Strictly Platonic

Scott McCord

Photo By Larry Dalton

Scott McCord has a passion for philosophy. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UC Davis, McCord started up a philosophical discussion group that meets once a week at Espresso Roma at 231 E St., Davis. The group, Socrates Café, is one of the many groups throughout the nation that were inspired by philosopher Christopher Phillips. In a comfortable setting, with jazz playing quietly in the background, the group drinks coffee and discusses philosophy every Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Who attends Socrates Café?

Socrates Café is for people who are looking to add something to their everyday lives, to get a break from their mundane jobs where they either rarely use their brains or they focus strictly on perfecting one task, unable to engage their minds in anything else. It is just a bunch of yokels who like to get together and think about things in a deeper way than they normally do. It’s philosophical inquiry done among sort of non-professional philosophers.

How many people are in the group?

It’s open to the public, it’s not like a membership that you sign up for. We have about ten regulars. There are some semi-regulars who bring the group up to 15 or so. People are in and out of here all the time. We may be sitting here having a discussion and then someone on the outskirts, sitting at another table, will come over and join us.

What are your meetings like?

We vote on the questions at the beginning of the first hour—it is a two-hour thing. We work for about an hour, take a break and stretch our legs, get some refreshments, then we come back and work on those questions some more, winding up at about 9 o’clock. Almost anything is grist for the mill. Typical questions are, “What is virtue,” or “At what point is it OK to break the law?” “What is pornography?” “What is love?” Like I said, it could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a question like “What is virtue.” It can be, “What is the meaning of life?” but it can also be, “What is a good movie?” Then people will actually talk about some of their favorite movies, move on to the discussion of what makes a good movie, then on to “What is good?” Things like that, I guess. We start on a basic level.

What is the basic level?

The art of asking questions. Many people come in here with all of their beliefs, their convictions and their dogmas. They articulate them; they submit them to the scrutiny of the group. Other people, with their own beliefs and their own dogmas, will challenge what someone put out there. The challenge will be returned. Hopefully, what happens out of it all is that more and more questions are asked. From a philosophical way of looking at this, we try to find what questions are good questions, and learn how to ask questions.

What does your position as facilitator entail?

I’m the guy that got it going here, I guess. But it is not like I’m the one who owns the group; I’m the one who acts as the facilitator. I would really like it if we had more and more facilitators, so that I can actually deliver my ill-conceived opinions just as everyone else gets to. As a facilitator, I keep order. The role of the facilitator is to encourage everybody else to be Socrates. Take the opinions, the beliefs and convictions, the truths that someone thinks they hold, and find holes in it and prove them wrong. To be truthful, that really does not happen a lot. People come in here with their dogmas and they leave here with their dogmas. They never really become convinced. They lock heads. They argue with great passion. It is great fun anyway. After we’re done here, they go outside, pat one another on the back, have a cigarette, talk, then they go to their respective homes and, hopefully, do a little more than watch TV or read the paper, and think a little bit about what they’ve gone through.

How did Socrates Café originate?

I am giving the story, as I know it. Christopher Phillips [originator of Socrates Café] was in a program called “Teaching Philosophy to Children.” It really taps into that primitive wonder that we all have when we are born and sort of nurtures it, and develops it, so it becomes a lifelong habit. I am not sure when he made the leap from teaching philosophy to children to bringing philosophy to the people. What I think he is doing is taking philosophy and giving it to the people, like Robin Hood. Because it can be done at the grassroots level. It can be done out there in the field, just like Socrates tried to do. Taking someone who has their opinions and their convictions and shocking them into the awareness that maybe, what they “know” to be true, is not necessarily true. Stimulating them to ask more questions.

What inspires you?

Conversation does. Some people say that if you miss those late night dorm conversations that you used to have, than maybe Socrates Café is right for you. It’s a bull session that ends in nothing, I guess. I like things that end in nothing and that end openly. Critics say that philosophy never resolves the questions that it set out to resolve. Well, duh. That’s kinda the point. It’s keeping the question that inspires me.

I, for one, don’t want all the questions to be resolved and for philosophy to end. They say that it begins in wonder—but it ends in wonder, too. It stays there all the time. So, I guess it is the opportunity to attack our fundamental beliefs that inspires me.