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FAQ About Group Facilitation

Q1: How do philosophers work with groups?

Why are philosopher's cafes becoming so popular?

Q3: Do I need philosophical training to participate in a philosopher's cafe?

Q4: Do I need philosophical training to participate in a Socratic dialogue?

Q5: What are the benefits of participating in philosophical group?

How do philosophers work with groups?

Philosophers work with groups in several ways.

Most commonly, they teach philosophy in the classroom. Depending on the vitality and inspirational ability of the professor, a philosophy lecture can change your life forever, or merely put you to sleep. Between these two extremes, at least it ought to make you think. In any case, teaching is one way of doing philosophy with a group.

But philosophers have other ways of working with groups: informally, formally, and organizationally. A popular informal method is the philosopher's cafe; a popular formal method is the Socratic dialogue. Philosophers also work with groups within organizations, delivering such services as dilemma training, ethics compliance, and conducting other specialized, goal-oriented workshops.

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Why are philosopher's cafes becoming so popular?

There are several main reasons why. They began in France, which is a definitive cafe-culture. The French have a tradition of great poets, writers and philosophers meeting in cafes, and scribbling their works on napkins. The idea of a Renaissance is closely linked with the cafe, as with the salon (another French invention.)

But philosopher's cafes are speading throughout Europe and North America for larger reasons. To begin with, there are substantial numbers of thoughtful people who have been thoroughly alienated by tabloid culture. Thoughtful people derive very little intellectual stimulation from contemporary television and movies. Moreover, they have almost no place to air and defend their views, and to challenge the views of others. The philosopher's cafe provides such a forum.

While the universities foster an intellectual climate (or, as the case may be, an anti-intelletual climate), their mission is to offer specialized studies often far-removed from issues of daily life. Universities do not generally offer thoughtful adults a time or place to philosophize about issues relevant to their everyday lives. The philosopher's cafe or forum serves precisely this purpose.

Thoughtful people need more than solitary meditation, more than vacuous cocktail parties, more than mindless television, more than special-effect movies, and more than the gratuitious slogans, sex and violence of tabloid culture. Thoughtful people need to spend some time in a social milieu that offers intellectual stimulation and exchange. That's what philosopher's cafes provide, and that's why they are becoming so popular.

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Do I need philosophical training to participate in a philosopher's cafe?

Absolutely not. You need only what nature has already given you: a brain, and the ability to think for yourself. A philosopher's cafe is not a philosophy lecture; the philosopher presides only as a moderator, to maintain the conversation on a philosophical footing. The discussion is thoughtful but non-technical. You will be challenged to defend your beliefs or opinions, but you will not be asked to refer to a list of philosophy books in order to support your views. In fact, the opposite is usually true: instead of showing off your erudition by referring to great works you may have studied, you will be obliged to think for yourself, to give your own reasons for the views you hold. The premise of the cafe is that people can and should think for themselves. What Plato or Nietzsche thought about some issue, and why, may be important in the classoom. What you think about some issue, and why, is more important in your life, and in your exchange of views with others. Many people actually enjoy thinking for themsleves, but are rarely given an opportunity these days. Everyone is a philosopher in a philosopher's cafe.

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Do I need philosophical training to participate in a Socratic dialogue?

Absolutely not, for the same reasons as above. A Socratic dialogue presupposes that you already know the implicit anwers to certain universal questions, and merely provides a vehicle for answering them explicitly. For example, take the question "What is integrity?" You might not be able to define "integrity" off the top of your head, but you've probably had an experience of integrity in your life, right? Aha! If you've had an experience that you recognize as integrity, then Plato would claim that you must already know what integrity is, at least implicitly. The Socratic dialogue provides an elegant and effective method for making that knowledge explicit. By recourse to their experience and reason alone, non-philosophers can precisely answer questions such as "What is justice?", "What is liberty?, "What is love?", and so forth. If the Socratic dialogue is conducted properly, the group's answer to a given question will be as good as any philosopher's, or better. However, you definitely need a philosopher to guide you through a Socratic dialogue--and not just any philosopher. Specifically, you need one trained to facilitate a Socratic dialogue according to the Nelsonian method. But a participant in the dialogue can come from any walk of life.

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What are the benefits of participating in philosophical group?

As you can easily discover for yourself, there are all kinds of benefits of such participation. These benefits are quite independent of whether you spend two hours in a philosopher's cafe, or two days in a Socratic dialogue. They are also independent of the particular question you are exploring. By investing some time as a participant in a philosophical group, you will begin to exercise several virtues that are indispensable in other contexts too. Chief among these are thoughtfulness, attentiveness, tolerance, and open-mindedness. By being thoughtful, you develop the higher reaches of your big brain--which is presumably why you have one. By being attentive to what others are saying, you develop your capacity to concentrate. By bring tolerant of views that may differ from yours, you both develop your humanity and set a humane example. Practicing these three virtues helps you keep an open mind, which prevents you from making rash or foolish judgements ("hardening of the categories"), and grants you maximum scope for continued personal growth. If you participate in a philosophical group, you'll probably discover other virtues too. Please let us know!

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