Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Cafés: overcoming barriers through philosophical discussion

Thursday, March 30, the College of William and Mary hosted Christopher Phillips ’81 at the Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center. Phillips led a discussion and provided insight from his career hosting democratic dialogues across the globe. He is a best-selling author and has experience as a U.S. State Department, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs speaker. 

“I believe that the philosophical enterprise must be imbued with open societies,” Phillips said. “I think open hearts and minds for individuals are completely connected to those of the society at large.” 

Phillips has sought to spread the value of receptive communication through the development of Socrates Cafés, a forum in which a facilitator invites discussion of complex moral and philosophical questions amongst a group. He first conceptualized the Socrates Café during the impeachment trials of President Bill Clinton. He believes individuals can play a role in overcoming broader conflict through improved conversation. 

“The Socrates Café, I started on a weekly basis in Montclair [New Jersey]. A bedroom community in New York City still meets after 27 years. Every Tuesday night, it’s still me and a little cozy coffeehouse,” Phillips said.

Since then, Phillips has vastly expanded his outreach, hosting Socrates Cafés in states where freedom of speech is restricted. Currently, 15 Socrates Cafés operate throughout Saudi Arabia, but participation is not without its challenges. He explained that one Saudi Arabian woman, living in the eastern province region of Katif, stopped attending Socrates Café meetings because she had gotten in trouble with her family. 

“[Saudi Arabian women] discussed at a Socrates café whether a woman should be able to choose to have a child or not. I mean, these are unheard of questions. They’re not just subtly subversive. They’re overtly subversive. But this is what they want to talk about and they’re taking ownership,” Phillips said. 

According to Phillips, many Saudi Arabian students have started their own covert Socrates Cafés, while ensuring that their teachers are unaware of their activities. 

“I’m also fascinated about what this portends for Saudi society. My publisher distributes books throughout the Middle East, but clearly, without articulating it overtly, they want more open selves in societies. This is what this kind of hunger, insatiable desire for questioning leads to,” Phillips said.

He noted he has received some pushback because of his travels to foster the development of Socrates Cafés in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, he believes that his travels there were valuable, with inquiry leading to societies with a greater degree of freedom. According to Phillips, participating in Socrates Cafés leads to greater civic engagement and different groups recognizing their commonalities. One of his favorite Socrates Café gatherings took place at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. 

“We talk about ‘ikigai,’ what makes life worth living,” Phillips said. “And that was the only time I ever had a discussion where the person who posed the question then said, ‘We don’t have ikigai in Japan. Life isn’t worth living.’ Well, so much for that dialogue. And I said, ‘Well, why?’ And again, the response was unforgettable. She goes, ‘we don’t have ikigai because somebody stole my bike.”

Phillips continued the story, sharing that the woman assumed that a young person must be responsible for the theft. The conversation amongst the group of women soon devolved into remarks about how young people lacked consideration for others. Soon after, a group of 11-year-olds walked by, wondering what led to the bombing Hiroshima and how such a horrific event could be prevented in the future. They discussed their plans for daily acts of kindness, which they would share through a chain letter.

“They felt that that was the way – their way – that they could sort of counteract any trends that would lead towards this type of shut-down, breakdowns of communication and demonization that could lead to what happened, that fanaticism there was” Phillips said. “And so the women on hand were just in thrall, that these young people had such caring concern and were so conscientious, and they changed their views of young people.” 

Phillips believes that people must be willing to hold conversations even with those who have vastly different perspectives. 

“It’s not really about winning the argument. It’s more about listening to each other, knowing that we all have stories,” said Sophie Kim ’24, an attendee of the event. 

To Phillips, individuals must maintain values of democracy and freedom since these concepts face strain everywhere, including in the United States.

“I think you just have to be forever vigilant, because if you don’t use your First Amendment rights, you can lose them really quickly. And human history shows that even demagogues can use the democratic mechanism to shut down open societies,” said Phillips. 

Abby Varricchio ’23, an event organizer, agrees that collective ideas must incorporate the active involvement of everyday citizens. 

I don’t think norms can truly become norms unless they are adopted by everyday people,” Varricchio said. “Democratic dialogue or civil discourse cannot continue to be seen as this untouchable idea that is almost presented as being in shining lights. People every day — on a variety of issues ranging from political to small things, like student club decisions — engage in working across differences and in polite discourse.”

Through forums such as the Socrates Café, Phillips believes that fruitful conversation can lead to greater openness both politically and on an interpersonal level.


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