Philosophy in the World

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.

Philosophy In The World: Philosopher’s Café (B)

On the night of Wednesday, March 21 I decided to attend my first philosopher’s cafe in Port Coquitlam. Honestly, prior to actually attending a philosopher’s cafe for myself I had no idea what to expect. My knowledge regarding how this type of event would work was next to nothing, besides the few sentences that briefly described the topic on SFU’s website, so I was very curious as to how the evening would unfold. For some reason I had assumed that I would be entering a room of people of similar age to mine upon arriving at the Michael Wright Art in Leigh Square, yet my assumption was completely wrong. Of the 13 people who were there (including myself) I think I can safely say that 11 of them were middle-aged adults, most of them being of or around the same age as my parents. Luckily, I asked one of my friends to come along with me so that I would not be all by myself. Interestingly enough he ended up being the only person there that was the same age as I am. The fact that I knew we were the youngest made me nervous because I felt a little out-of-place at first, but I soon became more comfortable being a part of the group once the discussion started. The conversation was structured like a discussion group. There was one moderator who kept the conversation flowing by bringing up new topics or ideas and redirected the conversation if it ever became too off topic, but other than that we could all talk freely about our thoughts and opinions one at a time. I did not notice this until it was pointed out, but the moderator mentioned how it was interesting how the majority of people happened to be men, with only four women present including the moderator herself and myself, when the topic was about evil and where it comes from.

Personally, I believe I gained a deeper understanding of philosophy from this experience as philosophy is not simply one single thought from one person. It is more of a collection of thoughts from multiple people who can be used to explain and expand on ideas we all have. To me, philosophy is attempting to answer the bigger questions like “what is right/good?”, “what is wrong?”, and “how should humans act and behave?”. It is looking for responses to situations that do not simply have one sole explanation or solution. Philosophy is about discovering what we do and do not know and continuously questioning both. My definition could be seen as quite similar to Plato who sees philosophy as having the curiosity to learn because one is never satisfied with the amount of knowledge they have or even Socrates who would describe philosophy as a daily activity or unending search for  understanding. I found that the Socratic method (as seen in Euthyphro by Plato), a form of dialogue where questions are thoughtfully asked and answered to provoke critical thinking, was present at the philosopher’s cafe. By further questioning thoughts, a more in depth conversation emerged. As new ideas and opinions were being brought forth, we openly discussed each one while analyzing possible answers and conclusions.

Speaking more specifically about the philosophy discussed in the philosopher’s cafe I believe that the concept of evil can be related to the ideas of Socrates and Plato. Because Socrates sees knowledge as the greatest good, I found that his philosophy was very present at the philosopher’s cafe. We are to treasure knowledge and continuously be in search of further knowledge through introspective deliberation. The fact that Socrates highlights self-realization because of “his belief that it is the innate knowledge which man cannot disregard” becomes quite relevant when discussing acts that are morally wrong and could even be considered evil (http://www.al-mawrid.org/index.php/articles/view/good-and-evil-1-views-of-the-philosophers). He would say that knowledge that one does not have has no significant impact. Socrates points out that humans are not voluntarily ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. Humans become evil when they are not aware of the difference between what is good and what is bad. Similarly, Plato also considers the role of self-awareness and sense of morality in the soul. He explains that “the soul will always choose to do good, if it recognizes what is good” (https://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/athenians.html). Plato believes that, in our souls, we are naturally drawn to good. Both Plato and Socrates would agree that if one knew what is good, it would be natural for them to choose it. They focus on how humans can be good and bad. They see morality as a very important aspect in explaining philosophy.

After having participated in a public philosophical discussion I believe my idea of philosophy was reinforced. My thoughts on how philosophy is the continuous search for answers was strengthened. As a group we questioned what we already knew (or thought that we already knew) in order to discover new possibilities. It seemed as though everyone at the philosopher’s cafe had their own individual thoughts, yet everyone was open to learning more and hearing thoughts from others, possibly to widen their own perspective. The ideas discussed fit with the ideas I already had on knowledge and how curiosity leads to further learning. I would say that the experience of being able to have a philosophical discussion greatly enriched my understanding of what philosophy is because I had the opportunity to see how people can have meaningful conversations to broaden their perspective. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in not only sharing their point of view, but also listening to the point of view of others as well. Philosophy is about thinking and by thinking in the presence of other people one can greatly enhance their knowledge. By engaging in conversation and listening to thoughts that are conceived by other people we can further develop and expand on our own personal thoughts. By contributing to a discussion we may also be contributing to the growth and expansion of thoughts, opinions, and ideas of the people with whom we are sharing. After having attended the philosopher’s cafe, I would definitely recommend going to one. I was surprised by the cafe in the best way and I think that anyone who loves thinking, learning, and sharing ideas would certainly benefit, regardless of age and gender. I believe that these types of discussions in the community would be useful to both individuals and to the larger society because they provide a deeper insight into philosophy and how philosophy is everywhere around us.

philosophers cafe: philosophy in the world

1. Describe the experience at the Philosophers’ Café

We attended the topic “Is Humour a Funny Thing?” hosted at the Britannia branch of the VPL. It was structured as a small group discussion (~10 attendees) not unlike what we do sometimes in our course discussion sections, with a moderator to steer everyone back to the topic if the conversation was to stray too far.

2. Reflect on the experience of attending

RZ: When I first heard the term “philosopher’s café”, I envisioned a gathering of people, young and old, discussing deep moral questions. However, what I was met with at the philosopher’s café was entirely different. The even did not take place in a café at all; rather, it was hosted in the library of an elementary school, which provided the event with a warm and almost rustic atmosphere. Most of the attendees were much older than us. In regards to the topic, I mainly expected in-depth analyses of humour, maybe even some discussion of psychology. However, most of what was mentioned was centered around different types of humour in the world and the distinctive traits of each type of comedy. Overall, the experience broadened my understanding of what counts philosophy, and what it means to be a philosopher.

QW: I really overestimated the scale of the program. I thought, maybe this will be the size of an actual café, filled with people all discussing the same question. However, the experience was quite the opposite. It was simply a small group of people talking about the significance of humour. The others were overall welcoming and amicable, so I felt quite comfortable there (with the exception of a short time where two attendees got argumentative over what I believe was an unrelated cultural difference). The discussion kind of moved organically to experiences with humour and different kinds of humour and stayed there for most of the session, rather than staying directly on the titular topic. For instance, it was noted that “liberal” humour focuses on the rich and powerful while “conservative” humour focuses on the poor and powerless. I think the reason for this is that the question “is humour funny” is just such a difficult thing to wrap your mind around – we typically see humour as intrinsically funny – and discussing humour more generally is both simpler and still interesting. I think the main thing I took away from going was how much we see and absorb in our daily lives, yet would find difficult to express when asked about. For instance, when it was pointed out how strange self-deprecating humour is, I agreed, but I wouldn’t have been able to say this myself since I have never really gave it much thought.

3. Connect this experience to your academic work in the course

a) Give a definition of philosophy that is grounded in what we have read in class

Philosophy is the process of inquiring on the thought processes of the human brain. For instance, we went through numerous philosophers discussing morality (Mill, Kant, Singer, Thomson), which is what we think of as good or bad actions. There is also good or bad in general, such as in the case of death (Epicurus, Nagel). Additionally, we talked about Socrates, who looked at fundamental ideas such as piety.

b) Did the experience of attending a philosophers’ café enrich your understanding of what philosophy is? (individual)

RZ: To me, philosophy had always been represented by the statue of a guy thinking on a rock. After all, philosophy is just a bunch of deep thought. Or so I had believed. After taking this course and attending this café, my philosophical horizons have been vastly broadened. Philosophy does not necessarily need to entail intense analysis of any sort; a simple discussion on a unique topic can be philosophy.

QW: Attending the café did not really enhance my perception of philosophy. Rather, it reinforced what I already thought. In relation to the above definition, I think our session relates most closely to the last part: examining fundamental ideas of human nature; in this case, humour. To me what is fascinating is how much of our lives can be connected to philosophy. The first thing that comes to my mind when someone mentions philosophy is usually morality and ethics, but of course philosophy can extend far beyond that to topics like religion, technology, politics, and of course, humour.

4. Discuss civic aspects of the experience

RZ: My experience at the Philosopher’s cafe has been quite unique and interesting. I feel that, however, these types of discussions are only beneficial to the individuals who partake in the activity, as these conversations are held locally and are usually quite small and obscure. While they may not strongly impact the society as a whole, they affect the individual participants to a significant extent. People may attend these discussions for education or even entertainment; regardless of the motive, the dialogue leaves the participants with a plethora of vivid ideas which may reshape their lives.

QW: While the particular topic we chose may not be the most significant, there are certainly philosophical discussions that are worth having with a larger group, as the subject of these discussions can be of significant impact. For instance, looking at the website now, I see that on April 9, there will be a discussion on the topic of “life today means we always have a screen available to us”. To me this is something exceptionally important that everyone should take some time to reflect on, both in terms of individuals and societies. Additionally, variations of this concept already exist today. For instance, Reddit is a site where similar discussions types can take place on a multitude of topics with the global community, and politicians can meet with their constituents to discuss philosophical topics specifically relating to their policies. In short: philosophical discussions can be useful, but it depends on the topic being discussed.