“Thinking the Unthinkable, Imagining the Impossible, and Discussing the Improbable”: SFU’s Philosophers’ Café

Written by Dr. Meguido Zola, Professor Emeritus

June 28, 2018

One of my enduring childhood memories is of my rabbi grandfather conducting the communal exegesis of the Torah every Sabbath morning in his apartment, in Alexandria. As I sheltered beneath the cloth-covered, book-laden table, moving about between the slippered feet of the old men, I traced my lead-soldiers’ alarums and excursions in the intricately-patterned designs of the Persian carpet. All about my ears, rang the bangarang of battle and the tumult of spirited debate. Those clamorous Sabbath morning disputations—joyful, rather than acrimonious—shaped my worldview of learning.

I absorbed, instinctively, in my bones, that you can—indeed, should—question all truth, including received truth (think Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof, forever contending with God and talking back to Him). It slowly dawned on me that this is what anyone, everyone, can—indeed, should—do; and that, in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “truth is symphonic,” rather than the insight of a privileged few. I intuited that truth is many-faceted, so that whereas “in a superficial truth, the opposite is false, in a deep truth, the opposite is also true,” as Nils Bohr, the Danish physics Nobel laureate, waspishly noted. And I gradually became aware of the primacy of infinite shades of greys, over monochrome blacks and whites, that colour our search for truth, as we try to chase it down, lay a hold on it, define it, and claim and own it for ourselves.

How we engage in this truth-seeking process, singly and communally—the heart of learning in the school or university classroom—has been the focus of my lifework for over half a century. So it was that, after being over many years a regular, if occasional, participant in SFU’s Philosophers’ Café, I volunteered my professional services to the Program and, shortly after, created an FoE Retirees’ Research Fund proposal to explore Philosophers’ Café at greater depth.

Philosophers’ Café, a series of informal public discussions in the heart of our communities, are Simon Fraser University’s self-identified “premier community engagement outreach” in the words of Andrew Petter, our President). A Café bookmark proclaims: “Comfortable surroundings for vibrant street-level discussions on burning issues of the day.” Since 1998, this award-winning program—“No formal philosophy training required; real life experience desirable”—has engaged the interest of scholars, seniors, students, philosophers, and non-philosophers through stimulating dialogue and the passionate exchange of ideas. Attendance is free of charge, and there is no registration. The public is invited to: “Come as you are; be prepared to engage and have fun!” In creating and sustaining and developing a forum to enable dialogue and the free exchange of ideas without fear of judgment, the program speaks to SFU’s strategic vision as ‘The Engaged University’.

Philosophers’ Cafés are hosted in a variety of venues, including coffee shops, restaurants, community centres, churches, beaches and libraries, and held on weekday afternoons or evenings, over an hour and a half. The Cafés are open conversations, where there is no implied right or wrong response, but, rather, deep dives into topics that are chosen by the moderators themselves, who volunteer or are invited, to evoke discussion/stir up debate in some hundred plus Cafés a semester, each comprising a handful to a score of participants. The extent of moderators’ commitment is up to them: they can moderate one of several Cafés a semester; or moderate a Café monthly; or, as some do, moderate Cafés for years and develop a following. There are helpful moderator guidelines, various forms of support and, recently, a token honorarium. The Program handles all the venue and schedule planning, and publishes attractive online and print brochures through the year.

‘Philosophers’ Café’ was created in 1998 by Yosef Wosk, a community activist, philanthropist, and professor and Dean of Continuing Studies/Lifelong Learning, SFU, as one way to nurture a safe and stimulating environment for public conversation. Since then, more than 85,000 people have attended Philosophers’ Cafés at some 100 different venues across B.C. The World Universities Forum recognized SFU Philosophers’ Café with its 2012 award for Best Practices in Higher Education. The Award recognizes significant higher education practices, through innovative curricula, research and services.

At the start of the 2016-1 semester, with the support of a temporary Program Assistant, I acted as the volunteer Coordinator of the special Summer Series—'50 Cafés for 50 Years'—under the oversight of Michael Filimowicz, its then Faculty Director, Philosophers’ Café, and Associate Dean, Lifelong Education. In the Fall, I continued as Coordinator/Convenor of Philosophers’ Café, with a vision to build on the idea; extend, enhance, and enrich the program and its offerings; and build research and writing publication into Philosophers’ Café. I concluded my voluntary contributions, except as a continuing moderator, at the start of the Summer 2017 semester.

My research, now in its final stages of completion, is essentially a first step of formal inquiry, of various forms—philosophical analysis, historical reportage, and oral and written interviews and self-reports, where currently little or none exists—into an important, basic educational notion and a significant SFU community outreach. It is participant-observer research—to better attain a more living and rounded understanding of Philosophers’ Café; and the research is cast in an appreciative inquiry paradigm, both a worldview (a way of being and seeing) and a process for facilitating positive strengths-based change.

As appropriate and relevant, the research comprises a bringing to bear of critical inquiry into the philosophical idea of SFU’s Philosophers’ Café’ and its various notional antecedents (e.g., the Athenian agora dialogues, the salons litteraires of Mme de Staël, etc.) and their significant features, similarities, and differences. This is complemented with a brief historical account of antecedents and precursors of ‘Philosophers’ Café’ in other parts of the world; also, of its successors and/or parallel independent developments in BC and Canada. Interviews with, and self-reports by, key players, including, as available, past staff, moderators, and participants, round out the research, with appropriate summaries and analyses. All available extant public documentation on Philosophers’ Café has been sought and collected together in archival boxes.

Philosophers’ Café continues to thrive and to develop a rich diversity of expression—e.g., Cafés for youth organized by special community representatives; Cafés in different languages, including Punjabi, Russian and Chinese; pop-up Cafés; and Café series on a particular focus. A permanent, experienced and entrepreneurial Program Assistant has been engaged, and the quality of moderating and participation from the public continues to rise.

A report will be submitted to the Faculty of Education, under the terms of my FoE Retirees’ Research Funding; and to the administration of Philosophers’ Café in Continuing Studies, with main findings, discussion and analysis, and potential recommendations to be considered for future action.