05 March 2011

Eye é City - The Philosophy Café in Vancouver, Canada by Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. 温哥华的哲学家咖啡馆

The Philosophy Café in Vancouver, Canada
Peter B. Raabe Ph.D.

(This is an outdoor philosophy ‘café’ on a sandy beach on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The facilitator, Peter Raabe is the man in the white hat under the umbrella.)

If you wanted to talk with others about the meaning of life, or what it means to be a good person, or whether God exists where would you go? In our Canadian society it’s often said that, in order to avoid offence, one should not discuss politics, sex, or religion. So when people do gather together, conversation is politely focused on the latest hockey game or the weather. And yet politics, sex, and religion are the three most important topics in life!

If you’re in university these sort of conversations might take place in a class such as philosophy or perhaps psychology. But for most people in the everyday world this sort of conversation rarely if ever happens. And yet in many people there is a curiosity about these questions that is never satisfied, and a hunger for answers that must be ignored because the food for thought is just not available. How do I know that there is an interest in these sort of discussions? Because here in Vancouver you can find these discussions happening almost every week. There are twenty locations, and everyone is invited!

People are gathering in discussion groups, referred to as philosophy cafés, located in coffee shops, small restaurants, church basements, library meeting rooms, community centres, and even under a big umbrella on the beach (see the picture below)!

In 1997 I decided to start a philosophy discussion group. I found a very tiny coffee shop in a very small village not far from Vancouver called Deep Cove. I had heard about discussion groups in Europe and especially in France, called salons that were very popular. These organized salon were a natural extension of the casual get-togethers that occur on a daily basis in the sidewalk cafés and indoor restaurants where friends shared their thoughts over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. But here in North America sidewalk cafés are not popular in winter because of snow or rain, so the philosophy café is mostly an indoor activity.

The first thing I did was to make arrangements with the owner of the coffee shop in Deep Cove regarding the day of the week she would welcome a group gathering in her establishment. Then I put up a number of hand-made posters at a near by transit station to let people know about what I thought was the first philosophy café in all of Canada. A few days later I received a surprising phone call from professor Yosef Wosk at Simon Fraser University (SFU) asking me about the posters for our little café.

“Have you heard about the café I just started in downtown Vancouver?” he asked. Of course I hadn’t, and to both of our amazements we realized that we had come up with the same idea and started our respective cafés almost on the same day. Yosef invited me to join his effort in organizing the promotion of these cafés throughout our area. With the support of his university he and his staff found venues, recruited moderators or facilitators, and, as the movement grew, published a program which informed the public of the topics under discussion and locations of the various cafés. And now, 12 years, 11,000 cafés and 70,000 participants later, philosophy cafés are not only found across Metro Vancouver, they are catching on in cities all over the province, across Canada, as well as internationally, from England to Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

In 1999 the Philosophers' Café was presented with an Award of Excellence from CAUCE (The Canadian Association for University Continuing Education). In 2003 one of the foremost newspapers in Canada said the philosophy café “might be the most successful continuing education program in the country.” Diane Mar-Nicolle, is the program assistant with the Philosopher’s Café at SFU. She says, “Locally, we’ve seen a 40 per cent increase in attendance since 2007/2008.”

But what exactly is a philosophy café?

To begin with, a philosophy café is not a classroom since there is no intentional teaching by an expert and authority figure. At times the moderator or facilitator does know a lot about the topic under discussion, but at many other times there are others in the group who know far more about the topic than the moderator/facilitator. There are no formal lectures, although at times a participant may talk so long that it seems like he or she is lecturing. By the way when this happens it is up to the moderator/facilitator to step in and respectfully stop the monologue. But more about the moderator/facilitator later. While there are no academic credits for participation in a philosophy café, although there are many intellectual and emotional rewards, there are also none of the traditional worries associated with academic work, such as exam stress, fear of failure, and so on.

A philosophy café is not a reading group or book club and yet, when the topic is announced ahead of the café date, participants often come prepare by having read various sources or researched the topic on the web. As a moderator/facilitator I always prepared by researching the topics and having a few questions written down in case my thinking stalled later on in the evening. Again, the moderator/facilitator is not meant to lecture on the topic. His or her job is to introduce the topic, to keep the discussion on topic, and to prevent fist fights. Of course this last is an exaggeration, there has never been a threat of violence at any of my cafés. But sometimes verbal aggression can arise, so, just like a teacher in a classroom must remind students to be respectful of each other, so the moderator/facilitator must at times remind newcomers to be respectful.

Most importantly, I think, is that a philosophy café is not a place for debate. By debate I mean a competitive discussion where one tries to win. The problem with winning an argument is that one can win and still be wrong. A philosophy café is not about either competition or winning. It is, again, a respectful discussion among equal individuals, some of whom may now more about the topic than others, for the purpose and coming to a better understanding of the issues involved in the topic and perhaps a new perspective on what to think about it. It is a mutual sharing of beliefs and the reasons we have for those beliefs, along with an offer to help others understand one’s own perspective. In a well-run café there is a generosity among participants and a willingness to be of assistance to each other. This doesn’t mean that discussion is always quiet and genteel. In fact some of the best cafés I have facilitated were ones where discussion became very passionate.

Moderators and facilitators come is all shapes and sizes, and with varying levels of experience. Some have no formal academic experience in leading group discussions but that doesn’t really matter. All it takes is a person with a good personality: the ability to listen, to empathise, to ask open-ended questions that challenge but don’t provoke, and to keep the conversation on topic and respectful. There have been a few philosophy professors who have been moderator/facilitators, but there have also been retired military officers, one-time politicians, students, artists and others who have led the discussions..
But a good philosophy café is more than just a group discussion. Part of the pleasure in the evening is in sharing good food and drink. I always encouraged participants to purchase items from the establishment to show their appreciation to the owners for allowing us to gather there. It’s also a social gathering, a place to meet friends and to make new friends who appreciate the stimulation of good discussions. It’s not only a meeting in person, it’s a meaningful meeting of minds that goes well beyond anything possible on Twitter or Facebook. People are present to each other and real. And the discussions held at the café, the ideas raised about the good life, the concerns expressed over social injustice, and so on, have often gone out the door of the café and lead to concrete action in the community.

Besides our regular cafés, the SFU philosophy café program has developed special editions that feature various multicultural communities, as well as moderated gatherings for business, seniors, teens, and the disenfranchised. There are also cafés whose topics always centre around a specific theme such as politics, the environment, religion or spirituality, a specific languages, and mental health and mental illness issues. With the help of a printed program, that is also available on-line, people can choose a theme and a topic that interests them, and a location that is most convenient.

My cafés were always on the middle Wednesday of the month, because that’s when the little Deep Cove café was the most quiet. The café ran for two hours with a 15 minute break in the middle. I started mine by announcing the topic for those who weren’t already aware of it. All topics in my café came from suggestions by participants. I just made sure their suggestions were phrased in a philosophical style rather than as empirical questions where we could simply look the answers up in an encyclopaedia or science book. The I would ask if anyone had any personal experiences in regards to the topic. This served two purposes: first it took the topic beyond a theoretical discussion and made showed how it was relevant to real-life situations; and second, after a few personal experiences, it illustrated to everyone how differently the topic might be interpreted. This way the facilitator was not the dictator of how the topic should be approached. During these early few minutes questions were not allowed; personal experiences are to be respected not debated. I also found that the sharing of personal experiences was a wonderful way for people in the group to get to know each other better, and to appreciate some of the difficult life situations some had to endure and overcome.

When no one had any more personal experiences to offer the topic was open for general discussion. In our café the topics were incredibly varied because we weren’t committed to any specific theme. Participants came with all sort of ideas, such as What is success? Can science be trusted? When should we feel guilt and shame? What is the purpose of an economy? What is the cost of human progress? When is legal not moral? The list of topics is absolutely endless. And any one of these topics can be repeated many times because each discussion will raise different thoughts and opinions from the participants. I was the moderator/facilitator of a café for eight years and I enjoyed ever second of it. I eventually stopped because my teaching responsibilities had increased and, quite frankly I needed a break. But since then I have organized two cafés specializing in mental health and illness related issues and trained a number of senior students to be the moderator/facilitators at those café.

True to the name “philosophy café” the discussions at a philosophy café can be every bit as intellectually satisfying to the mind as a rich cup of coffee is to the tongue.

Thanks to Prof Peter B. Raabe Ph.D. for granted permission to post this article in our blog.

Prof Peter Raabe is the first Canadian and one of very few people internationally to be awarded a doctorate for his work in philosophical counselling. You could read more about him from his website.


We hope eye e city could have the similar discussion session in future.

extracted from eye e city

Peter B. Raabe 着
林静秀 译

(这是户外的哲学家「咖啡馆」,就在太平洋岸的沙滩边。辅导员Peter Raabe是洋伞下着白帽的男子。)




1997年我开始了哲学讨论小组。我在离温哥华不远处的小镇Deep Cove找到一间非常小的咖啡馆。我之前就听说欧洲有这样的讨论小组,特别在法国他们称之为沙龙相当的风行。这些有组织的沙龙是由偶然的聚集自然扩充成的,出现在人行道咖啡馆或者室内餐馆里的日常生活中,朋友们在喝咖啡或饮酒时分享彼此的想法。但是在北美这里的情况是,因为会下雪或下雨,人行道咖啡馆在冬天并不受欢迎,所以哲学家咖啡馆大部分是室内活动。

我做的第一件事是与Deep Cove咖啡馆的主人进行协调,她欢迎每周的一天在她的地方进行小组聚会。然后我在附近的车站张贴了几张手工海报,好让人们知道全加拿大第一家哲学家咖啡馆在做些什么。几天后,我接到一通惊喜的来电,是Simon Fraser(SFU)大学的Yosef Wosk教授打来询问我们的咖啡馆海报。


在1999年,哲学家咖啡馆获得CAUCE(The Canadian Association for University Continuing Eudcation;加拿大大学成人教育协会)颁发优良奖。在2003年,一份加拿大最重要的报纸表示哲学家咖啡馆「是国内最成功的成人教育计划。」SFU的哲学家咖啡馆计划助理Diane Mar-Nicolle说:「我们发现在某些地方从2007/2008年起出席持续有百分之四十的增长。」








我的咖啡馆常在每个月中的星期三举行,因为这是Deep Cove的小咖啡馆最安静的时刻。咖啡馆为时两小时,中间有15分钟的休息。我开始时会宣布主题,以帮助那些还不太了解的人。所有我咖啡馆的讨论主题都是来自参与者的建议。我只是确保他们的建议能够以哲学方式表达,而不只是作为经验性的问题,如果只是经验性的问题我们只要在百科全书或科学书籍找答案就好。我会询问是否有人有任何关于主题的个人经验可以分享。这有两个目的:第一,可以让主题超越理论性的讨论,显示主题是如何与真实的生活情境相关;第二,一些个人经验的分享会显示每个人在诠释这个主题会有多么的不同。这样,辅导员也不会变成主题应该要如何讨论的支配者。在刚开始的几分钟,是不允许提问的;个人经验需要被尊重,而非辩论。我也发现个人经验的分享是个绝佳的方式,可以让小组成员彼此深入认识,并且认识到某些人必须忍耐和克服某些困难的生活情境。



Peter Raabe 教授是以哲学辅导(咨商)研究获得博士学位的第一个加拿大人,在国际上也是少数者。有关Peter Raabe 教授的资料可以参考他的网站。


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