My first time attending a philosophers’ café was a very interesting experience. Early in the term I ventured in the webpage to figure out the topics that could interest me. One in particular caught my attention: What do you want to experience? So many things came into mind. The only further descriptions available were two other equally reflective questions: How do you want to grow? What do you want to contribute? On Tuesday, 27 Feb 2018, I had ventured to West Point Grey’s branch of Vancouver Public Library. I invited my friend to join me, as we had previously spoken about further enrolling in off-campus philosophical activities after taking a Philosophy 101 course in our very first term of university. Turns out the café consisted of ten chairs arranged in a circle at a library’s corner, and there were no beverages included.
Attendees were of different ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. A high school girl, my friend, and I were the youngest in the group. The small discussion set up was something I had not expected, but it ensured all members were better engaged with the conversation, constantly encouraged to contribute and listen. The session was mostly carried out by us participants, but our moderator, Meguido Zola, was a very important facilitator. He maintained a very neutral position and instead asked introspective questions for participants to share and encouraged others to ask and respond to other people in group. His method reminded me of Socrates, as we saw in class through texts like Euthyphro. His attitude lacked the dramatism of Plato’s dialogues, but his questions and comments did seem to hint us visitors of possessing some sort of answers amongst our questions, and rose more inquiries based on our comments. All the knowledge in the air made us reflect on our own thoughts and experiences. It is from this comparison that I venture to define Philosophy as the practice of conversing to yourself through others; it is the art of questioning what you think you know and being at peace with the fact that a question will always be the better answer.
The discussion touched many interesting points; from religion and secularism, faith and spirituality, to life and death, the value of enquiring, how to help others and ourselves grow, the importance of breaking from a dichotomous perspective, etc. On each topic everyone had their own thoughts, and some had the courage to share or add even more. The tangents we took seemed greater each time. Every anecdote was valuable in itself, and inspired us to reflect on the topic, and our experiences (or lack thereof).
For instance, a 25-year-old woman had come to this café curious to find an alternative answer to “big questions” after her breakage from the Christian religion. She said church did address these questions but took answers for-granted instead of questioning further possibilities. One of these questions was a very popular philosophical problem: what happens after death? Is there a soul, and if so, is it moral? The topic reminded me of Epicurus, as she later shared that by questioning the existence of a heaven and hell, she concluded that we can only experience in life, and she wants to make all her experiences worthy of living. Her reflection is then compatible with Epicurus’ naturalistic point of view, as he argues that all knowledge is gained through experiences in life; and death, being a lack of sensation (the vehicle for experience), should be nothing to us.
On the other hand, a middle-aged woman whom had been very affected by the loss of her father, said she wanted to experience a way in which she could feel connected to her loved one through an alternative source, being that she had separated herself from a conservative catholic environment ever since she went to university. After learning that the bible was not fully factual, she began to break away from the institution of the church too. The loss had made her wonder is cafés like these could stimulate her into further thought. This was her third café, and she seemed happy to there.
A young man on his way to become an elementary teacher, also a café moderator in other time slots, commented how modern philosophy and the notions of the “nature of reality” were often considered the religion of the seculars. Is philosophy a religion? The act of questioning can certainly become a ritual, and these are the basis of a religion… then we decided to differentiate between “having a faith” from “being religious”. I found it quite fascinating how philosophy, the science and art of questioning, could become a religious practice. If so, this would be one whom Socrates would be a true believer and active ritualist. After all, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates embraces a death punishment as a life without practicing philosophical dialogue was “not worth living” (13). Through both course readings on Plato, I remember thinking what Socrates would do after each dialogue. Would he sit down and further think of an unsolved matter? Would he be fully at peace after being unable to define a concept objectively (as Piety in Euthyphro)? If he believed in philosophy as a religious practice that gives meaning to life, how did he arrive to such conclusion?
I finally contributed to the group conversation with my own experiences, and lack thereof. I expressed being in the start of my university process, being open to new ways of seeing the world and further knowing so many things I still don’t know (or I guess, un-knowing more about the things I think I do). What did I want to experience? I envisioned my first year of university as full of enriching experiences of all sort; meet new people, expose myself to new cultures and question my behavior based on mine, dig into relativist truths, try new activities and classes, etc. Taking philosophy was one of these experiences, and I could only be grateful of the opportunity of participating in tis dialogue, the fact of giving it my own meaning, and furthermore, the simple fact of being there, in that room, at that moment, surrounded by people who felt as confused but eager to learn and question as much as I was. In the middle of my sentence, I was brought to tears.
In December I had read Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”, in which I learned that this discipline’s value may not be essentially tangible, but it manifests itself through our daily actions, at a micro and macro level. Philosophy is not a thing but an active practice, that keeps growing and fluctuating as members join in its conversations. Our society has hopefully evolved from Ancient Greek times, where a man of questions was put to death. Today, such practice can be our only certainty. Hopefully, we can learn more about not knowing, and be slightly more comfortable with the fact that, as I said before, a question will always be the best answer. Perhaps practicing philosophy is one of the ways to interact in the safe building of our reality every day.