is that system realized in a Socrates Café? At a December meeting, the topic for discussion is based on a Walt Disney quote, best summarized as, “Is courage enough to achieve one’s dreams?”

“Courage is a launch pad for a lot of other characteristics,” suggests one member, while another names an athlete as an example of someone who requires courage to succeed. Other examples, from personal experiences in education to French medical history, are raised to offer contrasting points of view, but soon the original question has been replaced with a new query: “Do courage or valor even exist anymore?” Which quickly mutates into a discussion of gender roles in relationship to chivalry.

Just when the train seems to have jumped tracks completely, one man observes that it took courage for him to make such bold statements against women while surrounded by them, and amid the laughter comes a tangential question: “Does it require courage to love yourself?” This leads back into gender territory and, for the first time, egos start to flare. Suddenly, almost as if a bell rang at a frequency above that which reporters can hear, everyone agrees to see each other in two weeks and begins packing up. Two hours passed with no answers, only more questions, and perhaps a few changed minds.

Though we live in the age of the largest public forum in the history of civilization, two hours may be more fulfilling spent with peers discussing “What is a just war?” than on the Newsarama message boards arguing who would win a battle between Batman and Kim Possible. But beyond the multi-syllabic words and high ambitions, weekly Socratic discussions remain a hobby until someone somewhere acts on what he or she has learned. An engaging hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. Phillips’ vision for a far-reaching system of enlightenment in which prisoners interact with professors who interact with children relies on the ability of the participants to recognize its potential and build the net, like Wheeler and Hernandez.

Socrates and Phillips would likely agree, however, that big changes come from small changes. Gylon Jackson, a regular with the Madhatters group, sees the questioning process as a self-directed search for values in which his peers are his sounding board. “You come to ask questions, and you change the way you look at gender or race, for instance. I’ll go to bed thinking about some of these questions every night.”

So will a future Jefferson or Madison rise from the ranks of the regulars at Madhatters and Radius, and soon, Espuma? Or will advances in philosophy brought about by Socrates Café be used for evil, rather than good? What is good, anyway? And while we’re at it, how many licks does it take to the get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

By Aaron Block



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