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Philosophy Cafe - Cafe Philosophique Message Board › Meeting notes

Meeting notes

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 223
...
People were getting a bit worn out near the end. It was a rather boisterous meeting. Or the hunting down of Nature took an emotional toll. I do wish I had introduced something from the Top Ten, or from my advance notes, but probably I, too, was scared off by the imminent extermination of the concept of Nature. I sadly neglected to explicitly call attention to "show and tell" items, which did exist, which would have been a great way to start new topics. Actually, I did turn us in the last 15 minutes toward the political question of whether this informs our thinking about global warming, etc., which probably didn't lift anyone's spirits! Then I noticed the "philosophers playing soccer" item of our Top Ten, which of course is funny to think about, and recalls the Leuky idea of watching ourselves as we discuss ideas.

I left us a minute each for Last Words. Very interesting to me was that the newcomers all volunteered to speak before anyone else. They all seemed to have an enjoyable time, worth their while. I wonder if assigning them an active monitoring role encouraged them; I wonder if the veterans were slightly discouraged by being monitored; maybe they were wistful for Nature. There was acclamation for the Woody Allen quote ("Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right."), which recalled the unintentional subtext of our Top Ten. I gave my Last Word, a heads-up on the next theme--The Future--and we ended right at 9:30.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 233
Predict what people will say (haha):
"Nobody can predict the future" "Predictions are no better than chance" "Predictions are embarrassingly wrong" => rather than focus on the accuracy of predictions, let's ask other questions:
⦁ "
Why do we predict, especially when our track record is so poor?"
⦁ "How does predicting make us
feel?"
⦁ "Do we really
care if predictions (ours or others') are accurate?"
⦁ "Is it really possible to
avoid predictions?"
> blank slate = Rorshach: future reveals the forecaster, and so impression management (even if for oneself)
Any of the multitude of inspirational quotes, like "Be the future you want to see in the world" "Your mistakes are in the past, but your future is unlimited"
⦁ "What is the relationship (in the inspirational view) between the past and future?"
⦁ "What emotions are inspirational quotes about the future meant to address?"
⦁ "How does thinking about the future practically inspire, motivate, inform what we do today?" Ex: business, relationships.
> the future as a second chance at the past is perhaps more frightening than inspiring
"Don't worry about the future" "You can't change the future"
"The future started yesterday, and we're already late" John Legend
Escape from/to the past -- Escape from/to the future? -- Jefferson liked the dreams of future more than history of the past.

PROPS
Universe - A Calendar
visually represents all time the same way, making the future knowable (and dangerous) like the past, but in banishing the present, makes all moments equally remote. Besides unifying past, present, and future, it unifies time for all subjectivities: the future doesn't wait for individuals.
Encounter - A Baby
incarnates (touchably) the future in the present, especially in the level of involvement it requires and the ambiguity between activity and passivity in our relation to it. "The future is now."
Society - Science Fiction utopias
voice a future that is near yet occluded, giving us time to realize its promise, or avoid its threat. Its ambiguous separation of the future from the present makes it ideal for disguising propaganda.

IMPROV
⦁ An
improvised story set in the future
Top Ten Telltale Signs of the Future (in a movie, book)
Character Sketch: "I am Future...."
Everybody Knows the future is unpredictable....

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 234
The Future 7:15pm, June 3, 2014

I arrived 30 minutes early to find another member had secured four tables for us in the dining section--yea! By starting time, we had as many people as a normal meeting, but in the extra 5 minutes we waited (just to be "on philosopher time") most everybody arrived. I only had to mark one no-show. The fifteen of us were even split between veterans, first-timers, and the rest; also we had somewhat more diverse age and sex distribution.

I attributed the excellent attendance to the theme, so in our round of introductions I asked people to comment on why The Future would be so popular (or, why he or she decided to attend). There was a nice variety of answers, which I noted--but as often happens, there wasn't (or I failed to take the) opportunity to really use them. On the other hand, I did mention that if we had an "extra" meeting in two weeks, it would be on a Future-related topic, so we may get use out of that list yet. Also emphasized was that, with so many people, we should avoid stump speeches (this was partly a warning to myself!) While each intro seemed to be of a suitable length (and I prodded or cut off as appropriate), altogether they occupied 25 minutes. The cafe was still pretty quiet during this time, and with urging people to speak up, the large group size seemed manageable.

The segue into the theme proper continues to be a challenging passage: the Top Ten list I devised beforehand (learned that lesson, anyway) produced ten thoughtful entries, and several brief, focused exchanges. Then someone put forth a "nature of time" question that fit both the interests expressed and the first prop I wanted to introduce (the calendar). But somehow this became a pitched battle between acceptance of a conventional notion of time and...something else that wasn't too clearly described. The Socratics were tossed into the mix as well. I let this play out for perhaps too long, because interesting arguments were being made (but it was difficult to digest and appraise them in the rush of conversation) which I hoped would lead to a studied indecision that would pave the way toward introduction of alternatives (as symbolized by two more props). Near as I can tell, though, what happened was individuals had already "problematized" the topic: they had decided on their own what was going to constitute an answer to the question What Is Time? But the way our discussions work is that we try to find the QUESTIONS, rather than the answers--after all once the "problem" has been defined, the answers are pretty much a matter of calculation or persistent search. Despite this, I did manage to play off the comments of some not involved in the tug-of-war to introduce the sci-fi prop (I used H.G. Wells' novel, The Time Machine) by the time we broke at 8:20.

It was important to get that in, because I suspected we might need to split into two groups for a while. The cafe was getting noisier, and I feared that some people weren't hearing enough of the conversation. A side benefit would be that those who wanted to cleave to the scientific view of time could do so without impeding exploration of a cultural view. At 8:30 I confirmed this idea with a vote, though few people actually changed their seats. Of course, no one wanted to be told what to talk about, and the subgroup I was not in apparently did not pursue the metaphysics-of-time debate. (That makes sense, if in fact that they perhaps already agreed on the nature of time.) I declined to deputize a subgroup leader for the other group of about five; I did offer them the talking stick (an actual stick, inspired by the previous theme of Nature), though.

My subgroup, seated more intimately than a usual group of nine, was rather lively--but maybe we still needed the talking stick. That is, I had difficulty in getting one person to pace himself. I tried various ways of articulating the less direct, more collective method of inquiry we use (for example, emphasizing that we should start with examples of "the future" and derive what "time" might be, not vice versa), but I hadn't thought of the problematization idea, above. Yet it could simply be a case of the too-urgent feeling that one is right. So, while the proponents of the cultural view--or "cyclical" time--got much more air time in the subgroup, still much of it was spent fending off fervent insistence on "linear" time. In retrospect, I think I should have recognized this behavior as simple contrariness (and someone in the first half did identify it as naysaying). Although this is a rare problem (approximately once per year, and curiously, at about this time of year), it appears that I can be lured into a Faustian bargain of sorts: if bad behavior temporarily serves an objective of my own, then I may let it pass, but then it works against me (because it hurts the group). In this case, a certain argumentativeness did the dirty work of counteracting the automatic acceptance of a scientific interpretation of time, which was a battle I'd lost in, for instance, Nature; but payback came when oppositional behavior prevented us from embracing any other interpretation.

Leuky was MIA, though a veteran did try to involve him. I introduced him merely as a mascot, but he is intended to address exactly such an unbalanced conversation as we encountered. In fact, in the April meeting we took a step in making him more "automatic": when Leuky is activated or invoked, we are to ask ourselves the direct question, "What is happening NOW?", trying not to let ourselves be blinkered by the words we are saying, but attending also to the dynamics and emotions of the discussion. This sort of reality check would have been the perfect solution--much smoother than instituting additional procedures, I think. Unfortunately, during our month off, I totally forgot about him, but I can give the succinct intro each time henceforth. If we can develop the ability to attend to how we are talking as well as what we are "talking about," it may be the most valuable thing any of us can take away from Philosophy Cafe.
...
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 235
Toward the end of the subgroup discussion I introduced my "surprise" prop, the (quite large) baby doll: I think my point got across to most, but perhaps some took me to mean a baby's understanding of time, when I meant to use the baby itself as an incarnation of the future, in the eyes of its parents. In our brief discussion, I managed to weave the three props together a bit, which may confirm that they do capture different senses of the theme. One point that did seem to land was that, like a baby exposes its caretakers to utter surprises--to the strangeness of an "Other" who has not yet been socialized to hide their strangeness (to put it one way)--when we pursue philosophy as a group, we have the opportunity of exposure to truly alien ideas, rather than living in the echo chamber of our own minds.

I saved the final 10 minutes for Last Words with the reunited group. Since not everybody volunteered them, I had time to re-introduce the baby. While this meant repetition, I had invested $7 in the doll, and if we have a follow-up meeting, we'll use the props as shared context. Also, I got the sense that 120 minutes is really the outer limit of people's attention (including the break time). I asked people to email me about follow-up discussion topics. We ended right at 9:30, but a third of the group was still there at 9:45, when I had to leave.


P.S.: I'm very inclined to have a follow-up, aimed at having the discussion about the sociological and literary views of the Future. For one thing, we had several writers attend. Jay's old textbook, Worlds in the Making, looked like great source material. Not to mention, only a minority declared an interest in the nature of time anyway. If we title the meet "The History of the Future" that should make it clear that any metaphysics we do will have to be empirical or anthropological, and not determination or confirmation of "the truth."
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 238
The History of the Future 7:15pm, June 17, 2014

I arrived 30 minutes early to find the cafe relatively empty and quiet, so I took our regular table plus an extra table, in an attempt to make a "round table", which it turned out we didn't need. Like last time, attendance was pretty good, though I suspect a few were scared away by the high number of RSVPs. As usual there were last-minute drop-outs, but I closed RSVPs the night before so nobody could add. We had a quorum by the starting time, but social conversation was very lively and several people were eating, so we waited. As usual, the younger philosophers were the last arrivals. We were roughly evenly divided among veterans, first-timers, and in-betweens (but several of those are poised to graduate to veteran status).

At 7:30 I briefly introduced Leuky, as something like a watch dog, who can "hear" tension and "feel" the room, even if he doesn't know what we're saying. (Well, I elaborated, unnecessarily. The key thing was to acknowledge him as a mascot and a monitor. Eventually everyone will just know.) Then I launched introductions, but with the twist of requiring each person to name a favorite film or author or single idea, to be used as sort of their avatar. The ostensible purpose was to help us make stronger impressions on one another--and I believe this worked quite well, as people were unusually precise in addressing others's ideas directly. Definitely we'll try this tactic a few more times. Another reason might be the fact that two-thirds of us were at the last meeting, just two weeks previous. Another benefit, though, is that having to make a choice makes us better conversationalists: we become more aware of the self we are presenting, and at the same time, we free our own ego from what we're saying (because we are conscious of representing ourselves in an intentionally simplified manner). Basically, we take on a "role" when we participate, and I hope that in the future people will experiment with identities that might run counter to their usual ones (notice that nobody was asked to define themselves by their vocation, training in philosophy, or experience with the group). It probably doesn't hurt the process of philosophy education that we drew attention in this way to the big names in scholarship: Pinker, Hegel, Aristotle, Strauss & Howe, Kahneman. This approach also allows a bit of give-and-take, as I cajoled a decision from a few people: the "pace" of the conversation established in this way held pretty much throughout our time. I "assigned" an avatar (an enviable one, apparently) to a newcomer who hadn't determined one--and this yielded a dividend later.

Including everybody from the start may also have improved the evenness of participation: everybody contributed multiple times. As several intros aired concern with technology's impact on the future, I opened the discussion proper with the Fukyama book I just started reading. In fact, I brought several books, including The Lathe of Heaven, used in my own intro. At least for those sitting near me, this use of props seemed to make the associated points more concrete. And this was important because I made a lot of points! I swear I wasn't trying to "cover" them all, but when the conversation happend to set them up, I tossed them to the group (fairly expediently, I thought). Though my notes are so-so, I will try to recap as much of the content as possible in the Afterword. Another example of how at this point we favored breadth over depth was our brief side track into market dynamics: as a way of exploring how futures compete to become reality, I hold that the digression could have been very instructive, though other participants correctly pointed out that we were getting afield, and I agreed we'd probably not make the excursion pay off in the brief time we had. Without any direct prompting from me (that I recall), we got to the central idea (reflected in the announced title) that science fiction reflects the concerns of the time it is written in; as proof that I didn't get to make every prepared point, for lack of time I passed up a reference to aliens that evoked the theme of strangeness alluded to in "The Future's" write-up. We certainly did not get "stuck" on any one topic or perspective, yet somehow it all held (loosely) together.

In fact, we had breezed through so much that the way seemed clear for the creative/lateral thinking exercise I had originally planned to open with. This was to divide ourselves into contiguously-seated subgroups and, using the avatars chosen at the start, come up with some kind of merging or composition of them. I suggested a script or somesuch to share with the group. Timing it with our usual midway break time (at 8:30) made it a less threatening idea than it might have been, as typically people do spend much of the break time in small-group conversations on the theme, anyway. Of course, no one had a clear idea of what to produce anyway:) I ventured word-at-a-time as a method to compose a group story, but I wasn't about to try that with the newbies sitting by me! After the statutory 10 minutes the conversations were going strong, so we took a total of 20 minutes' break from me presiding over the discussion: that alone made it a good idea. (Seriously.) As we reconvened, I polled the groups to see "what they had", and decided to start with a brief summary of what my subgroup had talked about, but most important, an interesting thought experiment that came from forcing ourselves to include the perspectives of each member of the small group--especially those that seemed to have to least in common. In a way, this fertile variety may be built in, because the process of choosing avatars set us up with both differences and commonalities. Of course, the main point of all this was merely to demonstrate the feasibility of the small-group exercise in conjoining, in some fashion, their ideas. I'm also hoping that the ideas of soft-spoken people might find their way to the full group via the spokespersons of the small groups (though we also took to relaying summaries on occasion).

...
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 239
...
In the 30 minutes that followed, we explored the scenario of selling the red and blue pills from the film The Matrix: what price would we ask, how would we describe them, and so forth. (This film has been to philosophy like American Idol has been to karaoke:-) Films have proven to be effective means of grounding conversations that would without resorting to scholarly abstractions, and so we gradually ventured into more and more "philosophical" terrain. And so I had more occasion to "show my cards" in the sense of revealing the parameters by which I guide the conversation. For example, whether one espouses "relativism" or not, it is easy see that it is a very practical modus operandi in an unstructured group like we have. Another rule was to not overly concern ourselves with unobservables such as consciousness. And a twist on that was my admonition that, even if one doesn't intend to introduce a verboten topic like the nature of time, one must still avoid the appearance of doing so, as well. (Yeah, I'm getting to be a language hawk.) Leuky of course was at hand to set these meta-concerns apart from the topic. This is all quite pleasing to me, because the development of ways of discussing is something we can achieve among ourselves, given sufficient Tuesday evenings (sorry to disappoint those who entertained the possibility of conquering the world with a great idea). Via a recycling of the Top Ten List from last time, we ended up back at the phenomenological nature of time--not the office-calendar notion of the future (yes by then, I had reintroduced the doll and novel props as well) but instead tying it back to the previous theme of Nature. Funny I didn't notice at the time this move might have been provoked by our topic of the weather (what does "10% chance of rain" really mean, but also what makes it so suitable as a topic between strangers). I think our slight digressions, like our long break, added interest to the "texture" of the evening.

At this point of pregnancy with a multitude of unexplored meanings (and a baby on the table!), we had 10 minutes for Last Words, during which various loose ends and overlooked ideas were included, general impressions shared, and the future themes previewed. I regard it one of our most successful meetings, as measured by group dynamics, as well as by the ideas produced. Of course it may take a long time to reap what we sowed, but that's what the future is for!

Addendum: A day later, my good feeling about The History of the Future hasn't worn off. I'll make one more observation. Besides the nice "flow" within the meeting, the switch to a "two-stroke" meeting pattern looks promising. Revisiting the topic from a different angle is one way of slowing us down, giving us time to think, both during the meeting (after we've exhausted the easy approaches on the first approach), and between the meetings. I hardly realized how much I had thought about the future until yesterday. If we have difficulty coming up with new stuff, then that would be an occasion for employing creativity tools. And imagine if The History of the Future had been the first meeting: we could have dived deeper into the technology question or others that we didn't even get to, in the second. Plus I'm hopeful that the increased exposure will produce a stronger platform--more thought by more people--for participation in the Afterword.
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 244
Sportsmanship 7:15pm, July 1, 2014

It was a good omen when I arrived 35 minutes early to find two philosophers dining. My attendance estimation heuristic was accurate, so we all fit at our usual table, though I didn't predict that so many first-timers would show. Of the eleven of us, about half were regulars (several newly-minted), and about a quarter were brand new. Our gender balance was much improved, continuing a welcome trend. Au Coquelet was quiet throughout the meeting--we were the noisy bunch. People arrived on time and were so busy chatting that I was reluctant to start, but my plan (which was to replicate the success of our previous meeting) included additional time later for small group discussion.

At 7:20 I made brief introductory comments, asking everyone to introduce themselves, and in the process to name a sport and relate it somehow (as a player or imagined player) to the theme. The purpose of this was to "put ourselves in the game" of the conversation. The way it worked this time was simply to give people an opportunity to articulate their initial thoughts on the theme--which I much prefer to establishing credentials or somesuch. Like last time, it permitted me to engage in a bit of dialog or make a brief comment, without opening the floor completely. Several sports were reused, and the trend seemed to be away from sportsmanship and toward the lamented commercialization of sports, which may have been a sign that people knew how close to the theme their heads were--or maybe they were feeling the impulse to go for something "big" rather a specific observation. I had to praise the example of the sport of curling (which, as described, struck me as a malign version of shuffleboard) as something that both identified the speaker and begged for discussion. Unlike last time, though, we didn't seem to carry these associations forward, probably because most of the examples weren't that particular to the sport, but also because the ensuing conversation turned more on the mental/formal attributes of sport than on the physicality of actual play. I might have made an effort to capitalize on the various sports named.

About 7:45 I put out the first question, which was simply to try to nail down sportsmanship a bit, to close in on its essence. Specifying the initial prompt was something I'd decided to do after having many times repeated the mistake of allowing the focus to drift right off the bat. We quickly took up the issue of whether sportsmanship was more like a legislated set of rules, or something less effable, coming from within individuals. This framing of the issue, which I compared to nature-nurture controversies (perhaps due to the salient topic of sports education), was present throughout our conversation, which sounds limiting, yet it did not interfere with us superimposing concerns of the evolutionary function of sports, sex differences, charity, competition, playfulness, and so forth. Unlike last time, I hadn't prepared that many points, which was fine because there was plenty of good input, and not much time to repeat ourselves.

I intended to start our "half-time" break a little earlier but to get everybody in took us all the way to 8:30. Like last time, I gave an informal assignment to be worked on in subgroups (since most people tend to stay at the table) which was to apply the principles of sportsmanship to some other domain of life. There was clamor for an example (which was good, because they intended to do it!) I didn't want to give one, but then I figured politics was perfect, because I didn't want them to use that particular one anyway. My subgroup really got into it, once the target area--relationships--was suggested; the other subgroup seemed to have a fun time working together as well. For the third time, I felt I had to force myself to close off the segment and push on (but don't they say it's better to leave them wanting more?) Why did this work so well? Several explanations come to mind. Long ago I tried this constructive group project in our meeting on School (but gave much less than the 20-25 minutes here), and it enthused people (far more than the many other elements of that overly complex session). Getting to pick a new domain freshens the conversation (and painlessly exercises the intellectual muscles that govern abstraction). Of course a group of five makes both hearing and speaking easier and more urgent. Possibly a lucky break was that we had a couple of more extroverted personalities that latched onto the project aspect and really led the charge, which is so much better than me always being center stage.

The other subgroup then shared their application of sportsmanship to healthcare (which has got to be a theme sometime). Somewhat contrary to the preceding vibe from that end of the table, that sportsmanship was character-driven, they embarked on designing a program to indelibly imprint people with good character. While our "examination" was somewhat jocular, there was enough there to permit some deeper questioning, and of course it was the attention to "process" that I was after. So finally we've stumbled on a "brake" that slows down the conversation, yet without feeling like an anchor: having invested some time in a "project" we go over it again, which makes it a bit more permanent.

Then my subgroup presented a summary of our conversation (also less than 10 minutes), but I only gave the introduction and two others recapped what we could. The informality of intimate relationships was conducive exploring how "rules" interact with actual behavior in a more complex way that probably people realize without examination. So this dovetailed nicely with our thoughts in the first half, but we extended it (though not explicitly theoretically) to the important themes of habit and group membership.

I took this as an entree to putting my alternate, more advanced "starter" question on the table. While I had to preface it with an explanation of the frames idea, my request to think about how sportsmanship appears in each frame was taken up earnestly (all the more encouraging, as energy often flags after 9:00). Even more, the concurrency (for lack of a better word) of the frames seemed to hit home, which could be a boon to future conversations.

With 5 minutes left, I took us off the end of the diving board with the first-ever Four Words group activity, prefaced by an invitation to participate in the Afterword discussion board for Sportsmanship, and a plea for a follow-up topic that would be close to Sportsmanship. Fortunately enough people had a passing familiarity with improv, and what a haiku was like, that we were able to squeeze out a couple, just to prove we could do it--and still laugh about it. Next time, though, I will ask people to note down their four words during the course of the meeting.

There was a lot of handshaking and goodbye conversation at 9:30, another reflection of the convivial atmosphere that prevailed throughout. Maybe it is possible to repeat the history of the future....

Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 245
Addendum (a week later): I forgot to mention Leuky, both here and at the top of the meeting. But in the middle of our first discussion period, something was said that had a strong affinity with the introduction I had prepared, which was the Leuky was like a referee, but one who is in the pay of the broadcasters or commentators: interest would be more important than fairness. It was an interesting twist that Leuky would be an exhibit related to the content of the discussion, instead of a part of its governance. What he needs to be effective, though, is a script that we invoke automatically (and I think I have that now).

Although there were no comportment problems at all, Leuky might have pushed us a little bit; on the other hand, sometimes my personal pace is a bit too aggressive. Probably it's better not to mention specific examples, but somehow the atmosphere of cooperation allowed me to head off certain digressions (of course, I have to exercise judgment, but at least I have experience!) without bruising any egos, I think. I'll attribute this to the slower pace and our resultant greater unity, which gave me more cycles to think: diplomacy is work!
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 249
Grace: From Sports to Philosophy 7:15pm, July 15, 2014

Only-possibly-relevant observations on psychological state going into the meeting: I began my day by terminating my dentist, without fanfare, for apparent untruthfulness. This was one of those days that I was a little short on sleep. I had been absorbed in a separate project all week, but Monday had taken up the specific problems of making Leuky's sign and selecting a prop, so when I awoke early I could not get back to sleep, as often happens. But I definitely had "hopes" for the meeting and was in a (caffeine-supported) good mood.

I arrived 25 minutes early to find our table staked out, and I dragged over a couple more. We were able to seat all sixteen who showed (only one flaked), with some challenges to sightlines and acoustics. Nearly everyone from Sportsmanship returned, but it was the high show rate among first-timers that surprised me. Social conversation was active as we ate and waited for latecomers to get seated, starting only 5-10 minutes late.

We skipped formal introductions in a bid to leave more time for discussion, in view of the large attendance and the emphasis I wanted to put on the half-time activity. I briefly introduced Leuky, but we also demonstrated the protocol of having someone else speak his question, "How are we behaving now?" I asked for props and got none (but I had requested them only in a comment online that afternoon), so I brought out the porpoise as an emblem of animal grace, and an articulated artists' dummy. I tried (for the first time) to position the dummy in a lifelike position, and it was surprisingly difficult; I mentioned that it might be useful if we discussed motions specific to certain sports; at least initially, it seemed to represent awkwardness.

This was one of those meetings where our "bumpy takeoff" seemed to fuel a bit more gravity in the discussion. I didn't have a specific opening question, instead inviting comments on the dummy--nothing--and then on athletic grace. I took a fairly hard line on sticking to the theme, as this was a follow-on discussion for which I had laid out several directions in the announcement: I think that is going to be the rule for follow-on sessions going forward, since for me the potential to focus on an interesting topic is what justifies having an extra meeting. It paid off, in that I recorded a prodigious quantity of notes (the size of which corresponds, for me, to how fine-grained and relevant we get), but even more so in the frequency with which we reconnected with previous ideas, attaching them to new contexts. Again, I was not shy about selecting one idea from what someone said that had potential to focus us the connection between animal and social gracefulness, or on integrity (as opposed to last time's conduct); I quickly shut down the idea that grace was completely subjective (then why talk at all?); moral, religious, and cultural aspects provided useful backdrop but I practically sniped at perceived attempts to address, say, theological questions as a condition of our inquiry. We were fortunate to have had exactly one aficionado of each adjacent domain, which defused debates. Participation was somewhat uneven: the more active talkers clustered in the middle, where they sometimes forgot to address the larger group; the peculiar seating that evolved sometimes yielded distracting side conversations.

This was one of those meetings which contained an Incident. During the hesitant initial exchanges, I noticed a drift toward a "critical stance," in which we would be discussing who was graceful and who was not. As this unconscious move is so very typical of most every group of this type that I've participated in (online or off), I felt I wouldn't be singling anyone out if I took the opportunity to put Leuky through his paces, calling this stance to the group's attention; furthermore, although the people speaking at the time were both new, one I knew from another group and the other I had gotten to know well enough in the pre-meeting banter to think he wouldn't take it personally. What I didn't count on, though, was how it would look in the eyes of observers, who might worry that I (or anyone, really) might have carte blanche to put someone under the microscope at any moment. Then there was revealed, as well, an ambiguity in the protocol: during the comments responding to Leuky's question, there was a longish comment which I couldn't tell whether it was on the topic or about the group's process, and I was perceived as (yet again) cutting someone off, eliciting overt resistance from a "non"-respondent. Thus I was brutally reminded of a technical issue unresolved from the last time we tried this: how to set the "meta-discussion" off from the philosophical discussion, both in terms of duration and content (including, but not limited to, whether the meta-discussion should address how we are behaving during the meta-discussion--which is, of course, technically, what "now" means.) My oversight, definitely, not to have had at least a plan for this. But we recovered when the respondent (calmly) pointed out, in effect, that we were witnessing an object lesson in social grace, and this gave us a strong start on our next topic, making it easier to recall the contrast of athletic and social grace later on. I have to emphasize, though, that all the attention I've lavished here on The Incident is retrospective only: though it's taken an hour to write it up, it elapsed in barely two minutes (I'm guesstimating, of course). I recall, in my jazz singing days, how an Incident would result in a cold sweat on stage and days of recriminations and an almost blacked-out recollection of how it happened (but not the aftermath); in later years, I realized that what experience had been teaching me was not how to avoid, prevent, or even really to fix mistakes, but instead how to recover from them, gracefully. (Oh God, now I feel a desire to have a second follow-on meeting, but that definitely would not be graceful;-) Perhaps the Incident forced us to grapple with another important contrast: whether grace was the absence of conflict, or the smoothing over of rough edges. And this led us back to the discussion's founding notion of integrity (which recalled an earlier theme, Authenticity­), and the moral overtones of that. So as uncomfortable as it (briefly) was, The Incident was what truly grounded the discussion, giving me the impression that the group was learning to hold disparate contrasts in (their group) mind simultaneously.
...
Jeff G
Ulrich
Oakland, CA
Post #: 250
...
It seems that the props were doing their job as well, as the issue of animal grace (cats, dogs, sharks) resurfaced toward the end of the group discussion hour. It was probably later, but I garnered a laugh by pining for a "robot move" prop, which goes to show that the mere presence of any prop makes it easier to imagine actual objects to animate what we're talking about (and perhaps move people to find them in their homes). The newcomer who had objected to how Leuky had "made us" (mis)behave played the subjectivity card in order to maintain (both!) that it made no sense to speak of animal and human grace in the same breath, and that grace could not be absolute/real/objective. I responded with a (by now well-rehearsed) plea for a methodological posture of objectivity that would at least allow us to have a real conversation. Normally I refrain from remarking (in these notes) when someone leaves early, because I don't know the cause, or that cause is irrelevant to the group--but here it was clear enough, and highly relevant. Grace is not simply avoiding hurting anyone's feelings--that would hardly be worth fifty-four Bible references. Grace is doing what has to be done (for a cause, for the team, for God, for one's true self, even for "nature"), yet in that very action, being nothing other than what one is.

At 8:30 I introduced the half-time activity, which most people had done for Sportsmanship--but this time we would all work the same domain, that being Philosophy Cafe itself. The four groups were self-selected, from two to five people in size. But clearly I underestimated the task (I was the wrong person to estimate it, given it's become an occupation for me!), because it took me 1-1/2 hours just to compose a reasonably thorough description of how to frame a problem in the domain. Or maybe people wanted more freedom, or feared their results would be subject to invidious comparisons when we debriefed. Also, people probably needed to decompress a bit after the intense discussion. After 25 minutes, the small groups reported a wariness of dualism (used in my writeup posted to the Afterword), an awareness that deconstruction of ideas can threaten egos, and a concrete suggestion to take notes of some kind during the meeting so as not to push oneself to say out loud every idea that comes into one's head, for fear of losing it. The notebook idea dovetails nicely with the FourWord activity that we're using to close meetings. My subgroup stayed more on task, of course. One thing we didn't report to the plenum was the importance of humor in running a meeting. I noted that humor and humility share a root: while there was a lucid connection there to the Bergson on Laughter "intensive," we had replicated much of it ourselves (see "robot moves," above). Getting used to a pattern of frequent but brief interpolations, I forgot to be disappointed (until after the meeting) by our not having addressed the issue of losing gracefully. The most powerful illustration of that idea comes from actors' improv "status" games, anyway, which would need to be translated to the cafe setting (but, oh, you'd never forget them!)

The sharing of subgroup experiences transitioned seamlessly to a concluding topic of intentional awkwardness, which seemed suitably against-the-grain, as I think closings ought to be. (Avoid short-circuiting topics: that was another notion from my subgroup.) I could resist the temptation to "put a button on it"--not even the Failure Is An Option button I'd brought as a prop ;)--because the FourWord haikus are excellent punctuation, perhaps all the more so when whimsical. And it will be fun as we get faster at them (maybe we should limit them to four words, after all).
People lingered up to 25 minutes past our 9:30 stop. I definitely enjoyed an afterglow from this meeting, but not the kind that comes from having delivered a series of clever arguments. Rather, I felt that people had opened themselves to some new ways of looking at collective action, even if reluctantly at first, and the pieces would percolate offline. And this detailed deconstruction of the meeting, despite an arduous learning curve with respect to techniques, confirms the potential of what I'll label "the Leuky turn" (after the dialectical turn, or the performative turn). If during the meeting I felt that the pieces had been put into place but not really comprehensively arranged, the process of writing this account (the longest, most relentless ever ;), actually yielded a durable definition of grace, and did so only because Leuky provoked an Incident that made grace itself immediate (albeit,initially, only in its absence--but still present!) Of course, you had to be there...but you were there!

And speaking of writing, it's that time of year for a progress report on the "What Is Philosophy Cafe?" blog. That will give a longer view of what's going on. Thanks to everyone who helped us to enter that evaluation on a high note!
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