Christopher Phillips Brings His Socrates Cafés and Constitution Cafés to University of Pennsylvania

What a difference a year makes.

On Sept. 13, 2011, Christopher Phillips was on a tour stop at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, moderating a discussion based on his book "Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution,” and also meeting with Valerie Ross, director of the Critical Writing Program of the School of Arts and Sciences. A year later, the internationally known scholar and democracy advocate is back on campus. This time, he’s not making a guest appearance. He’s a newly minted senior fellow with the Critical Writing Program.

Phillips is teaching two course sections on Socratic Method and Democracy. He’ll facilitate Socratic dialogues on campus throughout the academic year and in May will conduct a mock Constitutional Convention online to bring people from all around the country together to talk about what, if anything, they’d change about the Constitution.

On Monday, Constitution Day, Phillips will lead local high school students and the public in a discussion on rewriting the Constitution at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Admission to the 9:30 a.m. event is free.

Phillips has been facilitating philosophical exchanges in public forums across the globe since 1996.

“My goal is to create more thoughtful and inclusive participatory societies,” he says. “I started with purely philosophical groups, called Socrates Cafés, traveling to different venues posing Socratic questions such as: What is virtue?”

The cafés have been held in all kinds of places, including coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, schools, churches, community centers, parks, homeless shelters and even prisons.

Phillips wrote about them in three books, Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic, Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy and Six Questions for Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery Through World Philosophy. All told, his books, two of which are national bestsellers, have been translated into 20 languages and have led to about 500 active cafés worldwide.

From the Socrates Cafés, the idea for the Constitution Cafés was born. They’re based on Thomas Jefferson’s belief, Phillips explains, that we should revisit the Constitution every 20 years and consider rewriting it from scratch.

“This latest project is inspired in part by the fact that most people haven't read the existing Constitution," Phillips says. "But it's only about 4,300 words, is written in very accessible language, and it permeates every aspect of our lives. So we need to immerse ourselves in this great document, and then ask ourselves what, if anything, we'd change in order to keep our democracy evolving."