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.
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
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
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".