RIYADH: The Riyadh Philosophy Conference on Thursday featured a powerful discussion on the power of philosophy to transform humanity by Socrates Cafe founder Christopher Phillips.
Socrates Cafe is an international gathering concept that encourages individuals to come together and explore timeless and timely questions as well as share their viewpoints on different topics. It can be held in any place, from cafes to meeting areas or any space that invites thinkers to share their thoughts.
“There is a beautiful window here (Saudi Arabia) of flourishing desire, almost a hunger for the discovering, cultivating the art of sort of questioning, to look at what speaks for and against a wide variety of views,” Phillips told Arab News.
“At a time when so many places around the world are building walls, not just literal walls, physical walls — walls between one another, existential walls — there are so many people in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East who truly want to build bridges. They want to be less impatient. And they understand that this form of philosophical inquiry is one way to hear somebody out,” he added.
The Saudi Literature, Publishing & Translation Commission is hosting the second edition of the three-day philosophy conference from Dec. 1-3 at the King Fahd National Library.
The second edition of the Riyadh Philosophy Conference has welcomed a wide variety of speakers and experts from around the world to hold lectures, discussions, seminars and workshops focused on philosophy as well as issues affecting humanity.
Speakers include scientists, writers, historians, professors and philosophers from around the world.
Phillips spoke during the first Riyadh Philosophy Conference and has returned for the second edition to host an in-person Socrates Cafe event that give people the opportunity to interact and explore ideas as well as different perspectives in a relaxed setting.
The Philosophers Cafe will explore questions surrounding the conference’s theme of “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time and Humanity.”
Phillips said: “It celebrates the right to inquire, the right to frame your own questions, and that’s a tradition of philosophy.
“What’s interesting is that lots of the discussions right now seem to be from a dark place — questions about whether are you born evil or is this something that you can become or is it something that’s innate. On the other hand, they are also asking ‘can I be the change that I want to see in the world?’”
During an interview with Arab News, Phillips discussed the power of philosophical thinking as well as the importance of listening to other people’s thoughts and beliefs.
The Socrates Cafe founder said that he has seen a growing will to proselytize in countries around the world. However, in the Kingdom, Phillips described the trend in thinking as “very much a breath of fresh air right now compared to so many other parts of the world where that tradition of careful listening, of inquiring together, of framing thoughtful questions has gone by the wayside.”
He added: “If you take that time to understand where another human being is coming from and why their story is different from yours, it’s something much more often than not to celebrate.”
Phillips said that many people no longer celebrate the idea of having differing opinions or viewpoints.
He added: “If somebody has a point of view that differs from our own, a person might just be ready to jump down from that other person. So why?”
Rather than pointing fingers and siloing ourselves and viewpoints, Phillips said “we can look at ourselves and say, well, what modest talent might I contribute to be more part of the solution than the problem.
“It’s about cultivating the art of listening at a time when people are screaming at one another, at a time when there’s too much holier than thou to cultivate the Socratic virtues of humility, the sense that ‘I may be wrong.’”
Phillips said he is unsurprised that people in the Kingdom are so willing to hold philosophical discussions and actively listen to opinions that differ from their own.
“I’m not surprised, and I will tell you why, because the Socratic tradition, the tradition originated by Socrates, it’s right on the cusp of the East and the West, the Middle East and the Western world. I think Socrates himself was influenced by Middle Eastern thinkers, and that this is something that comes naturally,” he said.
“There’s the receptivity here in Saudi Arabia that there was when I first started Socrates Cafe in 1996 in the US, and it’s no accident that there’s the spontaneous flourishing of Socrates Cafes and so many diverse types of communities, cities and groups all throughout Saudi Arabia,” Phillips added.
Through holding philosophical discussions and sparking curiosity, people can not only learn from other’s experiences and knowledge, but can also discover a lot within themselves.
“It’s about listening, truly asking why, especially when someone has a view that’s alien to your own, to want to know their story as a way of becoming more connected. It’s transformative when you really give someone that gift of listening to them, you’re going to be changed,” Phillips said.
The Socrates Cafe founder stressed that a lot can be learned from the way children philosophize. “I believe in breaking down categories of learning and knowledge — disciplines of thinking in colors like kids do.”
Phillips has a series of 10 children’s philosophy books. One of them, “Worlds of Difference,” has been translated into Arabic.
“It’s written by the kids. They are not yet cubbyholes; we haven’t yet tainted them so much with our adult-made very unimaginative categories. So they help me. They help me think more fully and deeply, and colorfully,” he said.
“And believe it or not, even though they’re fidgeting around, they really listen to one another until they’ve unlearned it from older folks,” he added.
Phillips is set to travel around the Kingdom, holding Socrates Cafes events throughout the week. He said that there are now 10 Socrates Cafe locations in Saudi Arabia, including in Jubai and Dammam. On Dec. 6 he is set to hold a Socrates Cafe event in Riyadh.
“I feel like this is almost a second home to have been back three times now, and not as a tourist, but as somebody who feels like these are fellow kindred spirits who want to engage in this beautiful thing called Socrates Cafe,” he said.
“It’s such an honor for me to be part of that and to know that there are still places on Spaceship Earth that celebrate the art and science of careful listening, and thinking and inquiry. We all are inquirers, but it tends to get shunted off as we get older.”