Jolly Good Philo

The Socrates Cafe phenomenon: Harmless variation on the reading group concept or idle slackers? You be the judge.

In France there’s a tradition of philos sitting in cafes for hours discussing everything in the world. Not so here. Americans are generally supposed to be productively engaged in making, buying, servicing, or selling something. Don’t ask why.

But ever since author Christopher Phillips’ Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (Norton, $23.95) was published in order to “return philosophy to the people, where it belongs,” the book has gone a long way toward reviving the lost art of conversation. The formula is simple: organize a loose group of interested people, meet in a hospitable public place, and ask a multitude of questions. That’s exactly what Sean Sturgeon, a 38-year-old Oakland native, did when he suddenly found himself with time on his hands after, as he puts it, “I blew out my shoulder slinging buckets” as a recycling truck driver. Last April, Sturgeon held his first Socrates meeting at the Alley on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Five people showed up: two landlords, two tenants, and himself. The topic was a variant of “Do the right thing.” Since then, Sturgeon’s Socrates group (there are others in Rockridge, Berkeley, and Walnut Creek, all organized along guidelines on the Society for Philosophical Inquiry Web site, has moved to Colonial Donuts on Lakeshore Avenue, and now, on Thursday, December 5 (7 p.m.), to a new place, the Lakeside Cafe, 504 Wesley Ave., near Brooklyn Avenue, in the Lake Merritt neighborhood.

So is the Socrates Donuts, soon to be the Socrates Lakeside, any different than a bunch of cranks sitting around shooting the bull? “Not a whit,” laughs Sturgeon. A typical meeting has anywhere from five to twelve participants, evenly divided between men and women in the twenties-to-sixties age range, a diverse group drawing heavily from the arts-film-academic backgrounds — this being Lake Merritt. Recent topics, decided upon beforehand by networking, were “What is privacy?” and “What is pornography?” Says Sturgeon: “When you throw a subject out there in front of a group of strangers, they’re going to call you on it. People have these passions, and they’re not passive. It goes beyond a chat room.” Interested? Contact [email protected]

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