Adriana’s piece is the winner of our 2015 Academic Contest. 

Esther Charabati, coordinator of the oldest café-philo in Mexico City, defines café-philo as a space built on ideas, opinions, and doubts of people who meet at a coffee shop—public space par excellence, she says—and who debate on subjects they consider important but who do not often discuss because of lack of time or a proper arena. It is neither a philosophy class nor a parade of philosophical ideas through history but “coffeshop philosophy,” guided by a philosopher who does not intend the participants to (only) “learn” but to dialogue and to make them come to conclusions by themselves. Her job is to induce “philosophical moments” in which participants go from just an opinion to an original thought, to elucidate concepts alongside them and to face them with their own prejudices. The café-philo is like a small democracy, says Charabati, in which everybody tries to get philosophical insights from each other.

Although catastrophists still sometimes use the idea as a sociological boogie man, we know that smartphones and social media haven’t ended with face to face relationships, and furthermore, culture is being shared now more than in any other age because of the internet. It is almost a truism already.

However, if Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Youtube are environments where conversations, debate and deliberation take place, is the idea of a global cyber-café-philo possible? One may say that when we discuss politics, defend some cause or theorize on the nature of some relationship or artistic work, with no other intention than to understand and/or explain things, we are philosophizing on a sort of natural, maieutic fashion, right?

Is that practical philosophy running wild through the net and dispensing with the academic, “true” philosophy? If not, should it be? why? or more importantly, how? Who gets to decide what it is?

Academic philosophers will always watch from the corner, reluctant before the idea of taking philosophy out of its habitat, although programmes, books, lecture halls and traditional classrooms would not precisely die by doing so. They recommend caution: philosophy should not be minimized, trivialized, played with on social media. It should not be reduced to famous quotes or memes, some say.

However, should we philosophers keep being just the weird guys of the classroom who converse only with their comrades? Shouldn’t we be the risk takers—as once we were—and discuss any idea, no matter how deep, controversial, politically incorrect or dangerous, with anybody? Is not that our job anymore?

I remember how keen some of my college teachers were on telling us that philosophy was an end in itself, and that it should be treated as such: “When you are questioned about the ‘use’ of philosophy, you should answer that there is none, for it is knowledge for knowledge’s sake.”

I strongly disagreed and still do.

Today, more than ever, we philosophers should re-think the social dimension of our activity, and not necessarily in order to defend our discipline against threats like funding cuts or zombies’ invasions, but to open to new ways of doing things and new purposes. Perhaps it is not even a matter of opening to new ways and purposes but to just re-embrace that old maieutic on the one hand, and diversity on the other. We do not necessarily have to be clowns to try and help people to live wisely, well and open-minded, if not happily.

When was the last time we changed somebody’s life through philosophical insight? Was it the life of a philosopher or the life of a non-philosopher? When was the last time a philosopher took the public stage to make a stand, not for philosophy “as an end on itself” but for those who may look for enlightenment and solace in it? Was that philosopher criticized for turning philosophy into a cheap political speech, a well-paid talk or (heaven forbid!) a best-seller book?

The director of the street-theater group I once performed with used to spirit us up by recalling that we weren’t playing for experts in acting but for people in general, from moms and their kids to grandparents and couples holding hands. Our goal was not to only achieve perfect moves but to move.

Similarly, I don’t worry if there are some musicians in the audience when I play a gig with my band. I know they always expect me to make a mistake—and they are right, there’s always a chance of missing a note, triggering the wrong delay or getting undesired feedback.

What happens when philosophers perform only for philosophers? It seems that, despite our intentions—or pretentions—to attain almighty objectivity in relation to whatever issues we engage with, we end up being the mean sibling to each other very often within the philosophy communityat least in Mexico. “Teams,” methodologies or political groups divide academia almost in the same way as in any environment fueled by certain competition.

Nevertheless, we insist on auto-consuming ourselves. We listen to each other’s talks, read each other’s dissertations, buy each other’s books—mostly published by college, of course. It is safe. But, is that really the only dynamics of our system?

Alas, our auto-consuming circuit makes academic philosophy look like a dog chasing its tail, for there are a vast number of people seeking accessible and “useful” philosophy, and the ones who provide them with some philosophical service may not even hold a philosophy degree, e.g. the international organization New Acropolis, in which seminars, lectures and workshops could be offered by psychologists, lawyers, even accountants, sometimes trained by the organization itself. But then again, they are free to call what they do “practical philosophy,” aren’t they?

Tom V. Morris, one of the most active philosophers in the world, says in Twisdom how social media philosophy, especially the one originated on Twitter, is made by everyone for everyone. It’s not only about celebrities, tweet-stars or our tweep’s lunch, but about community and new wisdom:

“In an age of new, immediate media, wonderful and terrible things are possible. We need perhaps more wisdom than ever to deal with it all, and to make of the possibilities available something good. That’s one thing Twitter has been able to provide in a novel way—a social space where new wisdom can develop through real-time interaction among people all over the world, and older insights about life can be propagated to those who need them, ideas and perspectives that are relevant to what we’re now seeing, hearing and living. The media help create a world that requires new wisdom, and fortunately they also provide new ways for that wisdom to arise.”

Of course, before Twitter, unorthodox—at least in the eyes of academia– sources of advice and thoughts for self-reflection could be found not only in books, but in different organizations and counseling practices that pursued a “useful” philosophy, while challenging the traditional vision of philosophical and psychological practice.

When Lou Marinoff published Plato, Not Prozac in 1999, his philosophical counseling movement was criticized for being too pop-philosophy, and for enabling practitioners of the mental health fields to say that their clients were being put at risk by the potentially dangerous advices of those philosophers/counselors Marinoff put forward.

Nonetheless, in 1997 Marinoff thought that “The world is more complex now and that is why philosophers are in more demand. Philosophy doesn’t belong in the classroom anymore. It’s only an historical accident that it got institutionalized. Let’s hope it can go into remission and become useful again.” According to the eternal wisdom to everyday problems offered by his best-seller, “Something as simple as dialogue with another caring individual is a balm in many cases. It isn’t expertise that makes a good counselor; expertise isn’t even necessary. More important is the ability to listen, to empathize, to understand what another person is saying, to offer some new way of looking at it, and to proffer solutions or hope.”

Almost two decades earlier, in 1981, the German philosopher Gerd B. Achenbach started receiving “visitors” (not clients) in his office, the first in Europe offering a non-therapy alternative to psychotherapy.

According to Shlomit C. Schuster, Achenbach refused to turn his open-conversation-based service into a strict method:

“Nevertheless, one can present descriptions, ‘road signs’, that give directions to other philosophers aiming to imitate his successful and responsible advice to people searching for meaning or solutions in problematic situations. Of these road signs, four basic ones are as follows:

  1. The sincere communication between the philosophical practitioner and the visitor, based on a ‘beyond-method’ method.
  2. The importance of dialogue, as that which enlivens and flows from being.
  3. ‘Auslegen’—a looking for explanations—in which the practitioner becomes united with the problem, not by imparting his own understanding of it, but by giving the visitor a fresh impulse to explain him or herself.
  4. The innovative component of dialogue, the element of wonder in philosophical practice, which does not allow for fixed viewpoints, standard attitudes or permanent solutions.”

Consequently, Achenbach founded a society for philosophical praxis in 1982, and his model was followed afterwards all over Europe and even Australia, Korea and South Africa, where societies for philosophical practice were created. According to the Philosophical Counseling Web, some of them adopted an M.A. degree in philosophy as a minimal professional standard, given that “there is no formal education for this profession.”

Actually, inspired by Achenbach’s private philosophy practice, the French philosopher Marc Sautet began what has become known as the philosophical cafés movement by founding the first Café-Philo in the Paris Café des Phares; an organization “Association Les Amis du Cabinet de Philosophie” and the society’s journal “Philos.”

According to Schuster, “Sautet presented no methods or techniques on how the dialogue should be held, but there are a few guidelines:

  1. The philosopher asks the café visitors which topics they would like to discuss.
  2. One of these topics is chosen by the group.
  3. The philosopher contributes to the discussion by asking questions or by giving a philosophical interpretation; essentially his or her task is to facilitate the dialogue.”

Shlomit C. Schuster herself has a key place in the history of philosophical counseling. Established in Jerusalem but inspired by an idea of Chad Varah, founder of the British suicide-prevention telephone line and of the charity “The Samaritans,” Schuster founded Center Sophon in 1989 which, according to her LinkedIn profile was “founded with the aim of promoting the practice of philosophy in all areas of living…providing persons with information through lectures or written material on philosophical counseling.”

One of Center Sophon’s services is the “Philoso-phone,” created in 1990, a first-aid-line for ethical dilemmas and existential problems based on “befriending” those who called looking for help, i.e. offering them “friendship (philo) combined with wisdom (sophia)” although “sometimes people are happy with just one of these possibilities.” Even when some people refuse to philosophize, befriending them was an effective technique in order to avoid suicides or even murders.

An interesting service Schuster provides is “philosophical entertainment:” “For birthday parties, weddings, and all other happy or important occasions you can invite me to lead a philosophical discussion on your choice or that of your guests.” However, for those who cannot meet her at Center Sophon in Jerusalem, she is available via Skype.

How many philosophers are really catching up with new technologies, and using the internet to get in touch with non-philosophers?

If we still believe that the Web can contribute to broaden and deepen our intellectual horizons, is the idea of a global cyber-café-philo possible? The book Facebook and Philosophy: What’s on Your Mind? not only asks, “Can our interactions on Facebook help us care about each other more?” it also makes a call to action: “People are not always great fun. People are sometimes difficult and frustrating. And if we expect people to be a source of interesting and meaningful discussion, we might be disappointed, unless we are willing to start those conversation ourselves.”

Well, in that spirit, I compared philosophy with chicken soup once, during a conference. I specifically asked if our discipline was still willing to be of help for people, in the way self-help books like Chicken Soup for the Soul did. I meant to stir up a hornets’ nest, and I did, for half the audience disagreed and branded my talk as “just literature.”

I knew beforehand academia is a minefield for sense of humor, and that my words would get lost in translation. Thus, I decided to bring Richard Rorty to the party at the end of my talk: “Literature,” says Rorty, “is more important than philosophy in a very concrete aspect: it seeks moral progress, it makes us more sensitive and helps us deepen our understanding of the world’s diversity.” According to him, poets and novelists share common ground with engineers, because they all fulfill the maxim of “The highest amount of happiness for the highest number of people. The former are the ones who can teach us how to be kinder and more tolerant.”

It is not a matter of embellishment of ideas—at least not exclusively. In the end, if philosophers desire to spread the word about their wisdom, I see no harm in expressing and sharing ideas in a warmer way. Even with a touch of humor.

The Lighthearted Philosophers’ Society (LPS), for example, “is an organization for philosophers who approach their work with a sense of humor.” And I would not have found about them if it was not for the internet, the tool that modern (and unorthodox) philosophers such as Alain de Botton, Julian Baggini or Slavoj Žižek are using as part of their stage.

The question surrounding the goals and tasks of philosophy remains. However, if we are still willing to help others, what will you do after reading this?

Featured Image courtesy of Kaboompics