Professor Phil Jenkins Serves Up a Fresh Cup of Philosophy at the Socrates Cafe

Published on Fri, October 07, 2011

By Kenny Luck,

In a basement room of the Children's wing in the Albright Memorial Library, a group of people begin to gather—young and old, religious and non-religious, of different social stratas and occupational backgrounds. It's an eclectic group, but they are polite to one another, as they search for a place to sit. It is 6:30 p.m., and the sun still shines across the August sky. For the next hour and a half, these people will discuss questions like, "What is happiness?" "Is creativity necessary to life?" "What is meaning?"—questions people have been asking since the dawn of western civilization.

A man enters the room. He is tall and lanky. When he speaks, his words are peppered with a slight southern drawl. The man greets everyone in the room and assumes the nearest chair. He is Dr. Philip Jenkins, assistant professor of philosophy and department chair, at Marywood University, and the facilitator at tonight's gathering. After greeting everyone in the room, he launches the discussion with a simple "Let's begin."

Autonomous Thinking

Jenkins, a Texas native and former rock drummer, has always had a love for philosophy. After finishing his doctorate in 2006, he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he landed a visiting professorship. It was there that he began and facilitated his first Socrates Café gatherings.

By the time Jenkins arrived in Scranton a year later, he had grown more comfortable in his role, and he started the first Socrates Café in the Northeast Pennsylvania region. "When I got here, I don't think there were any groups in town," he recalls. "But the more I looked into it, I thought, 'I can do this'."

Jenkins now facilitates three Socrates Café groups in Scranton. At the Geneva House—a non-profit Presbyterian organization for senior living—the Socrates Café meets once a month; here, Jenkins brings his knowledge and experience about philosophy to older members of the community. There are also monthly meetings at the Albright Memorial Library and on Marywood University's campus, where students have the opportunity to discuss philosophical topics with their professor in a comfortable, assignment-free environment.

"The students who come really get into it," Jenkins says. "It's a good thing for them to do as part of their philosophical education."

Listen to Phil Jenkins describe the Socrates Café.

When Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy (2001) was published a decade ago by Christopher Phillips, the author could not have known that his approach to philosophy would inspire others to start Socrates Cafes. Phillips would go on to publish more books in later years, but not before his ideas would spread.

According to the Society for Philosophical Inquiry, a group founded by Phillips, whose aim is to "enable and inspire participants to become more autonomous thinkers and doers," there are more than 600 Socrates Café gatherings worldwide involving hundreds of volunteers." From Dubai to Los Angeles to Scranton, people are asking questions that matter; it's the kind of gathering Socrates would have loved.

Ideas without Malice

Back at the meeting, members of the Socrates Café are locked in verbal combat, discussing the question, "Has Science 'Killed' God." It's a contentious topic, but at no point does the discussion decay into anger or personal attacks. It's the kind of conversation, for example, that Stephen Wallace loves.

"I was thrilled to finally find someplace I could talk about these things," Wallace says. "Everybody should entertain the idea of attending [a meeting] once or twice to get mental stimulation from the people who live in your community."

Wallace, 61, who works in the home improvement business, participates a great deal during the meeting. He's been attending the Socrates Café for more than three years. When asked why he keeps coming back, Wallace says he enjoys the exchange of ideas and to see what is on other people's minds.

Throughout the ninety-minute exchange, arguments are put forth from an array of perspectives. Wallace, for example, tends to focus on the institutional aspects of religion, while others argue from a meta-physical perspective. So, has science killed God?

There isn't a consensus.

But finding definitive answers is not the goal of these gatherings. The point is to explore questions more deeply, while acquainting oneself with multiple viewpoints, participants say.

While standing in a narrow alley outside the library after the meeting, Carolyn Lavelle, 67, a retired psychotherapist, explains her reasons for attending the meeting.

"It's great to have a forum like this to talk about all of these issues. We love it," she says. "And I like [Phil Jenkins] as a moderator because he doesn't interfere, but he interjects when he needs to. We always have such a great time."

Despite its popularity, the Socrates Café is not without detractors. Stan van Hooft, a philosophy professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, has criticized the Phillips-Jenkins approach to philosophy. In an article titled, Philosophy and the Care of the Self: A Literature Survey, van Hooft says Phillips "does not tell us what would count as success in such discussions or show us how to make them successful."

When asked to comment, Jenkins disagrees. "That's a philosophy teacher whose classroom I would be afraid to be in," he joked, adding for good measure, "I would say that 99 percent of the meetings I've been to are successful."

Evelyn Gibbons thinks that Jenkins' meetings are successful too. A librarian at the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, she shared with Jenkins requests from other organizations for the philosophy professor to offer meetings at their locations. "This is how a movement begins," she said.

An Examined Life

In his office, Jenkins sits comfortably at a window, talking. His hands move about, animating the space around him. He is discussing the question: why is philosophy important? Surrounding him is an array of books on a variety of topics: jazz, politics and psychology.

It's Friday, and within three days these hallways and offices will be filled with conversations by students and faculty returning from summer break. Jenkins looks content. It is the perfect habitat for this philosopher.

Socrates famously stated that "the unexamined life is not worth living." For Jenkins, Socrates' advice ought not to be taken lightly. It is an idea to which people should devote their time, he says.

"Socrates asks for reasons that will lead to better beliefs," Jenkins explains. "Philosophy is a way of living and a realistic expectation is to get people to think more critically. The Socratic dialogue," he adds, "is the externalization of critical thinking."

Within his discussion groups and in classrooms, Jenkins uses the Socratic Method to initiate discussion, asking group members and students questions rather than telling them what to think—an approach first used by Socrates more than 2,500 years ago in Greece. Moreover, Jenkins says that in the beginning he struggled with how much he should participate.

"One challenge has been how much I participate," he said. "In his book, Christopher Phillips suggests that you act as a facilitator, so I'm not there to teach. But sometimes people want me to teach, and they'll ask me questions. So I'm much more involved now than I was in the beginning."

And so, as Jenkins' Socrates Café moves into its fourth year, there are no signs of letting up for this philosopher. Amid his busy schedule of teaching and publishing, Jenkins says he would like to continue to facilitate the Socrates Café for years to come and hopes more people will develop an interest in philosophy.

"It would be nice if it spread, caught fire, and people started falling in love with dialogue, asking deeper questions and developing a curiosity about the world," Jenkins said. "Let's see where the conversation takes us."