Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Is the art of social philosophy relevant to cafe society?

By Mark Randell - posted Wednesday, 30 October 2002

Philosophy—as an academic discipline—is in serious trouble. Graduate student numbers are non-existent, whole faculties are threatened with extinction. There is little room in the economic rationalist’s vision of a university system for knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake, for the ancient ‘love (philos) of knowledge (sophia)’, for the art of cultivated reflection.

Which is a shame if we ever turn out to want a ‘deliberative democracy’—a democracy in which public judgment means more than public opinion, a democracy in which informed citizens consider matters and vote according to their careful deliberations. The age of serious thinking appears to be over, at least in popular culture (gone, perhaps, are the days of the ‘gentleman-scientist’, and Homer Simpson’s ‘doh’ has triumphed over Shakespearean epithets—few pick up the philosophical allusions scattered throughout the cartoon series). We live in the age of the ‘dumbed-down’, the sound-byte, short-termism, and too-glib ‘solutions’—when ‘the way forward’ is more important than what the past has to teach us. Perhaps we missed the boat on a deliberative demos, and we shall have to wait for the next millennium, when the zeitgeist turns, and thinking, serious thinking, is once more in vogue.

And yet.


For more than two years, I have been running—once a month—a gathering known as a Philosophy Café, in Fremantle, Western Australia. The gathering is held in a local café/grocer, and a professional philosopher is used, where possible, as a facilitator. The discussion is on a topic chosen by the group, from classic philosophical problems to any other topic. Examples: "What does it mean ‘to live a good life’?", "What is a fact?", "Is Happiness Possible?".

The gatherings are free. When a professional philosopher is not available—as is more often than not the case, a point to which I will return—I step in to facilitate the discussion.

The record attendance at one of these affairs is 183 people; regular attendance tops 50.We were standing room only for the visit of Daniel Dennett, the philosopher-scientist from the US, stolen from the University of Western Australia for a night of free philosophy in front of the pasta shelves. Numerous ‘splinter’ groups have formed, some in people’s houses, some in other venues, and new community networks have been born.

For the last three months, we have been running twice a month, and I have been running a series entitled "Great Thinkers of the Twentieth Century". The regular group for this series totals about 25, and is growing. So far, we have discussed Wittgenstein, Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault. The email list for Philosophy Café reminders now stands at some 137 people.

In September this year we took the Café back to the University, with a Café run for the University Extension Service. Eighty people attended, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. No one came from the Philosophy Faculty. Another Café will be run for the University’s Summer School—without, again, the involvement of the university philosophers.

The apparent sustained success of Philosophy Cafés tells me that people do want to learn and think about deep issues. They do want more than sound-bytes and glib ‘solutions’. They are willing to take the trouble to get up and get out, to read in advance for an informal gathering of like-minded folk, to express their opinions, to join with others in learning for the sheer love of knowledge.


Why then are Philosophy Cafés growing even as our Philosophy Faculties decline? What lessons are here for us?

Significant change is upon us: The way in which people connect and learn has changed. The way in which communities function is shifting, and our sandstone institutions ignore these changes at their peril.

It was, of course, the now-famous Professor Robert Putnam who spoke to the heart of the shifts when he spoke of America’s precipitous decline in civic engagement as "bowling alone".

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Mark Randell
Related Links
Human Sciences
Philosophy Cafes home page
Photo of Mark Randell
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy