Ever had a great conversation over coffee? The Philosophy Café offers fascinating topics for discussion and great company. As it’s online, you might chat with someone on the other side of the world. Interested to see the menu? Café founder, Peter, is a senior philosophy student who travels across the globe.
The Philosophy Café
Peter Whitfield, London and Sydney
Would you prefer 10 million pounds or the superpower to be happy without it? This is just one of the many questions we have posed for discussion in the weekly meetings at the online Philosophy Café run by the School of Philosophy. People enjoy spending time considering questions like this.
A moment’s reflection reveals that anyone can be happy without 10 million pounds. Yet we might still be thinking, ‘If only I had financial security, if only I could find true love, if only he/she would close the cupboard doors… then I would be happy’. The revelation that you can be perfectly happy without the financial windfall, the new house, or the perfect partner can be liberating.
What is the Philosophy Café?
It’s a weekly online event where people meet to consider interesting topics. There are no fees and no expectations. You don’t have to come every week however 100-150 regularly attend out of the 1500 who have registered.
They are a mixture of School members, some of whom are very long-standing, and others who have never participated in a philosophy course. We even see people who may have left the School years ago. Due to popular international demand, next term, an additional Philosophy Café will meet for the Sydney time zone.
We borrow interesting and important topics from the Practical Philosophy courses, from literature, and from the great teachings. We also like to add a mix of Rumi, Ram Dass and Winnie the Pooh amongst others. Piglet (one of Pooh’s friends) sums up the Café’s popularity, “It’s so much more friendly with two.”
In addition the Philosophy Café is online, so no traffic jams or jostling with fellow passengers in the rush hour. The Philosophy Café rules are simple. First is to enjoy yourself. Secondly, participants are expected to show courtesy. Finally, we ask people to treat everyone as trees. You don’t judge or want to change trees. You accept them just the way they are and occasionally give them a hug!
Why start a Philosophy Café?
I wanted to create a bridge between those who are ‘in School’ and those considered to be ‘not in School’. The School has offered philosophy courses for many decades. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have taken them up. For many, it becomes a way of life and they continue with their group in the School. Then there are those who leave the School for one reason or another but still want to practise philosophy. For them, the Philosophy Café can provide a significant connection with the School.
How wide is the brief?
At the Philosophy Café we sometimes hear from students of the School who have a long experience in living the philosophical life. They delight in sharing their expertise and knowledge. New participants, in turn, provide fresh perspectives and beautiful sparks of encouragement to those of us who have been around for a while.
The freedom to choose any topic for discussion is a bonus. For example, we recently watched a 3-minute YouTube clip of Shane Mulhall who was once my philosophy tutor. He was a huge influence in my life and I consider myself blessed to have met him. Before his early death, he recorded 40-plus talks on almost every fundamental topic you could think of and its link to philosophy. For example, philosophy and love, philosophy and stress, philosophy and ambition. So at the Café, why not Philosophy and Shane Mulhall: his best bits! It went down a treat. One man, recently diagnosed with cancer, said the evening changed his life.
Other topics we’ve considered at the Café have included; the wisdom within, the art of conversation, being awake, 30-second transformation, Why Sanskrit?, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, Plato, the power of music, and more. These giant topics condense into a light 75-minute session which includes a presentation and conversation.
How do you vary the programme?
We often invite senior students from the School of Philosophy to be guest speakers. Over many years they have studied and come to love their subject. Don’t most people enjoy spending time with someone who is in love? The Philosophy Café provides an informal setting for them to share their remarkable depth of understanding.
One of them, Valery Rees, is an expert on Marsilio Ficino, a great figure during the Italian Renaissance. She told us that having spent so much time with him, Ficino is now her best friend, although he’s been dead for over 500 years!
Warwick Jessup’s guest appearances are massively popular. He eats, drinks and breathes Sanskrit. Words like Yoga, Guru and Namaste are in the current zeitgeist. But Warwick brings so much more to fascinate us.
Each week those who meet at the Café practise the awareness exercise, a short mindfulness-type practice, which the School has been teaching for over 60 years. Warwick gave us the perfect segue into it by offering a Sanskrit prayer. It’s usually translated as “Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light and from death to immortality.’ Warwick explained that literally, it means ‘Lead us from the un-present to the present’.
What makes the Philosophy Café successful?
It’s the opportunity to discuss a topic in smaller breakout groups. People are given questions and workshop practices designed to make the conversation come alive. Everyone gets a chance to speak of their own experience and insights and it makes the Philosophy practical. Those people who may not have met each other before feel more comfortable and able to join in’.
The first Philosophy Café of 2023 was to discuss New Year’s Resolutions. After introducing the topic, the breakout groups were asked to consider:
- Is your resolution for your benefit only, or something larger?
- Is your determination invincible?
- Can you save the world if your room is messy?
It was a great success!
What are your hopes for the Philosophy Café?
I feel that in the history of humanity, there has never been such a golden age of opportunity to discover the true nature of ourselves. If you’re reading this article, you are likely to have enough food in the cupboard for your needs. You probably have the freedom to discuss questions of political, moral or religious importance without fear of persecution or imprisonment. You can access more knowledge than you need in several lifetimes. The complete works of humanity are at our fingertips such as Plato, Vedanta, literature, science and music. And that’s just the start.
But I hope the Café provides a space where we can share our discoveries, go beyond the superficial and dip into who we really are. It’s a place where you can apply reason to the big questions. You can decide what’s useful and what isn’t. The only thing you have to do is turn up.
The Café is popular, fun and for many, transformative, as we see in the positive feedback:
- ‘It’s a safe space and a mind-blowing experience”
- ‘It was one of those life-changing pivotal moments’
To register for the Café, go to School of Philosophy and Economic Science.
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