Café Philo, or Philo Café, allows you to explore issues in a safe, friendly setting with other people, giving an opportunity to speak of those ideas you consider important and interesting and to listen and contribute to the ideas of others. It has been said that discussion in a Philo Café is ‘doing thinking’. Such gatherings of course have their origins in 5th Century BC Athens with Socrates. In the UK the 17th Century became a particularly vibrant time for philosophers, the Coffee House culture providing opportunities for them to meet in a neutral space.
The first Café Philo of modern times is said to have been held in 1992 at the iconic Café de Flore in Paris. This venue continues to attract young and old, professional and amateur philosophers who go along for an evening of wine, coffee and lively discussion. In true democratic style topics are offered and selected by the participants.
Since word of the success of the Café Flore spread, Philo Cafés have sprung up around the world.
In the UK, the French Institutes have established cafés in Scotland (in Edinburgh and Glasgow, building on the tradition of Francophile David Hume) and in London, but others have set up cafés in cities such as Bournemouth, Bristol and Bath. Small communities, such as Cromford in Derbyshire, where the Café is in a Bookshop, and in Cowes Library on the Isle of Wight, have created their own.
Some take more account of academic philosophy, others a more practical, critical approach to thinking and talking together about the big questions in life: much depends on those who go along but a philosophical underpinning to discussion is what sets the Philo Café movement apart from other discussion groups.
In Cowes, a small post industrial community, the Philo Café began in the town Library which, when threatened with closure because of national and local Government cuts, was able to remain open because volunteers sought to offer a wide range of activities to attract wider use of the building and its resources and to raise additional funds to preserve its services.
Only the University of the Third Age, intended essentially for older people, offered an Island-based opportunity for focused philosophical discussion on the Island, its sessions inclining to the more academic. As a Trustee of the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy it seemed a good idea, in 2015, to see if a Philo Café, with an entirely different approach to philosophising, might be of interest to the wider Island community of 142,000 souls.
Sponsored by the SFCP and the Supporters of Cowes Library and with the invaluable help of the Librarians, the Café meets 8 – 10 times a year and is frequented by people from across the Island. We don’t offer wine or beer (and perhaps the coffee wouldn’t always meet exacting French standards) but a core group of 15 or so aged from mid-twenty to 80 yr olds – is now established. There is a more casual attendance by those with Island holiday homes or holiday makers and those who work away for much of the time.
With students, actors, physiotherapists, teachers and builders amongst the participants, the broad range of experience and interests enhances discussion which is usually focused on a pre-arranged topic selected by one of the group, often with an alternative taking account of an item of current concern.
Topics have included questions or statements about unselfish acts, friendship, choice and tolerance, raising and have provoked lively exchanges.
In March 2018 a choice of ‘Patience’ or ‘Conflict’ was on the table but the evening, by the decision of the participants, was devoted to a lively discussion on social responsibility in a society where permitted corporate investment in statutory services was proving contentious locally and nationally.
The approach at the Philo Café is in the Socratic tradition: one or more participants offer, from their own experience, an example pertinent to the topic. With an emphasis on careful listening and thoughtful engagement, the proceedings reflect the Socratic Dialogue methods as practised in the UK, Germany and The Netherlands with an emphasis on examining critically our actions and the values which underpin them.
Some members have a strong background in philosophy and are able to bring this to the less experienced. A brief, anonymised account of the 2 hr discussion is circulated by the Convenor – who also acts informally as a facilitator, having trained in group work in other settings. Participants often pursue their conversations after the session, either briefly outside the building or, especially for the younger ones, in a local pub. Sometimes discussion continues by email.
Anyone who is willing to listen and speak in an open friendly way is welcome and, for the most part, discussions are harmonious. When there is strong disagreement it is increasingly the case that regular attendees will refer to Socratic practice: the group is becoming increasingly self-regulating.
For those communities like the Island’s which are unable easily to arrange Socratic Dialogues, a Philo Café can be a good introduction to philosophizing and can encourage sufficient interest for members to apply to attend facilitated Socratic Dialogues elsewhere. In the case of the Cowes group this means (expensive!) travel to the Mainland; ideally, at some stage, there will be a facilitator to lead an SD group on the Island.
Of course Socratic Dialogue groups are not only found in the UK but also in Germany and the Netherlands and, in part thanks to the support of SFCP, in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia and Italy.
Details can be found on the SFCP website of Socratic Dialogues and other activities you might like to join.
If you are unable to attend any of the existing Cafés, or find a Socratic Dialogue group near you, I would encourage anyone interested in starting a Philo Café to give it a try.
Do look at the internet to see if there is a Café near you – and, if not, find a few others who are interested in philosophy and think about starting one together.
As one Cowes Philo Café participant remarked, ‘It’s wonderful to have a proper conversation about things that matter!’
Dorothy Moir, Trustee, SFCP , Convenor, Cowes Philo Café