The Socrates Caf? Method

The following information was excerpted from Socrates Caf? by Christopher Phillips, and from the website of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry (

What are Socrates Caf?s?

Developed by the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, Socrates Caf?s take place at coffee houses, libraries, hospices, senior centers, prisons, bookstores, homeless shelters, schools and more. The Socrates Caf? method of dialogue (based on Socrates' ways of facilitating learning through continuous questioning) is spontaneous yet rigorous, and inspires participants to articulate and discover their unique philosophical perspectives and worldview. The Caf?s encourage participants to become more autonomous thinkers and more engaged and empathetic citizens.

Socrates Caf?s provide a type of philosophic practice and ethos that all too often is missing nowadays both from academia and the so-called "outside world." It is a method of vibrant philosophical inquiry that anyone can take for her or his own. While accessible to anyone, it is a method that requires rigorous work, and it often leaves curious souls with more questions than they had at the outset of inquiry.

The Caf?s consist of a type of spontaneous yet rigorous dialogue that inspires people to articulate and discover their unique philosophical perspectives and worldview, and at the same time helps create a more deliberative and participatory democracy. They invite diverse viewpoints and require engaged and empathetic listening. They don't force or forge artificial consensus or closure, but rather are open-ended and can be considered a success if there are more questions at the end than there were at the outset.

Tips for Facilitating a Socrates Caf?

Now that you've found a coffeehouse or bookstore or other suitable venue to hold a Socrates Caf? on a regular basis, one burning question you likely have is: How do I facilitate a Socrates Caf??

What kind of question is appropriate?

In a Socrates Caf?, just about any question can be grist for a meaningful dialogue.

How do we decide on a question for discussion?

Ask the participants for questions. Encourage them to propose for Socratic discourse absolutely any question that is on their minds. Their questions don't at all have to be traditional ones. Read all the questions aloud to the participants, and then ask them to vote for the one about which they feel least expert and most perplexed.

How do I launch a discussion on the chosen question?

At the outset, let a few of the participants respond to the question in any way they please. But just when they think it's safe to assume that this is going to be a free-for-all confab without any underlying method - start probing the question in a Socratic way. That is, examine it for: 1) built-in assumptions, 2) embedded concepts, 3) differences of kind and degree, and logical consistencies and inconsistencies. Then try to seek out compelling objections and alternative viewpoints.

How do I find the question's built-in assumptions?

For example, when a participant asks an apparently deep question like "How can we overcome alienation?" you need to challenge the premise of the question at the outset. You may ask: Is alienation something we always want to overcome? Shakespeare and Goethe may have written their timeless works because they embraced a sense of alienation rather than attempting to escape it.

Where are the concepts embedded in this question?

To probe the question of overcoming alienation, you first need to ask and answer such questions as: What is alienation? What does it mean to overcome alienation? Why would we ever want to overcome alienation? By separating out the concepts and exploring them individually, everyone will get to see the question from a new perspective.

What are examples of exploring "differences of kind and degree?"

In response to the alienation question, you might ask: Are there some types of alienation that you want to overcome and other types that you do not at all want to overcome but rather want to incorporate into yourself? What are some of the many different types of alienation? How do they differ? But also, what are the aspects that link them? Is it possible to be completely alienated?

How do I know there will be alternative views?

You may think you already can predict the responses. But you and everyone else probably will be surprised by just how diverse and eye-opening they will be. In exploring the meaning of the terms they use, participants will reveal and articulate philosophies of basic concepts they might take for granted. This is what makes for a spontaneous and thrilling discussion.

How do I deal with people who monopolize the conversation or who do not show respect for other participants?

Since Socrates Cafes are typically held in public places, anybody is welcome to participate. It is very important to create an environment in which all participants feel comfortable to participate and listen. If one of the participants seems to dominate the discussion and often interrupts others, the facilitator needs to be assertive and make sure that others have their say as well.

If necessary, you may want to talk in private with the person and point out gently that he or she needs to be more considerate of others who also want to have their say. You should explain that quiet or shy people may feel intimidated if they are interrupted by more aggressive personalities and that you want to create and maintain a safe, caring, and supportive environment for all the participants.

How can I encourage people to speak?

A good facilitator can create a healthy environment for exchange by setting an example for others. First and foremost, a good facilitator must be a very engaged listener. You need to be actively listening to what each participant is saying at the time; do not project how you are going to respond or what you will ask next.

Also, make sure that all the people who want to participate have a chance to do so; look for body language or hand signals from people who want to speak. They may make a gesture to indicate that they have something to say, and after a while they may stop doing it because some time has passed or what they intended to say does not seem relevant anymore. If this happens, you can still give them a chance to voice their ideas by asking them what they think about what was just discussed.

Is it okay to have only one facilitator

At the beginning, you may be the only facilitator, because you took the initiative to organize the group. However, over time, you should look for other participants who would like to try their hand at facilitating and who clearly grasp the nature of this type of inquiry. Socrates Caf? is meant to be a refreshing alternative, where an egalitarian spirit allows many voices. So the more facilitators, the merrier. Every facilitator will bring a different style, which will enrich the dialogues and help ensure the group's long-term viability.

Do facilitators have to be neutral or can they express their perspectives too?

Like everyone in the group, the facilitator of a Socrates Caf? is striving to become a better questioner. As a facilitator, you will see that it is very difficult to be neutral. The kinds of questions you ask in the course of a dialogue are themselves a reflection of your personal curiosity. However, you should strive to some degree to be more neutral than the rest. You are not a teacher, and your purpose is not to lead the group to a certain answer or truth. If you monopolize the discussion, others might feel intimidated or turned off. Your role as facilitator is to help and inspire others articulate their unique perspectives.

The Society for Philosophical Inquiry

The Society for Philosophical Inquiry (SPI) is a grassroots nonprofit organization comprised of philosophical inquirers of all ages and walks of life. Its members strive to form across the globe "communities of philosophical inquiry," which we typically call Socrates Caf?, at places like coffee houses, libraries, hospices, senior centers, nursing homes, prison, plazas and other public spaces, bookstores, homeless shelters and community centers, and at schools, where we often call our gatherings The Philosophers' Club.

SPI's diverse members are devoted to resuscitating the once time-honored art and skill of Socratic philosophical inquiry. We're not Socrates impersonators (heaven forbid), but people who are curious and perplexed and filled with a sense of wonder, and who subscribe to the Socratic ethos that the philosophically examined life makes for a richer existence.

SPI co-founders Christopher and Cecilia Phillips say that the group itself is dedicated to helping and inspiring people -- particularly those whose questioning nature has been marginalized ? to articulate, explore and further discover their singular philosophy of life, and in the process cultivate a more acute social and intellectual conscience, and become more autonomous thinkers.

Our advisory board members include such kindred spirits as: Robert Coles, Harvard University professor, child psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author; Jacob Needleman, noted author of such books as The Heart of Philosophy and Time and the Soul and professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University; Matthew Lipman, distinguished scholar and professor of philosophy at Montclair State University; and writer Clay Morgan.


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