The Wisdom of Not Knowing

An Interview with Christopher Phillips, author of Socrates Café
By Vern Burkhardt
“The one thing Socrates knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that he didn’t know anything beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Last week we learned from Ronald Gross in Socrates’ Way that one of the seven master keys for making maximum use of one’s mind is to ask great questions. He recommends asking “open” questions which invite discussion, rather than “closed” ones that can be answered “yes” or “no”. Gross, who describes Christopher Phillips’ launch of the Socrates Café idea in the early 1990s as a “stirring tale of Socratic self-examination and high purpose”, recommended his book. It provides additional exploration of the art of asking questions.

Questions can be posed and discussed with others, or they can be posed to oneself in order to deepen one’s self-understanding or to stimulate one’s imagination.

Christopher PhillipsIn Socrates Café author Christopher Phillips says that reflective examination can show us that some of our errors stem from inaccurate knowledge, some from faulty reasoning and others from careless use of language. Socrates would advise us to never stop looking and thinking. What he calls intentional ignorance results from not thinking. We will be more intelligently informed and wiser if we look and think, and if we listen to and think about others’ perspectives on what they observe and think.

Christopher Phillips describes how in the early 1990s he became disturbed by his perception that people had become pervasively self-absorbed and intolerant, (“what’s in it for me?”), and that there was a growing sense in American society of pessimistic fatalism and helplessness. He was concerned because these same symptoms preceded some of the bleakest periods in human history. He began thinking about his own purpose in life which resulted in what he describes as an epiphany.

Socrates CafeHe wanted to be a philosopher like Socrates and to have Socratic dialogues. The goal: to affect the world positively by affecting individuals positively through “the Socratic quest for honesty” which gives peoples’ lives “added depth and meaning and dimension”. He started the first Socrates Café in a bookstore and the movement has grown from there. A Café can take place anywhere two or more people can meet to engage in dialogue, and, as pointed out last week, anyone can start one.

Phillips offers guidelines for leading discussions in his Socrates Café style. These should be of interest to IdeaConnection’s experienced facilitators and team leaders when they are facilitating experts in the Inventor ThinkSpace™ or elsewhere, as well as to anyone wanting to enrich their personal or professional lives:

  1. Let the group know that putting others down is taboo. Respect the ideas of each participant. Be open to what each participant has to say even if you disagree with them.

  2. Encourage participants to provide specific examples to back up what they take to be a universally accepted view—perspectives should be supported with reasoned views.

  3. Question the perspectives offered by others and examine perceived logical inconsistencies

  4. Ensure everyone has a chance to participate. Don’t just have a dialogue between the facilitator and one participant.

  5. Be receptive to unexpected and unfamiliar responses—don’t steer the dialogue in a preconceived direction.

  6. Don’t pressure participants to respond or put them on the spot in a manner that makes them uncomfortable.

  7. Don’t strive for consensus.

  8. Don’t try to bring the discussion to an artificial conclusion. A Socrates Café has been successful when participants leave the discussion with more questions than they had at the beginning.

This may be difficult for some. Whether it is human nature or a result of our cultures we tend to like answers and certainty. Unfortunately, as soon as we are certain of something our minds are closed about it. History is full of examples of “certainties” that were overturned by later discoveries—like the flatness of the earth, or the rotation of the sun around the earth. Hitler was certain. One of our current dominant certainties is of the need to continue to look for, harvest and use fossil fuels, when future history, if there is one, will show us that what we really need to be doing is using our intellectual, financial and industrial resources to develop sustainable energy sources as quickly as possible.

The above are weighty universal issues, but our relatively small individual personal and professional issues operate the same way. A certainty is a finished idea. A closed door, dead and stale. An open enquiring mind allows us to keep learning and advancing, to stay vitally alive and hopefully to recognize truth if it decides to put in an appearance.


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