Monday, June 27, 2011

Socrates’ Café: encounter group or catechism class?

"When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy."
-- Carl Sagan
Wrinkled brows & Pursed Lips. I hope my experiences with two different groups, each calling themselves a “Socrates Café,” are not typical. My report will not be encouraging. In both groups there was an attitude, almost, of vehement reverence toward the idea of “doing Philosophy.” Solemn demeanor on the part of many participants, especially the moderator-facilitator dampened any attempts at levity: wrinkled brows announced that this was serious business. (Forget Sagan, forget Nietzsche’s Froehliche Wissenschaft -- the joyful science.)

Nibbles & Sips. No one seemed to have read the basic text of "the movement", Christopher Phillips’, Socrates’ Café. A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, very carefully. The common perception was that three items were to control the discussion:
a. “deep” -- read here “highly abstract” or “esoteric” or “of no practical consequent” -- questions were to be addressed;
b. striving for a solution or common conclusion was to be avoided;
c. personal beliefs were not to be challenged.
I was not surprised to hear of previous members having quit the groups after protesting that what was being done was not philosophy. As far as those remaining were concerned, “good riddance to hairsplitters.”

Pre-Censorship for Peace. One group, call them the “Alphas,” were affluent professionally trained upper middle class Americans. They switched weekly among members to “moderate;” they had agreed at their first meeting not to discuss politics or religion, in order to avoid creating “unfriendly feelings.” They settled on a procedure of nominating single words, or short phrases, for discussion. Everyone would be asked to say what he or she thought the words meant. Any challenges that arose would normally be countered with the phrase, “That is what the word means to me!” There was some attempt to offer case examples to sway opinion. At the finish of each session, they used a dictionary to check for an “objective” judgment.

The second group, the “Betas,” were generally all college educated or self-made persons of comfortable means. It was lead every time by the same person, a physics and engineering professor. His rule for settling disagreements was: “every individual knows what he or she means and what he or she believes. This is not to be challenged.” Discord, indeed, any demand for justification, was stifled in the name of “civility.” The professor talked about 50% of the time -- this may be an underestimate.

Both Alphas and Betas never got to realizing that “it ain’t the content: it’s the procedure.” But even Christopher Phillips in his book seems to overlook the fact that since Socrates lived 2500 years have passed. Phillips recooks the myths about the ease and productiveness of the “Socratic Method” that Plato first foisted off on his readers in a different language, in a vastly different culture two millennia ago.

Some Real Practice Items. If you want to get started in philosophy you might try beginning with a simple set of exercises. You and your group members will consider very general statements about people, society and the world. For each statement you will be asked to think of a case which supports the statement and one which undermines or contradicts it. Be prepared to explain your answers and justify them. If you can’t do this, just admit it and pass to the next person. Follow up discussion of these exercises will be much closer to doing philosophy that what either the Alphas or Betas described above will be doing. See Everyday Theories : Epistemological Folklore

Learn More About What 'Philosophy' Is. An arena where most Americans feel free to "philosophize" ad libitum is in discussions about education: what is it?; what is a good school?; what should students accomplish?; and not least, what should it cost? However,the only philosophical residues that public discourse about education tends to maintain into this 21st century are narrowly either economic or religious. Practical considerations tend to be treated as a kind of engineering, as if there had been established some kinds of educational science other than those found in the imaginations of assorted psychologists and curriculum theorists.

In fact, there are deep connections between philosophy and education, generally disregarded or unknown by planners and practitioners in the schools whose decisions are founded primarily on political pressures, economic blandishments or personal tastes.

To find out what these connections are and how to deal with them practically, see PHILOSOPHY AND EDUCATION: What's The Connection?

--- EGR