Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy Tom Janulewicz Book Lovers

book Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy

reviewed by Tom Janulewicz

Published in Issue No. 51 ~ August, 2001

There is a popular dictum on the children’s program Sesame
that “asking questions is a great way to find things out.”
Whenever one of public broadcasting’s flagship Muppets or
moppets faces a seemingly insoluble conundrum, one of the older, wiser
characters invariably exhorts them to question their way to
enlightenment. Sure enough, a few questions later the concepts of near
and far, or the letter Q or how many sides a triangle has no longer
seem quite so daunting.

Christopher Phillips, the author of Socrates Café, deals
with questions of a less concrete, more conceptual sort. In the book,
Phillips and his Socratic cohorts tackle such lofty questions as: What
is home? Why question? What is wisdom? What is a friend? What is
silence? What is love? Ultimately, however, he seeks to provoke the
same childlike senses of wonder, discovery and enlightenment that come
with the revelation of the inherent mystery of the letter Q.

Phillips is a contemporary disciple of Socrates and the Socratic
method, and the book is the story of his experiences as an itinerant
philosophical facilitator. He travels the country establishing
philosophical salons – the titular Socrates Cafés. In
this capacity, Phillips is the preacher-teacher at a self-described
“church service for heretics,” the chief sacrament of which centers
around a “passion for challenging even our most cherished

Of course, challenging the “cherished assumptions” of his era, and
teaching his students to be equally suspicious of wisdom so
conventional as to be deemed unassailable, ultimately cost Socrates
his life. While it is doubtful that the fruits of Phillips’
labors will be seasoned with hemlock, Socrates Café does
suggest that there is more than one way to cook a sacred cow, with
Phillips being the guy who brought the matches. Although he presents
himself as a facilitator or a guide rather than as a teacher or guru
– the latter label being one he emphatically eschews –
there is a Promethean subtext to his endeavors. Phillips brings a
radical spark – specifically, the fire of Socratic discourse
– to the coffee houses, schools, churches, senior centers and
prisons where he engages his fellow interlocutors.

The Socrates Café isn’t simply about challenging
assumptions in order to be contrary. Phillips sees a need for
Socrates’ methods in the twenty-first century. He presents the
Cafes as an alternative to the “facile responses of know-it-all gurus
or of psychologists who cubbyhole their existential angst into
demeaning paradigms of psychological behavior.” However, it is
important to remember that such a distinction is calculated to enhance
Phillips’ position. While not a self-help book per se,
Socrates Café
offers a prescription for a different way of
looking at the world, one which has the potential to not only change
the way one sees life, but also how one lives it. It is therefore to
Phillips’ advantage to convince readers that his “fresh taste of
philosophy” is both different from and superior to the facile and
demeaning alternatives.

Obviously, there is something fresh about Socrates Café.
Socratic inquiry as presented by Phillips is about process rather than
program. Socrates Café doesn’t lay out a series of
steps that, if followed, will lead the reader to a better, more
fulfilling life. Rather, Phillips writes that he is involved in “a
sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and
then offer compelling objections and alternatives.” To put it another
way, Socrates Café isn’t just about asking questions. It
is about asking the type of questions that lead the questioner to a
broader understanding. Phillips illustrates this point with a
reflection on a turning point in his own life. He writes, “were the
questions I’d been beating myself up with the sort of questions
that could lead to forward thinking answers that could in turn help me
chart a new course for my life?” Thus, at best, the perspective a
Socrates Café engenders enables participants to see
alternatives that were not previously apparent, alternatives that
allow people to stop beating themselves up and start making positive

But again, Socrates Café is not strictly a self-help
book. It is a book about questions – asking them, answering
them, learning from them and moving on to explore the new questions
raised by every subsequent question. That does not have to be a
transformative existential experience. The questions Phillips presents
are challenging enough that one can imagine how energizing it can be
to simply participate in a Socrates Café.

There is an implicit communal aspect to the Socrates Café.
Aside from the fact that Socrates Cafes occur when a group of people
come together, the goal of such encounters – to the degree that
inquiry for its own sake has a discrete goal – is to teach
people how to find common ground, even it if is only common semantic

At the heart of Socrates Café one finds words. Talk,
conversation, discussion, disagreement and persuasion are the coin of
the Socratic realm. The talk isn’t just about answering
questions, but about making sure you understand what each question
means – both to oneself and to others – on the way to
confronting the answer. One surprising aspect of Socrates
is the respectful tone of the conversations and
discussions Phillips presents. The Socratic discussions never seem to
venture into personal attacks and rancor. Such disagreements as do
arise between participants appear constructive rather than
competitive, focused on reaching a common understanding rather than
simply negating another person’s point of view.

Seen in this light, the Socrates Cafés described by Phillips
become – either through judicious editing or the inherent nature
of the café participants – an idealized version of
reality. No doubt there were times when Socrates Cafés Phillips
moderated did become heated and personal, when people were more
committed to their own agendas than they were to finding common ground
through constructive engagement. Even if the sessions Phillips
recounts in the book are those that best support his case, the hidden
message of Socrates Café as evidenced by the
well-spoken, thoughtful participants – who as described by
Phillips cover all manner of social, political, economic, racial and
age spectra – remains that the lowest common denominator (or at
least that self-selected subset of the lowest common denominator who
choose to participate in something like Socrates Café) is
higher than most people usually imagine.

This begs the question of how many of these well-spoken, thoughtful
participants are actually nothing more than literary holograms.
Phillips explains that his accounts of various Socrates Cafes are
recreations rather than transcriptions. As he puts it, they are “real
enough, though they are not rendered verbatim. While this is perfectly
acceptable – Plato no doubt employed similar dramatic and
intellectual license when reconstructing the original Socratic
dialogues – Phillips does a masterful job of spinning his
conversations in some surprising, and at times downright convenient

While not doubting the overall nature of the conversations, the reader
must wonder how many of the colorful characters – the “aging
beatniks, businesspeople, students, shopworkers, professors, teachers,
palm readers, bureaucrats and homeless persons, among others,” who at
times seem like they were called up from central casting to flesh out
the scene – are representative of people who actually attended
the various Socrates Café sessions in the person, and how many
are either composites or Phillips dialogic alter egos inserted into
the recreations to move the conversation along.

There is nothing wrong with Phillips taking this license. There is,
however, a strange tension created by Phillips’ writing style.
Wondering whether the bohemian sitting in the corner in the account of
one café session is a real person – the kind you could
sit down with over a cup of coffee and discuss a question like “how do
you know when you know yourself?” – or a composite detracts from
the overall sense of the questions under consideration.

Another factor that raises questions about the reality of various
characters that populate the Socrates Cafés is how many of them
have supporting texts at their fingertips. Many of the café
sessions presented in the book include a moment when some member the
group pulls out a well-worn, dog-eared copy of the Meno, the
Crito or the Apologia to support a point they have just
made. While it is certainly plausible to expect that a person inclined
to attend a Socrates Café would be well-versed in Plato’s
accounts of Socrates’ teachings, the frequency with which it
happened in this book rang false. If a writer used such convenient
repetition in a work of fiction, a judicious editor would no doubt cut
out several of the instances in which it occurred. On the other hand,
this suggests that these scenes happened exactly as Phillips
describes, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

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Tom Janulewicz lives with his wife and daughter in Shirley, Massachusetts. He is serious. And don't call him Shirley.