The coordinator of one of our Socrates Cafes around the globe recently wrote to me with this comment and question:

I have a question that I’ve heard many times here when I discuss the idea of the Cafe and it’s a fundamental question about the way Socrates Cafe works. People ask all the time: isn’t it better if everyone knew the topic in advance and prepared for it? It will be more fruitful if we discuss the topic with good background and knowledge about the topic. I feel that they’re not getting the idea of Socrates Cafe, but to be honest I don’t know how to answer this question.

So, here’s my stab at a response. When I first started Socrates Cafe over two decades ago, at times we chose the question well in advance.  Turns out I didn’t cotton to it, and neither did most other participants.

First, if you choose the question some time before the gathering takes place, some of those attending will take a considerable amount of time to read up on the topic, and some of them will name drop and quote drop a lot, as a result.

On the other hand, some who had planned to attend will not, for the very reason that they didn’t prepare in advance. Same reason why some don’t attend book clubs, much as they’d like to — they didn’t do any, some, or all of the reading, and so they will reluctantly pass on this opportunity for fellowship.

I can understand of course why you should want to read an assigned or collectively chosen book ahead of a book club gathering. But at a Socrates Cafe, it can defeat the purpose, to be privy to what’s to be explored before the gathering commences.

I can also understand it at a ‘philosophy club’-type gathering, if they are discussing a particular reading or passage or set of passages.

But at a Socrates Cafe, that’s not how we roll.

We propose and then pick a timely/timeless philosophical question from among those proposed by those gathered (it’s a fabulous and even exciting and insights exercise in and of itself becoming privy to the questions that are proffered, revealing so much of what’s on people’s minds and hearts at any given gathering) .

The criteria that we use to choose as a question at particular Socrates Cafe is typically that: it is a question we feel the least expert on, and hence a question that leaves us feeling the most perplexed about, and hence believe we will benefit from the considered perspectives and insights of the others on hand.

If you choose a question ahead of time with the intent of being more prepared, then here’s one scenario, based on experience, of what might transpire — a select few who have really really read up on it in advance will believe they are more knowledgeable, even more expert, than the rest, and will often try to monopolize the discourse. It can become a most pretentious and inegalitarian affair. The very antithesis of what a Socrates Cafe is all about.  What’ll happen is that those who haven’t read up in advance often will tune out, and become discouraged about attending. And heaven forbid that happens.

What’s really cool about a Socrates Cafe (well, one thing) is that people come in with an air of expectation and mystery, because they have no idea what question is going to be plumbed and mined and explored. They know it will be a question that is timely — relates in some way, in all likelihood, to recent experiences of the person or those proposing it — and timeless and transcendent, of a sort that thoughtful and curious inquisitors likely would want to probe in any era or culture.

There’s also this: if you’re adeptly and properly facilitating the discourse, using the ‘Socrates Cafe Method’ to full effect, you don’t need to know a thing in advance about the question du jour. It can even take away half the fun if you already know what’s going to be explored. No more than you want to read the last chapter of a great mystery after just reading the first, you ideally don’t want to know what’s going to happen at the latest ‘chapter’ of a Socrates Cafe.  That’s my feeling/philosophy on the matter, leastways.

What we do often do at a Socrates Cafe, after any particular gathering, is then come up with a reading list of books across the ages and disciplines by writers/thinkers who have weighed on this very question in some way – reinstilling our strong sense of connection with the coterie of questioners who have also reflected in their own era on a question we continue to find exhilaratingly perplexing and with the potential to expand our knowledge horizons and wisdom ways.

I don’t think it’s an accident that, while book clubs and philosophy clubs come and go, Socrates Cafes tend to continue on and on and on. The inaugural one i first started is now in its 21st year of weekly Socratizing, and many have been in existing for well over 10 and even 15 years — and, just as wonderfully, new Socrates Cafes come into being all the time.

One reason for this, I’d wager, is that the question is not chosen in advance, and so people come out of great curiosity to find out what they’ll explore, and then go on to take a stab at exploring it with immense childlike wonder.