Taking Philosophy to the Streets

Socrates is known for having brought philosophy down from the heavens and back into the cities, to the streets of Athens. In his own view, the examination of the self was necessary for a good individual life. But it was never an entirely individual affair. First of all, the questioning of one’s own beliefs was communal. It was through dialogue. But second, it was tied to a questioning of the communal beliefs. For where did one’s initial ideas, one prejudices, come from if not the community? The quest for individual enlightenment was thus never severed from the quest for an improvement of communal ideas. In improving one’s own thinking one contributes to the stock of ideas that are in the city and that influence it. Socrates understood himself as inextricably linked to his polis, so much so that he felt an obligation to follow the legal sentence against him and accept the death penalty rather than flee Athens. Why? Because of a tacit contract. Having benefited from the city’s education and protection, he owed allegiance if not to every ordnance of the polis then to its right to carry out justice on terms it deemed appropriate.

Socrates rightly saw individual reflection as tied to a questioning of the social order. In contemporary democracies, others, like Dewey, have argued that critical ethical and political reasoning is fundamental to a well-functioning civil society and democracy.

Taking our start from beliefs like these that philosophy isn’t just a professional academic discipline but that it can play a fundamental place in our daily lives, in September 2019, my wife, Sarah Jacob, and I began weekly community philosophy conversations as part of the Community Philosophy Forum. We have largely followed the template outlined in Christopher Phillips’ “Socrates Cafe,” a book that has helped launch a movement of public philosophy in the United States and beyond.

As the covid virus shut us down, we moved our community philosophy forum online. Since March 2020 we have met weekly. We gather with a core group of regular attendants and a few less regular guests. We vote on a topic on the evening of the event and have a focused discussion about it. These regular meetings with thoughtful extremely interesting group of people have made the lockdown somehow more tolerable for many of us. Some of us also habour the hope that these ideas might have some effect on our daily lives and our communities. If you think you’d like to join us, send me a note. We meet Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. EST.

Topics we’ve discussed include:

  • What is the value of trust?
  • Is shame ever useful?
  • What are our obligations to heal the world?
  • Do we have obligations to nature, and if so, which ones?
  • Do we have obligations to animals, and if so, which ones?
  • What is freedom?
  • Is all education indoctrination?
  • When if ever is censorship appropriate?
  • What is myth, What is reality, and how do they intersect?
  • What are the limits to freedom of speech?
  • What is the value of desire?
  • What is progressivism and what are prospects for it in America?

I’ve added blog posts (available below) on one or the other topic that we’ve discussed. With time, more will be added.