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SOCRATES CAFÉ  by Christopher Phillips

SOCRATES CAFÉ

Tales of the Examined Life

By Christopher Phillips

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-393-04956-6
Publisher: Norton

A rather juvenile jeremiad against the shallowness of contemporary life.

Journalist Phillips wants us to think and question more. He wants modern society to be one giant Athenian agora, with people puzzling over the big questions, waving their hands as they debate the meaning of life, furrowing their brows as they ponder the nature of freedom and rationality. He wants us to hold Socrates Cafés. They don’t have to happen in cafés, though perhaps the aroma of French Roast will stimulate discussion. They happen anywhere people want to “do philosophy,” anywhere people want to “do more than regurgitate” the books they’ve read. Phillips tells of leading a Socrates Café at Mad Magda’s Russian Tea Room in San Francisco, where more than 50 people gathered to discuss “Why question?” You can even have a Socrates Café of one—a “tête-à-tête with only one tête,” as Phillips delightfully puts it—any time you ask yourself a question or think a deep thought. Folks at the College II Coffeehouse ponder over what a friend is. (One man claims he has no expectations of any of his friends, and his interlocutor is stunned, asking if that is really possible.) In New Jersey, a gang chats about how you know when you know yourself. The amateur Socrates here are often a touch self-indulgent: take, for example, the erstwhile philosophy Ph.D. candidates who realized he couldn’t find true philosophy in the groves of academe (because ivory-tower pointy heads “imagine themselves to be philosophers, but they aren’t real philosophers”) or the cardboard lawyer in West Virginia (he’s a great success, but he hates the law and feels trapped). We’ve heard this kvetching before, and there’s nothing especially philosophical about it.

Some readers will put this down halfway through, driven mad by the sophomoric tone—but anyone who misses those dorm-room chats may be inspired to start a Socrates Café of his own.