Ottawa Socrates Café Pages

Start with reading an article "Coffee talk: Are Socrates Cafes the antidote to modern life?" in Ottawa Citizen about Socrates Cafe concept and our colleagues in Toronto.


  • Is there something I should be warned about?

    Yes, asking questions is addictive….and it does not make your life easier, just more interesting!

    Do not be thrown off by some specialized terminology on this page. The discussion at the meetings is strictly limited to the language accessible to average person. This is a premise of the group.

  • I do not know much about philosophy. Do I need special skills or knowledge to participate?

    You do not need any specialized skills and knowledge, but familiarity with Socratic method (see next question) is helpful. You are born with all required “tools” – brain for thinking, curiosity for asking questions and language for communication. Even if you do not have abilities of Einstein or rhetoric skills of Cicero (or English is not your first language) your questions can be as interesting as theirs. In fact, these questions are more meaningful to you (and you’d be surprised to how many others!) because of their relevance, timeliness, efforts taken to formulate them and your own experience.

    Some other skills which are rarer but very helpful are ability and desire to listen (and actually hear!) other participants of the conversation, to try to understand their perspective and not be carried away either by emotions or passion to prove something to someone…

    The fact that philosophy is associated today mostly with obscure profession of scribbling commentaries on commentaries of ancient greats in ivory towers reflects a sad state of modern philosophy and our society as a whole. Philosophy as invented by Greeks simply means “love of wisdom” and is intended to be practiced by asking questions and having discussions with simple people in local communities…

  • Who is Socrates or what Socratic method is?

    (this is extract from more detailed answer by Christopher Phillips )

    The Socratic method is a way to seek truths by your own lights.

    It is a system, a spirit, a method, a type of philosophical inquiry an intellectual technique, all rolled into one.

    Socrates himself never spelled out a "method." However, the Socratic method is named after him because Socrates, more than any other before or since, models for us philosophy practiced - philosophy as deed, as way of living, as something that any of us can do. It is an open system of philosophical inquiry that allows one to interrogate from many vantage points.

    Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, described Socrates’ method of inquiry as "among the greatest achievements of humanity." Why? Because, he says, it makes philosophical inquiry "a common human enterprise, open to every man." Instead of requiring allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic technique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method "calls for common sense and common speech." And this, he says, "is as it should be, for how man should live is every man’s business."

    .. the Socratic method goes beyond Vlastos’ description. It does not merely call for common sense but examines what common sense is. The Socratic method asks: Does the common sense of our day offer us the greatest potential for self-understanding and human excellence? Or is the prevailing common sense in fact a roadblock to realizing this potential?

    What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then offer compelling objections and alternatives. This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This "belief" fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.

    …if you ever, for instance, feel tempted to ask a question like this one once posed at a Socrates Café: How can we overcome alienation? Challenge the premise of the question at the outset. You may need to ask: Is alienation something we always want to overcome? For instance, Shakespeare and Goethe may have written their timeless works because they embraced their sense of alienation rather than attempting to escape it. If this was so, then you might want to ask: Are there many different types, and degrees, of alienation? Depending on the context, are there some types that you want to overcome and other types that you do not at all want to overcome but rather want to incorporate into yourself? And to answer effectively such questions, you first need to ask and answer such questions as: What is alienation? What does it mean to overcome alienation? Why would we ever want to overcome alienation? What are some of the many different types of alienation? What are the criteria or traits that link each of these types? Is it possible to be completely alienated? And many more questions besides

  • Do I have to participate in conversations during the meetings?

    No, you do not have to. You are welcome to just sit and listen. But discussion is only interesting and useful if participants share their very diverse views and come up with more questions during conversation. In other words, if they become engaged. And if they disagree. Majority of the participants come to hear opinion of others (after all, they already know their own) and subject their own beliefs to criticism. We want to hear you too! Do not be shy…

  • How often do you meet? Does it matter if I skip some meetings?

    Presently we meet every 2 weeks (on Tuesdays) and will consider move to weekly meetings later if there is sufficient interest.

    Since the questions are different on each meeting you can easily skip some of them. But I ask you to RSVP to help me with planning of capacity.

  • I’d like to be prepared. Can you suggest any relevant resources?

    Well, while it is not necessary, desire to have some idea of what to expect is understandable… Here are some resources:

    You can listen to sample conversations (not ours, but in similar vein) here

    There are several books by Christopher Phillips, which are based on the discussions (like ours) that he had with many meetings across the world

    a) "Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy" ( 241 pages, W. W. Norton & Company 2001)
    b) Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy (256p, W. W. Norton & Company 2004)
    c) Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Passionate Heart (320p, W. W. Norton & Company 2007)

    Another interesting author that writes in similar (but more lyrical vein) is Alain de Botton:

    The Consolations of Philosophy (272 p, by Vintage, 2001)

  • So how is this group different from existing philosophical communities in Ottawa (Sceptics, Humanists, etc)?

    Our approach is slightly different. Other groups tend to be more monolithic (even if declaring anarchy as their goal :-), more active in promoting their creed or truth and generally expect certain level of familiarity with their philosophical roots and sources. They rely more on speakers and leaders. They suggest answers (which is what many people actually want).

    This group intends to be more dynamic and democratic: it attempts to build a community of enquiry in progress. It strives to bring in people with very different, often opposing views, background and experience. No prior knowledge of philosophy is necessary. No special commitment (visit every meeting, read a special book, etc ) is asked for and nothing is decided or settled (it is the process of thinking, discussing, questioning that matters, not the conclusions which everyone if free to derive by himself).. More likely you will leave our meetings with more questions than answers…

    Obviously there is a certain level of similarity with other groups (after all, Socratic enquiry played an important role in many later philosophical movements and shares many ideas with skepticism, humanism, etc) and no one is against multiple memberships.

    On the other hand, because it is enquiry that is at the center of our group we may equally ask and challenge the very axioms of those other groups or school of thoughts (skepticism, secular humanism, atheism, etc). In fact we will start with questioning of axioms of our own group: the topic of the first meeting is “why ask why?” (which by the way, does not mean we support sophism)

  • Is this a thinly veiled attempt to promote Socrates Café brand, site or books of Christopher Phillipes?

    While healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing in this very complex world there is no need to become a cynic! No, there is really no hidden agenda or desire to convert you or sell you something.

    Unfortunately pretty much everything becomes branded and copyrighted in modern world, but it does not mean that we have to avoid using familiar words or semi-established monikers like “Socrates Cafe” and replace them with complex jargonisms. You can call it Philosophers Club, Conversation Society or Agora if you like (though they are probably copyrighted too by now :-)…

    Yes, Christopher Phillipes is an original inventor of the name and to some extent leader of the global network of Socrates Cafes around the world, but it does not make him a guru or oracle. He is essentially a guy who said aloud that you do not need a Ph.D. in philosophy to practice Socrates-type of enquiry, to set a group of people who like to ask questions and enjoy conversations.

    So here is an official disclaimer: this group is established by volunteers for live face-to-face gatherings with specific non-profit, community-creating purposes. It does not promote couching or counseling or guidance services.

  • Are you a member of “Socrates Café” network?

    Presently we are not officially associated with Society for Philosophical Enquiry or Socrates Café network (though we obviously feel extremely close to their mission and goals). And at some point we may choose to join their network but it is not a priority now. Alternatively we may choose to change the name of the group (Socrates Café is copyrighted by these organizations) if we get any unjustified pressure: after all, our goal is not to create a clone or franchise, but a community with its own opinion and general skepticism to any type of conformance.

  • How do you choose topics for discussion?

    For now there are plenty of “eternal” questions to consider. All of them are equally interesting. But at some point we can switch to voting which question or topic to choose.

  • So who is in charge?

    There is a permanent organizer and moderator (who is the founder of the group) to maintain general direction and scope of discussions for now. With time we will encourage other members of the group to try to be moderators of discussions. They may actually be more suitable for that role…

  • What kind of people do you try to attract?

    All people who enjoy conversations about serious topics. The more diverse our group becomes the better. Socrates Café meetings in other parts of the world were held among children, prisoners, retired people and produced amazing insights (read “Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy” by Christopher Phillips if you do not believe).

    Ottawa Socrates café is slightly more tame (for now:-) and open to adults. There is no upper age limit, in fact senior people are especially welcome as they have always been the keepers of wisdom and possess invaluable life experience (and no invention of blackberry or internet can change this fact!)

  • So you just talk? Don’t you actually want to do something?

    You mean something like a party with cups of hemlock for all at the end? Sorry, “Ottawa Suicide Club” or “Die for the Greater Cause” communities are in the different section...

    We “just” talk… Which is not such a trivial matter! Thinking and talking precedes (or at least should) any action. It is a critical part of it and too many unfortunate events in the history of humankind happened just because many people consider it unimportant or unnecessary. However, what you do as a result of participation in activities of this group are entirely up to you. How about starting your own meetup and find your own followers?

    In fact some of the members of the group feel that nothing could or should be done… And they have their point too.

  • How is it different from book club? From Movie discussion community? From web forum?

    Well, it is a correct observation that many readers of classical literature enjoy discussions and essentially become philosophers themselves with time (some would say you cannot truly enjoy Dostoyevsky if you are not a bit of philosopher in your soul). To lesser extent it is also true for real cinema - not of the “Die hard” type variety obviously :-). Their focus is somewhat different though. They rarely try to generalize and more often than not concentrate on specific details of the plot and characters than ideas behind respective media. They are even less rigorous than our group in method of inquiry they practice (in fact, they usually do not have any). Which does not make these communities any better or worse, just different… Some of their members will find themselves at home in Socrates Café, but for majority (especially for those who read and watch for entertainment) it is either boring or depressing - as was somewhat bluntly and honestly put by one of them…

    The fans of web forums are different in other way. They usually seek impersonal communication, very often with strong (and sometimes unconscious) desire to find praise, agreement or understanding. Few of them are truly listening and most are interested in just shouting their opinion to the world, not bothering to pay attention to constructive criticism. Not all are so, but exceptions just underscore the rule.

    Live face-to-face communication is typically faster (which is not always a good thing) and certainly more transient. The goal here is not to leave your wise views to posterity but subject them to scrutiny, hopefully find new nuggets of wisdom and insights and adjust/refine your own views if necessary. People who participate in our meetings are sufficiently interested and passionate about their activity to actually find time, come to discussion, be engaged and often contemplate ideas heard here later. This creates a certain threshold that prevents bored & angry anonymous forum writers from participation in our group (and we are very grateful for this fringe benefit)

  • Do you intend to discuss more concrete questions?

    We may entertain this proposition in the future (probably in format of different meetings or even separate subgroup). More concrete questions tend to provoke stronger reactions based on beliefs rather than rational dispassionate enquiry. They rarely uncover new truths or insights and more often than not degenerate into re-iteration of known points for and against. They also have relevance in particular context and can’t be generalized. And certainly are more subject to stronger influence from personal experience of participants.

    In other words, they are fun – but for now we’d like to keep our focus on Socratic inquiry.

  • I feel that some of the opinions and views expressed at the meetings are impolite or absurd or really outrageous?

    Isn’t it actually great – if you think about it carefully? How many other places or contexts you know where people feel free to express their opinion openly (without intentional desire to shock)? Did you ever think that our society became too politically correct and censorship has reached unheard before levels of sophistication – now we sensor some thoughts even before they appear in our mind… Isn’t it a greater danger than listening to some outrageous, absurd or poorly thought through opinions?

    Finally did you ever think what freedom of speech actually means? It does not mean that anyone can say everything you agree with :-). It means that everyone has a right to say something you actually hate to hear… And yes, you have this right (and responsibility) too…

  • Can I invite a friend?

    Absolutely. The more the merrier. If you know someone who will be interested in the type of discussions we have, feel free to invite him or her. Just emphasize that this is community for live face-to-face communication so if the goal is just to become a member of yet another group, I am sure your friend can find a more prestigious adornment and membership. Try to be honest with yourself and value your own time…

  • Do not all these conversations become too wayward and pointless in the end? Is it even possible to hold discussion with rigorous adherence to strict standards of logic and rationality nowadays outside of confines of highly trained and specialized experts?

    I suspect this question came from the department of philosophy of Ottawa University

    Yes, this is the greatest danger (besides not finding enough people in Ottawa interested in this group at all :-)Unfortunately entropy is unavoidable feature of the universe. And humans are very complex creatures that cannot be (and probably should not be) guided or controlled even with best intensions. Mind and curiously like to wonder and be flexible… More likely the skills or influence of the moderator will turned out to be inadequate (obviously not everyone has strength and clear vision of Socrates :-) Unwillingness of participants to adhere to socratic method and not to deviate into too abstract/esoteric or too unrelated topics is a danger too.

    In that case the group will mutate into something different (in which case we will change the name in order to be honest with ourselves) or die peacefully from neglect…

    Anyway, the founder realizes challenges and dangers lurking behind this high minded enterprise (and would like to make participants aware of them too). The original mission of this group is to remain specifically bounded by Socratic ethos and method of inquiry. Should he realize that we changed our minds or simply failed he will take steps to make it clear to all members and reflect this change in the name of the group.

  • What gives you right to call (or feel) yourself philosophers? Do you have relevant credentials or training?

    Presently you do not need a license to think, talk, ask questions and hold meetings in Canada (But check again in a a couple of years :-). We are also sufficiently self-confident to call ourselves whatever we like (which does not actually makes us those whom we choose to be called – as was shrewdly noticed by the author of the question :-)

    On the serious note, we truly believe that it is us who are philosophers, not those bright minds with Ph.Ds in academia. We actively ask, think and discuss, we do value and try to acquire wisdom (check origins of word “philosophy” in the dictionary) – so who has a better claim to that name than us! Maybe our methods of enquiry are not so rigorous and scientifically pure, but our discussions are alive and free of conflicts of interest (how many of those in academia can truly claim such status). So we feel it is actually closer in spirit to philosophy of Socrates...

    Or are you one of those who hold an opinion that ”thinking is too important task to delegate to amateurs”?

  • So is this another elitist group created for self-aggrandizement, another flavor of “intellectuals”, “mensa club”, “brights”, etc?

    The very tone of the question reflects a strange anti-intellectual attitude that permeates Western (and especially Northern American) society today. Since when asking questions or thinking about “meaning of life” started to be considered elitist and abnormal? In other societies and in other age (see Classic Greece or Romans in the Republican period) this was considered to be essential for every citizen.

    Majority of the people realize that in order to make a clay pot or build a house you need to have a clear plan. Why do the same people think then that “living a life” (let alone a good life) is a simple business which does not require careful thinking and continuous reflection? Do they have more than one life in store?

    Maybe it is just more convenient for many to succumb to going with the flow and to stick to TV screen that gives you all the answers, to label everyone who actually tries to find his own way as “intellectuals” and give up any responsibility for your own life ( we always have parents to blame anyway :-)

    If people in those groups are really who they claim to be they are most likely aware of how limited their knowledge is and hold no claim to diving truth or supreme knowledge. They are just people who like to involve in intellectual pursuits. This does not make them any better or any worse than group of hockey fans…Leave them alone or even better try to experience the joy of inquiry yourself. You may actually like it…

    So this is another group of people who like to think and to philosophize. Believe it or not they truly enjoy it! They have very diverse background, age, origin, IQ and social status. Socrates himself was poor and not particularly popular. So the only self-aggrandizement implied or intended exists in your mind.


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Ottawa Citizen article about Socrates Cafe August 12, 2009 10:17 PM Slava
About Ottawa Socrates Café November 16, 2009 8:29 PM Slava

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