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August 6, 2008

Socrates Café Philosophy Club: High on mind

Mapquest directions in my left hand and a loose grip on the steering wheel with my right, I scan Spring Street in Jeffersonville for some kind of philosophy-magnetic café. As I have the same inherited sense of direction that, let’s say, a donut has, my journey to the meeting place is filled with the chaos of finding myself driving down a one-way street the wrong way. Multiple times. Phenomenally, I make it to my destination unharmed, and, as far as I know, no one else is debilitated in the process. I am professionally early, yet so, so naïve. 

I walk into Perkfection Café & Bar preparing for a schooling on the intricate philosophies of history’s most known and respected theorists. In the days leading up to the meeting, I spent quite a few hours Googling and Wikipedia-ing (don’t judge) multiple-millennia-year-old philosophers and struggling to comprehend the meaning of their tangents. Little did I know, Socrates Café is a discussion group, which means I am to arrive with my own opinion and my own logical process of thinking. Crap.

For many people, especially in today’s society of science, technology and an assumed arrogance that we have reached the highest level of human thinking, the idea that there are still “philosophers” who sit, discuss and reflect on the ever-so-tantalizing question of “why” is ludicrous. To these people, a philosopher is a decrepit old man sporting a toga. We are easily proven ignorant. 

There are more than 150 Socrates Cafés throughout the country. The club evolved out of a group created by Christopher Phillips called “The Society for Philosophical Inquiry,” which explores enlightenment of the human thought process and, most importantly, our ability to discuss. The concept responsible for the club’s far-reaching mojo is understanding philosophical inquest — the ability to deeply contemplate and converse — and giving it to the everyday person, not just the man in the argyle-print vest with a Ph.D. in both philosophy and something arrogant like Medieval folklore. The atmosphere at Socrates Café is safe from judgment and bitterness. The design is to manipulate how you think and how you reach the conclusions that you do, not tell you what to think.

I, unfortunately, did not get the chance to globetrot to all 150 meetings on a recent Tuesday. I may be good, but I’m not that good. However, the summit I attend turns out to be immensely gratifying and as enlightening as any book I’ve read. Contrary to my assumption of a congregation of old, monotonous males, Perkfection is filled with a rainbow of different folks with the intent to embolden their sponge minds even further: There are people aging from their early, barely-budding teens to their late; people from all levels of education and from all sorts of socioeconomic statuses. The group is eclectic and — real shocker here — without want for a variety of thoughts and opinions. 

As the hour nears 7, the din of salutations fizzles, and there enters an air of anticipation for the approaching two hours. Those who notice me, the new girl, quickly give me the down-low on the rules and brace me for my very near future: Before the discussion, someone volunteers or the group votes on a moderator who makes sure that passionate discussion doesn’t regress into heated argument. Respect and rationality are key to effective dialogue. Check. 

The topics of discussion are never known before its commencement. People throw out ideas, and the rest of the group votes for which they feel will be more conversationally gratifying. The subject matter never pertains to current events — those discussions trend toward a “my facts vs. your facts” debate and oftentimes aren’t remotely rewarding. Check. 

Finally, you cannot speak unless called upon by the moderator, or unless addressed by someone else who has the floor. Check. 

Our topic: Does the act of introversion and ostracizing oneself for the purpose of inward reflection make someone a better citizen? This is what many people from this area would call a “whopper.” I begin to wonder if there was ever a real time where I practiced introversion, and whether the effect was good or bad. Then comes the time for me to question what makes someone a good citizen: to do strictly what the law instructs? The conversation squirms and wiggles all over the mental plane. There is no answer. It’s a good thing this isn’t a debate. 

In an American era when, arguably, we have lost our ability to effectively argue, unanimous concern for respect is abundant here. These people are more interested in how the other person arrives at a conclusion than what the conclusion actually is. The most important concept is discussion, not debate, so by the time the session is over and the Perkfection employee has kicked you out, you’re frenzied from a psychedelic array of deep shit you never contemplated before. From a disconnected bystander’s point of view: A discussion with Socrates Café is like an intellectual acid trip.  


Jess Mahanes is going to be a freshman at Ball State University and loves cheesy Kurt Russell movies and tie-dyed clothing.