Saturday, 12 September 2015

Philosophers' Cafe September 9, 2015

The Meeting

This gathering, I thought, was extraordinary.  33 people attended, several for the first time.  My hopes for lots of interaction, sharing of ideas and stories, different points of view, and challenging questions were entirely fulfilled.  A great start to our new season.

My usual preliminaries included a couple of new initiatives for this year.  One is this blog which I hope all of you will use to take part in ongoing conversation about the topics of our meetings.  I will post additional essays from time to time about philosophical issues that I am interested in. My second new goal for the season is to conduct a group study of a book by Ken Wilber scheduled for publication later this year titled The Fourth Turning of Buddhism.

Instead of a formal talk, I began the discussion with a question:  “How many philosophers are in attendance this evening?”  Only a few hands went up, perhaps 5 or 6.  Nonetheless, most members had some good ideas about what philosophy is and what philosophers do.   Some of the ideas put forward in the ensuing discussion were:
  • Philosophy is about the meaning of existence.
  • Philosophers’ ask the Big Questions about life, ethics, and politics.
  • The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom.’  The ultimate goal of philosophical thought is wisdom or understanding.
  • Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge appropriately to everyday situations.
  • Philosophy is an attitude built out of thoughts and feelings about our experience, a personal perspective on life.
  • Philosophy is more than a personal attitude; it seeks a universal perspective, insights and truths that can be accessed by anyone.
  • Philosophy may not have all the answers, but it has all the questions.  ‘Why’ questions seem to be part of human nature, as seen in very young kids.
  • The Serenity Prayer is a good example of a philosophy of life.
  • Academic philosophy too often obsesses about trivial issues that no one else is interested in.
  • Philosophical trends come and go, like fads in popular culture.
Clearly, for these thinkers, philosophy is not just an intellectual hobby.  It is also not just an academic specialty, as I will argue in a subsequent post.

In the second hour, I invited members to share stories about philosophical epiphanies they might have experienced in their earlier lives.  A philosophical epiphany is an insight or realization, occurring usually in a dramatic moment, that leads to a significant shift in the individual’s outlook on life or belief system.  I led with a story  of my own from my graduate student days.  At the time, despite having had considerable exposure to critical philosophy, I was still nominally committed to the orthodox Christian theology in which I had been raised.  Soon after the birth of my first daughter, it occurred to me in a flash of insight that this beautiful baby had come into the world entirely innocent, that the doctrine of Original Sin was not only false but pernicious, and that a benevolent God would not impose such a vile judgment.  That insight led quickly to the collapse of the entire edifice of religious belief I had imbibed from the Church of my youth.

My story was followed by a remarkable series of personal stories of transformation by other members of the group.  The honesty and trust conveyed in the telling of those stories was moving for everyone, I think.  Space issues prohibit my retelling of all of them (I don’t trust my memory to get them right anyway).  However, here are a couple of examples.  One member told of how, after losing both his wife and his daughter within a short period of time, he found within himself a source of resilience and strength to cope with his excruciating loss in a positive way.  Another told about a humiliating experience from the words of a cruel priest in a religion class she was forced to attend.  She was rescued by a group of other girls who rallied behind her and defended her openly before the priest, a lesson in the strength to be found in friendship.

I wrapped up the discussion by asking the group if, during these two hours, they had paid attention to what the others said, reflected on their ideas and stories, and related them to some extent to their own views.  Lots of head nodding.  Then I asked again, “How many philosophers do we have here tonight?”  Nearly everyone raised their hand, and rightly so.  It was a wonderful moment.

My comment

Transformational experiences like the ones I have described, when reflected upon over time, are usually unforgettable, and they often become part of a person’s outlook on life, part of their personal journey toward wisdom.  They can also become, for people who have an intellectual bent, occasions for philosophical reflection.  Loss of a loved one often triggers deep questions about the meaning of suffering, the existence of God, the awful reality of death.  Finding support and comfort from friends in a difficult time can lead to thinking about the nature of friendship in general and how to distinguish good friends from bad.  Reflecting deeply on experience is just what it means to do philosophy.  To develop the habit of reflecting deeply and critically on Big Questions is to make philosophy a way of life. In my next post, I will describe what a philosophical life looks like and argue that such a life is not an option solely for professional specialists in universities.  

* * * * 
I ended the evening with a quotation: 

     Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young alike ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.

                   -  Epicurus of Samos, Greek Philosopher, 341-270 BC


  1. Hungary 1956; Russian tanks and hoodwinked young soldiers was a telling personal experience; in this day and age who can you trust when authority figures put a spin on all their communications and the voting public is hoodwinked; possible future subject "who can you trust?"

  2. Not all epiphanies are positive. Yours was particularly harsh - a realization that adults, whom you should be able to trust, are liars, not just about small issues such as the existence of Santa Claus, but the Big Lie that is an instrument of oppression. "Whom can we trust" would make a fine topic for a future PC.

  3. "To develop the habit of reflecting deeply and critically on Big Questions is to make philosophy a way of life." CM - looking forward to the next blog post!
    This was a great gathering and sharing, and one of the best café sessions I have experienced - have been going to cafes since 2000.
    By the way, this is Gaby posting here. I did not make the first comment above. In the select profile there is no other way to make the self public other than selecting Anonymous.

  4. "For me, my philosophy is part of me. Philosophy is worldview so my philosophy is my worldview. My choices in life come consciously or unconsciously from my worldview. A person's worldview is partly conscious and partly unconscious. How can my philosophy be merely a hobby for me? "


    1. Ontologicalrealist (OR hereafter) offers some excellent observations. Our philosophical worldview is a part of us, although it's probably not a good idea to identify too closely with it. That's what ISIS fighters do, so much so that many of them are willing to blow themselves up in submission to their religious ideology. No hint of philosophy in those guys. Bertrand Russell sagely wrote, "I would never die for my beliefs; they might be wrong."

      OR is clearly not a philosophical hobbyist. He rightly identifies his worldview as the essence of his philosophy and the basis of the choices he makes. By acknowledging that his worldview is partly conscious and partly unconscious, he suggests - I'm guessing here - that he takes a critical attitude toward his own worldview as well as that of others, always trying to shine a light on his assumptions and biases, to make the unconscious conscious, and in that way to maintain that flexibility of thought that is the hallmark of true philosophy.

      To remain open to a radical shake-up of our worldviews is not easy. Some philosophers can't manage it - their entire careers may be invested in a particular theory of knowledge, reality, or morals. By closing themselves to the possibility of error, they turn their worldview into dogma, the very opposite of philosophy.

      We do well to remind ourselves of the example set by Socrates, who, despite his reputation, insisted that he didn't know very much.
      Intellectual humility is perhaps the first virtue of philosophy.