Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Every Thursday the familiar and cozy Hobbs Café is transformed into a hotbed for community discussion and exploration of philosophical topics. Last night, event co-founder Sean Culleton led a discussion of truth and lies in politics, continuing the theme of the past few weeks: the philosophical elements of the upcoming election.
The weekly Philosophy Café was started a little over a year ago by friends Culleton and William Randall. They wanted to bring people together in a non-academic setting to think, argue and learn. Once a month, a distinguished speaker is brought in, while the remaining three meetings are devoted solely to discussion.
Previous speakers have included Carlin Romano, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, as well as various professors from the University of Pennsylvania, a professor from Harvard University, a chef, and a publisher of narratives written by prisoners. Next week’s guest is Larry Udell, a professor of philosophy at West Chester University who specializes in the 20th century philosopher John Rawls.
One of the most important goals of the Philosophy Café is to foster a sense of community in the town of Swarthmore. Salvatore Monastra, the manager and head of creative design at Hobbs Café, who has been one of the core staff members organizing the Philosophy Café since February, admires the diversity of the people who attend the weekly meetings.
“I love the range of people we get to come…it’s unbelievable,” said Monastra. He says the youngest attendees are teenagers, but guests in their 60’s and 70’s are also common.
The most valuable aspect of the weekly cafés is the process of “learning from everyone else’s thoughts,” Monastra said. “It’s like building a school of thought around us and learning more than we could ever imagine.” Culleton agrees that bringing people together is utmost.
“We want to promote conversations in a public space so our community can be involved,” said Culleton. He posed the question,“What are the beliefs and philosophical positions of the people that live in Swarthmore?”
Certain community issues have been raised in the past – should Swarthmore be a dry town? Should one be able to build a fence a certain number of feet from the curbside? Having a forum to voice opinions on these issues and others is vital, Culleton said, especially when disagreement arises.
Often participants play the devil’s advocate, said Monastra, “but only in a way to spur intellectual reasoning and thought.” Philosophy is known, after all, as the Great Conversation – and what’s a conversation without opposition? Culleton certainly sees the importance of multi-sided discussion. “I’d say that philosophy is […] some kind of theoretical, systematic […] investigation, because there’s a questioning component but there’s also an answering component,” he said. Weekly discussions at the café certainly attempt to provide both, with emphasis on the questions.
The Philosophy Café also aspires to enrich the lives and minds of those who attend. Culleton sees philosophy as a way for him to find meaning in life and discover what is important to him. He grew up with a Hindu mother and Catholic father and was given the opportunity to choose his own unique combination of religions – he was baptized but also had a traditional thread ceremony in India. “In some ways, philosophy is my answer to the question of what my beliefs are spiritually,” he said.
He also cites an early love of science fiction literature and films as inciting philosophical thoughts, specifically Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and the Matrix trilogy. He sees the study of philosophy as “a search for epiphanies […] being addicted to epiphanies, searching always for a fix, these grand realizations.”
While the Philosophy Café doesn’t promise to provide enlightenment, it does strive to create an environment where these realizations are possible, fostered by thought-provoking speakers and an engaged, diverse community. Culleton sees the mission of the cafés as being to “practice and promote good reasoning […] which leads to true judgments and beliefs […] We want to promote philosophical life outside of academia in an environment that isn’t ruled by professors.” Culleton believes that epiphanies come when philosophy is left up to the general public and the individual, cultivated in spaces like Hobbs instead of solely preached from the soaring heights of academia.
“We want to promote a love of philosophy,” he said. “Trying to understand the great questions of human existence can really bring a deeper meaning to your life.” Although some of the weekly discussions are sparsely attended, Culleton thinks that they are on their way towards building a solid tradition, continuing the ancient Great Conversation one evening at a time.
Hobbs Philosophy Café is each Thursday at 7 pm.
Photo courtesy of Colin Purrington.