miércoles, 2 de julio de 2008

How to Start Your Own Socrates Café

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

What kind of question is appropriate? In a Socrates Café, 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.

Facilitator Dos and Don'ts

Do encourage participants to offer specific examples that back up what they take to be a universally accepted view. Try to get them to support their perspectives with cogent, well-constructed, reasoned views.

Do encourage participants to question the perspectives offered by others, and to examine any perceived logical inconsistencies. The collective goal is for everyone, not just the facilitator, to become a more expert questioner.

Don't allow the dialogue to become a one-on-one back-and-forth between facilitator and participant (or between one participant and another). Remember: this is a community of philosophical inquirers. So involve everyone else at every turn.

Do be open and receptive to unexpected and unfamiliar responses, rather than (heaven forbid!) try to steer the dialogue in a preconceived direction, as if you know better than others what the answers, or questions, should be.

Don't browbeat a participant or put him on the spot in a way that makes him uncomfortable. You should nudge participants into articulating their perspectives as clearly as possible, but if someone doesn't have a response to your further prodding, move on to other participants.

Don't strive for consensus. In the version of Socratic inquiry practiced at Socrates Café, it doesn't matter if everyone begins and ends a dialogue with disparate perspectives. There's never any need to try to force any sort of agreement.

Do remember the Socrates Café is just one version of philosophical discourse, and it might not work for everybody. For those who don't seem satisfied with Socrates Café style of discussion, encourage them to form their own groups so they can promote their own kinds of philosophical inquiry.

Don't try to bring the discussion to any sort of artificial closure. Most Socrates Café dialogues last about two hours. (If held at a coffeehouse or any venue that sells food and drinks, it is of immense benefit to the owner if you take a ten-minute "pause for the cause" after an hour or so of discourse.) A Socrates Café is considered a success when participants leave a discussion with many more questions than they had at the beginning.


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