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Drinks & Thinks

More news from the philosophy cafés and pubs, compiled by Bryn Williams.

Peter B. Raabe of Vancouver on his experiences of running a philosophy coffee shop.

If you travel by car Deep Cove is situated about twenty minutes north of the bustling metropolis of Vancouver on the west coast of Canada. My wife and I occasionally drive out there on a Sunday afternoon to escape the hysterical heartbeat of the city, to stroll along the edge of the placid salt waters of the inlet, and to have a relaxed cup of steaming coffee on a well-worn wooden bench beneath an overhanging oak tree. But once a month the stillness of the Cove is imperiled by the impassioned debate of the members of the Pages philosophical discussion group.

Pages is a little café that offers its customers the best of two worlds: books and coffee. The place is divided into a front room where the coffee bar and most of the books are located, and an adjacent room in which one finds a circle of comfortable sofas and high-backed armchairs. On the second Wednesday of every month the aroma of freshly brewed coffee is joined by the many flavours of philosophical perspectives.

As the facilitator of the group I see my job as being sort of a referee. I make sure that ad hominems are kept to a minimum, that anyone who wants to speak gets the chance to do so, and that we don’t forget to take a coffee break. I tell participants that I’m there simply to prevent fist fights. Despite the fact that I have a degree in philosophy I refuse to be the authority figure to whom they can turn for the ‘correct’ answers. The inquiry group is an eclectic mix of young and old men and women with a variety of cultural, academic, and occupational backgrounds.

I ask for suggestions for a discussion topic, and I write down the six that are offered. We then take a vote and the two which have received the most votes are voted on once more. The topic chosen is “What is the ideal human being?” At first there is silence. People seem to be trying to come up with the perfect sentence that will say it all. I suggest that we’re not here to state conclusions. I remind them that this is a complex topic and we might want to begin by simply offering some thoughts we have on the matter. Various participants then begin to suggest criteria for what might constitute the ideal human, such as that he or she ought to be a good citizen, a good mother or father, an educated person, and so on. I then asked those individuals who have offered these criteria to explain why they think these attributes are important. Historical figures such as Buddha, Christ, Gandhi and others are offered as paradigm cases of ideal human beings. I ask why these men have been mentioned and not, say, Hitler. Someone says Hitler was certainly a good citizen; he was good to children; and he seemed to be fairly well educated. If we go by the criteria we set earlier, Hitler would qualify as an ideal human being. So someone suggests that perhaps the most important quality of the ideal person is love and empathy, which Hitler may have had, but had not shown to everyone equally. Someone asks whether the ideal person would give love equally to all. One of the women says that the qualities of love and empathy are very nebulous and that we needed to define them if we are to make sense of the ideal person. Another woman asks whether these two things, love and empathy, aren’t synonymous. A third woman asks whether you can be an ideal person without either of these two qualities. Discussion carries on in this vein, in pursuit of the truth of the matter of the ideal human being.

Suddenly the retired army major stirs uncomfortably in his chair, gives out a snort, and announces that he thinks this discussion about love and empathy has gone far enough. He says he is tired of it, and asks if we can go on to something more sensible. I’m not the only one in the room surprised by his abrupt declaration. The surprise comes from the fact that I am used to working with university students who will obediently discuss an issue as long as the instructor desires it. Here, in the public venue of the café, I have no right to insist that discussion continue. But it also seems to me unacceptable for this one man to dictate either when discussion should end, or when a topic should be abandoned. A second elderly man agrees with the first, adding that this is not the sort of discussion he has come for. He also suggests that perhaps what I’m ‘really’ after is to prove to everyone that I’m the ideal human being.

I assure him that I have no such hidden agenda, that we have all simply come here for discussion, and that there is no need to end it just yet. So I ask the rest of the group for a show of hands as to who would like to continue with this topic. The group votes unanimously to carry on. But before continuing I give the two men permission not to participate if they are tired of the topic. The group is happy to continue, and the men have saved face.

In thinking about this incident later I realize that their attempt to end discussion may have been based on one or all of four possible factors: first, they had been uncomfortable with the topic of love and empathy; second, the women in the group were far more at ease with this topic than the men, leaving the men feeling left out; third, I was making a point of allowing the women to speak freely, something these military men were not used to; and finally, they may have come to the end of their ability to follow the thread of discussion to the depth we had taken it.

I remind everyone that philosophical inquiry is hard work, that it takes practice and skill to stay on topic for long periods of time. I commend them all for the effort they are putting into it. I then call for a ‘time out’, in which we can have our coffees, cookies, and smokes. Discussion of the topic continues during coffee break.

During the second hour we discuss the question of whether we are living under ‘necessary illusions’. This metamorphoses into a discussion in political philosophy concerning democracy and the illusion of the voting public that they have some sort of power over their governments. This topic is vigorously attacked by the elderly men, but some of the women admit to lacking an interest in it. The feeling is that politics is removed from everyday life, and discussion in this area is therefore just so much theory with no practical application. I ask one of them whether trying to be the ideal human being, the one we had discussed in the first hour, isn’t also trying to live a necessary illusion. This brings more of the women back into the fray.

Of course neither topic is ‘resolved’. There is no ‘right answer’ to which we all agreed in the end. Most are comfortable with this, although one or two did ask near the end where we had gotten to. I then make a point of trying to summarize, with the help of the group, some of the main points we have agreed to and disagreed on, what needs more thought, and what seems fairly obvious and therefore non-contentious to most of us. Participants are reluctant to part when nine o’clock arrives, and discussion spills out into the street and up and down the block in both directions.

Of the seventeen people who took part many had been to a previous meeting and had planned to make an evening of it. But some admit to me afterwards they had only come in to satisfy their thirst for coffee and their curiosity, and found themselves, with coffee in hand, unable to tear themselves away from the discussion. Of all the many people who seemed to simply wander in off the street, not one had left before the meeting was ended.

© Peter B. Raabe 1998

(The venue has since moved from Pages to Starbucks – see box for details)

Philosophy Now Pub Philosophy

Bryn Williams reports on some enjoyable evenings down at the philosophical pub.

Philosophy Now Pub Philosophy evenings are held fortnightly at a pub called the Clachan, close to Carnaby Street; it seems as if they are becoming an established part of the philosophical nightlife in London’s West End.

Our meeting on April 27th considered the question ‘Is Ignorance Bliss?’. This question contained several underlying issues, not least of which was the invitation to reflect on why we were gathered that evening if it is better not to know too much. The inherent ambiguity of the question was analysed for some time. Ignorance of what? Absolute ignorance, or just an optimum degree of ignorance? Occasional ignorance – as when one drinks to forget – or permanent ignorance – as when one manages to thoroughly repress from conscious memory an unhappy event? The first half of the evening was mostly concerned with these problems, and eventually (just in time for the break) the idea was crystallised into the question, ‘Why not live the easy life?’, in the sense of why go out of one’s way to identify and wrestle with problems, if it is possible to maintain at least a reasonable degree of blissful ignorance.

After the break this question was robustly taken up. It was pointed out that an aspect of the easy life is to ignore, or feign ignorance of, the problems of others. This pointed to the fact that in an unequal society (as all are) not all have the option of leading an easy life, so ultimately choosing an easy life is an avoidance of ones responsibilities as a member of a broader community. This sparked a tangentially related discussion of the relation between individual and collective, along with some interesting sociopolitical history, and the revelation that there were more than a few unreconstructed Utopians amongst us (myself included). So, is Ignorance Bliss? If I don’t tell you can you stand not knowing?

On 12th May we again saw a good turnout, and some more new faces come together to discuss the role of religion in society. The discussion was enhanced by some very knowledgeable contributions regarding the history and origins of the central religious creeds in the Western tradition. A particular observation that the Catholic tradition contained a deep concern with the problem of doubt raised issues concerning the different epistemological criteria which are applied in relation to empirical ‘scientific’ knowledge and the exercise of faith. Faith is a subjective conviction, defined in psychological terms, and is seen as ‘under attack’ from considerations of the material world. Empirical knowledge is considered to be objective, and underwritten by a greater understanding of the material world. These different bases for knowledge claims appear to distinguish the religious and the scientific.

However, this distinction raised questions about whether our modern acceptance of scientific knowledge may not itself be an article of faith. There ensued a spirited discussion between those who sought to defend the objective nature of scientific knowledge as independent of subjective influences, and those who were sceptical.

Later on the conversation broadened out to consider the role of belief systems in cultures, and the degree to which identifying oneself with a culture was also identifying with a specific world view. Other ideas considered were the power of the notion of an afterlife (classical accounts of Heaven make it sound boring) and a consideration of Pascal’s wager: believing in an afterlife is a ‘no lose’ situation.

The discussion came to an unorthodox close as we agreed to finish the evening by remaining in a collection of small groups (after a late break) and indulge in smaller, more immediate, conversation. By the end of the evening I believe every one felt that they had considered the issue more deeply, and from more angles, than had been the case before.

Finally, I would like to announce the creation of the official Pub Philosophy Website! Thanks to Ted Welch, we now have the ultimate accessory for the latter part of the Twentieth Century. You can find it at http://www.wmin.ac.uk/media/pubphil

© Brayan R. Williams 1998

The Good Pub & Café Guide

Philosophy Now Pub Philosophy. The Clachan, 34 Kingly St, London W1. Nearest tube: Oxford Circus. 25th August 7pm- 9.30pm. Fortnightly. Cost £2. Info: (01473) 240185

• Costa Café Society Philosophy. Downstairs at Costa Café, Old Compton St, London W1. 7th Sept, 21st Sept 7.30pm. Fortnightly. Cost £2. Info: Bryn Williams 0118-926 4141

• Kant’s Cave. The First & Last, 4 Dover St, London. Nearest tube: Green Park. Lecture followed by informal discussion. First Wednesday of each month. Info.: 0181-675 5539

• Café Philosophique at the Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT. Nearest tube: South Kensington. 26th Sept, 17th Oct, 21st Nov, 12th Dec, starting 11am and 3pm on each date. (11am sessions on 17th Oct and 12th Dec in French, all other sessions in English). Cost £2 (£1 for students/ members of the Institut français). Info: Thibaut Landier 0171-838 2167

• Phil. Soc. of England Pub Philosophy Meeting – The Slurping Toad, 34-36 Ludgate Hill, London. Monday, 7th Sept 7pm.

• South London Phil. Circle – Latchmere Pub, 503 Battersea Park Road, London SW11. Sunday 6th September, 12.30 pm: How does philosophy change the world? Sunday 4th October, 12.30 pm: Eastern Philosophy. Info: Ray Billington 0171-924 2270

• Café Philo, Bath. Held at 7.30pm on 1st Monday each month in the wine bar at the Francis Hotel, Queen Square, Bath. Topic announced beforehand. Info: Gerard Kilroy 01225-464313.

• Vancouver: Monthly at Starbucks coffee shop, 131 W. Esplanade. 23rd September 7 – 9 pm. Info from Peter Raabe on (604) 986-9446 or Starbucks on (604) 986-3797.

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