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Canada Philosophers' cafés serving up food for thought

At 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning, two dozen people have congregated in a dim Kitsilano pub to ponder the world of ideas.

Amid the din of clattering cutlery, a sizzling grill and laughter from the brunch-and-beer crowd, moderator Linda Christensen poses the day's question: Does each human being have a "soul print?"

Dr. Christensen, a professor of religion, neatly ducks as a waitress passes with a tray laden with coffee, and wonders aloud, "Is a soul print spiritual DNA? A psychic equivalent to a fingerprint?"

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Perched on a nearby barstool, a man turns to listen. He wears a black T-shirt advertising the Vancouver rap group Swollen Members.

Welcome to a Vancouver version of the philosophers' café. Around the world, forums, salons and even philosopher-buskers have existed since ancient times. These days, British Columbia is applying a signature West Coast exuberance to philosophy.

About 5,000 people turn out each year for dozens of philosophers' cafés in Vancouver-area pubs, bistros, community centres or book shops, where they debate questions such as, What is "normal"? Does advertising make us crazy? What will primary education be like in the near future? What's fair in wars with terrorists?

"Vancouver is a hotbed," says philosopher Peter Raabe, who started an independent café eight years ago in the suburb of Deep Cove.

Coincidentally, Yosef Wosk, of Simon Fraser University's Continuing Studies Department, was planning to establish philosophers' cafés as a university street-front program. He invited Dr. Raabe to join him, recruited a handful of other moderators, booked venues and then invited the public to come and talk.

And talk they did. From teenagers urged to attend by their teachers to recent university graduates, from the out-of-work to the elderly, British Columbians embraced philosophers' cafés.

SFU organizes the locations, publicizes the topics and hires professors or public intellectuals to moderate. (Participants at most cafés are asked to pay a $5 fee.) Dr. Wosk's department at SFU has also helped organizations and other colleges set up café programs in Penticton, Nanaimo, Tofino, Saltspring Island and Bowen Island. There are now dozens of cafés held throughout the province each month and the numbers are growing.

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Modern philosophers' cafés, Dr. Wosk said, were begun in Paris 1991 by two philosophy professors. He heard about them and decided organizing such cafés would be a way for SFU to reach out to the community.

To aid informality, philosophers' cafés are always off campus, in informal settings like pubs, dessert shops or even, in summer, on beaches.

"I'm not against hearing a learned lecture, or sitting and hearing a panel, but I wanted something warmer and more of an authentic connection," Dr. Wosk says.

Philosophers ask questions to start the discussions and provide feedback and expertise but serve essentially as moderators, he said. "The guests are on an equal footing with the expert. At the same time, they can refer to the expert."

Dr. Wosk says that Vancouver now has the world's largest network of philosophers' cafés, but acknowledges they may not work everywhere.

"Maybe New York already has too many types of conversations going on," Dr. Wosk muses.

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In Europe, Dr. Raabe adds, philosophy is taught in many grade schools and gatherings need no organizing: "In Europe, lots of independent philosophers sit in sidewalk cafés and discussions are commonplace."

The café's success in Vancouver is largely due to the social environment, Dr. Raabe adds. "Vancouver is very accepting. People say, 'Okay, I may not want to do what you're doing, but it's okay as long as it's not hurting anybody. That attitude works well in the cafés, because people are not afraid to express themselves, and they know they're not going to be ridiculed."

Still, why would people want to discuss esoteric questions with strangers?

"For some, it's entertainment, a night out," explains Dr. Raabe, who stepped down from moderating this year to focus on teaching at University College of the Fraser Valley. "For others, it satisfies a hunger for meaningful conversation about serious issues.

"Some are quite comfortable discussing ideas with others, and some come up and say, 'I wish you would instruct us.' But I say that's not my role, I'm just here to prevent fist fights."

He quickly adds that no real fist fights have occurred -- though discussions do get heated and, once, café participants feared that a drunk who wandered in and disliked what he heard would assault Dr. Raabe.

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He says he learns as much from participants as he imparts. "We had a topic: What is evil? I started by asking for personal experiences . . . what floored me was the kind of experiences people had had, from surviving Nazi camps to horrible neighbours to police violence . . . you'd look at these people, and you'd never guess."

That people regularly attend the cafés show there's a need for such forums, Dr. Raabe said. "The problem is that here most philosophy is done in academia. The cafés [offer]discussion of serious issues with ordinary language.

"Philosophy is examining the reasons . . . for the values we hold as good, or the beliefs we hold as true, so we can free ourselves from simply following tradition, obeying the dictates of authority figures, or just acting on your feelings."

And by its very definition, he adds, philosophical thought is hazardous to any status quo. "It's dangerous to yourself, too. If you are a strongly religious person, or you have strong beliefs about politics, philosophy can really shake you up."

In the Kitsilano philosophers' café, talk about soul prints has meandered to become a discussion about the need to understand oneself before being able to connect with others.

"Joy is the fulfilment of who we are," Dr. Christensen suggests. A few heads nod in agreement, the waitress refills more coffee cups and, behind the moderator, a customer squeezes by to pay his bill at the bar's Interac machine.

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Dr. Christensen, who teaches religion at UBC and moderates one philosophers' café a month on spiritual topics, says the gatherings fill the societal roles once played by community organizations and churches.

"These cafés enrich people's lives by introducing new ideas," she says. "That's what the purpose of education is, to enrich the quality of people's lives, so they will live richer, more meaningfully."

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