Philosophers' Café creator reflects on the past 20 years

Yosef Wosk. Photo by Greg Ehlers.

“A Café conversation is an oasis in time and space, an opportunity to carve out face-to-face, genuine, human interaction.”

Back in 1998, Yosef Wosk envisioned a community where people would feel empowered to express their opinions, connect with their neighbourhood and learn from those around them—the result was SFU’s Philosophers’ Café. Now, 20 years later, we celebrate the legacy of SFU’s Philosophers’ Café and reflect with Yosef.

How did SFU’s Philosophers’ Café start?

At first, I developed a program called City Conversations in which experts from respective fields would give a presentation and then audience members could ask questions. I remember after one of them I felt like there was something missing. There was something almost artificial or too controlled. I wanted more vibrancy and authenticity...We decided to move out of the institutional setting, out of the building and into the community. We approached it as street-level philosophy.

Where did the name Philosophers’ Café come from?

Philosophy is from the Greek words, phileo, meaning love, and sophia, meaning knowledge or wisdom. Everyone has a curiosity or a love of something. The idea was to respectfully stimulate people to get involved in meaningful conversation. The setting of a café came because it allowed for an engaging, open, people-centered, non-institutional and casual venue. It implied a safe space where one could be nurtured by food and drink, friendship along with conversation, and that became part of the social model. In the beginning, there were people who thought that they may not fit in because they had not studied philosophy, but most people came to understand through the invitation and the reputation that it was more of a casual though focused experience.

What did you hope Café participants would gain from the experience?

I felt it was multi-dimensional. There was an intellectual component as well as emotional, social, physical and at times even spiritual connections. The physical aspect was that you’re actually going out some place in your neighbourhood, meeting other people, and being nourished. You are being intellectually stimulated by taking part in a conversation where you’re learning from others on a level playing field and where you listen as much, or more, than you speak. It’s also emotional because you’re expressing yourself about something you’re passionate about. [We wanted to] empower people to express themselves and realize that they can have their opinions while still respecting others. You don’t have to take a back seat to the experts; everyone’s voice is important. Many of the conversations continued in our heads afterward. There are many Cafés where ideas or expressions have stayed with me for years.

Where do you see Philosophers’ Café in the next 20 years?

I think this type of gathering will continue to serve as some kind of corrective to technology…and to the exponential speed and amount of information we face. I trust that there will always be this human element of giving technology a rest and encouraging direct encounters. A Café conversation is an oasis in time and space, an opportunity to carve out face-to-face, genuine, human interaction.

What has been the most rewarding aspect for you?

I think facilitating conversation and establishing the vehicle for that to happen… There was a lot of trust in putting this together: Trust in the other person because you wouldn’t know who was going to show up, what they were going to bring and how people were going to express themselves. And trust in the community that there’s wisdom and there are good people out there.

“A Café conversation is an oasis in time and space, an opportunity to carve out face-to-face, genuine, human interaction.”

Photo by Greg Ehlers.