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The new insight

Today's practical philosophers are finding a public hungry to dust off and discuss the big issues looming since Socrates' day.

September 23, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

On the night of the recent blackout in New York, Chris Phillips left his sublet apartment and wandered into nearby Washington Square, where hundreds had gathered to share their anxieties in the dark. Phillips, a philosopher by trade, did what philosophers have done for nearly 2,500 years: He engaged the crowd in Socratic dialogue.

"We discussed the nature of community," Phillips says. "Dozens joined in to explore their own thoughts and connect with their neighbors. It was wonderful."

Phillips, of Williamsburg, Va., spends his days roaming the country, bringing such discussions to schools, prisons, libraries, bookstores and coffee shops. He's part of a burgeoning movement to make philosophy more relevant in the modern world, more useful for ordinary people, and more fun.

Toward that same end, two Stanford University philosophy professors just launched "Philosophy Talk" on National Public Radio. Their motto: "We question everything but your intelligence." Modeled on NPR's zany "Car Talk" show, hosts Kenneth Taylor and John Perry say they'll discuss current dilemmas along with such timeless subjects as: what is truth, happiness, beauty, and when is it acceptable to hate.

Colleges and universities have begun offering courses that link philosophy to popular culture. And philosophy forums now take place regularly at bookstores and coffee shops around the country, where dozens show up to debate the world's problems and their own.

For those whose problems are way too personal for open discussion, there's philosophical counseling -- a form of therapy in which philosophers, not psychologists, help explore a client's angst. Even huge, multinational corporations have taken a shine to philosophy and regularly invite philosophers to top-level discussions on corporate ethics.

In the minds of many people, though, philosophy is still a calcified subject best suited to Ivory Tower types whose teachings never leave the university. For them, the old joke still rings true: "How do you get a philosopher off your porch? Pay him for the pizza."

All that is beginning to change. The new practical philosophers are bringing critical thinking directly to the people. They are translating the dense, ancient writings of Socrates, Plato, Lao Tzu and Confucius into modern lingo and accessible wisdom. They are writing self-help books based on philosophical principles -- books sometimes mocked by academicians for their dumbed-down approach but bought by the same hordes who seek answers from meditation, Oprah, psychologists, Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil.

Philosophy, its proponents say, is an alternative to all that. It's a way to think for yourself and to find satisfying guidelines for living. It's a way to analyze complex issues through the prism of values, ethics and character. Philosophy (which means love of wisdom) is a search for answers that have made sense through the ages.

And it's a growing blip on the general public's radar. Between 15 and 40 people show up at the monthly forums hosted at Barnes & Noble in L.A.'s Westside Pavilion shopping mall. Katie Layman, the store's community relations director, organized the first one after she noticed the popularity of the book "Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems" (Harper Collins, 1999) by philosopher Lou Marinoff.

"People seemed desperate to discuss the deeper issues of existence that were troubling them," she says. And the desperation has remained. "Last month we spoke about the nature of happiness. One person said people just want material things to make them happy. Another asked if it's possible to have happiness without misery, and wasn't sure there is such a thing as happiness. And one young guy asked, 'What if what makes you happy isn't what makes your family happy?' "

Volunteer moderator Georgianna Streeter, who's working toward a doctorate in philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, "kept broadening and deepening the discussion, turning it like a diamond, to expose all its facets," Layman says. And at the close, she says, "I think people felt a kind of joy that they'd delved into some things that had been bothering them. It's a terrific mental workout."

People are always searching for useful principles to apply to their personal lives, says Marinoff, a leading proponent of philosophical counseling and founder of the American Philosophical Practitioners Assn. "In ancient times, philosophy was a guide to the art of living -- and all philosophers were counselors," he says.

One of Marinoff's clients, a 40-ish former entertainment industry executive who does not want his name printed, explains how the philosophical counseling worked for him.

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