BUSAN, South Korea – There are a number of reasons to hit the Starbucks in Seomyeon on a Sunday morning. Comfy sofas bathing in the golden light filtered through the big ivory curtains, or the addictive coffee fragrance mixed with Neil Young coming from the speakers overhead. And on Sundays especially you will see a bunch of expats and Koreans sitting in a circle looking either serious or confused by the conversation taking place.
You could simply grab your coffee and head for the door, or find a seat nearby and sit down, pretending you are not bothered at all. Or, just like one of the guests who once visited, stand by the circle and cut into the conversation saying, “Excuse me, I just dropped by for a coffee, but I want to add. . .”
This is the Socrates Cafe, a group of amateur philosophers, deep thinkers and the occasional raconteur who meet every Sunday for coffee and conversation.
Back in August 2007, I just finished my second year as an exchange student. I knew almost no one outside of work and felt the need to find some new friends–then I saw Kim Lee’s post on Pusanweb. He was getting people together to talk about philosophy. I barely spoke fluent English, and I had long forgotten philosophy ever since the first year of university.
If I had not gathered enough courage to go, if Kim Lee had not patiently encouraged me to talk about China with my broken English at our first meeting, which immediately inspired and interested me, it might be someone else writing this article. Over the following three years, Socrates Cafe became one of the most important parts of my life in Busan.
Californian Kim Lee, who has a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Literature, decided to start the discussions with questions generated from our own daily lives, instead of using the abstract philosophical theories he had mastered. Topics such as “What obligations do we owe our parents”, “Is a relationship necessary to fulfill our lives”, “Shall we lead a meaningful life or a happy life”, “Do we have a right to ignorance” were presented and voted on by attendees. Topics ranged from art, culture, religion, politics to economics, science, technology. Being the moderator, Lee would let people express their opinions first and then summarize them with a few sentences or with a quotation.
Right after our first meeting, I helped create a Facebook page for the group to invite more people. As time went by, we formed a group with 10-20 regular members, men and women, married and single, young and old, from different families, cultures, religions, educational backgrounds. Most were English speakers, but there were also Koreans and me, Chinese.
After getting my invitations and being told it was a philosophy group, some immediately asked: “Don’t people argue a lot?”
Actually we rarely argue, probably because instead of forming strong viewpoints, we question and look for answers from our personal experience or from knowledge we get from books, movies, and the Internet. The casual and informal way we talk about philosophy made some serious philosophy majors quite angry, we were even told we knew nothing of philosophy.
It’s true that most people in the group have little or no philosophy education, and during the conversation, you don’t hear the often hear mention of Nietzsche, Hegel, Plato, Confucius, Rousseau, or Socrates himself, but isn’t generating wisdom from life, debate, free speech the point of philosophy?
Most of the time, Socrates Cafe opens a door for us, but doesn’t always produce solid conclusions (We once talked about ‘what is time’. It was really frustrating because few of us really understood much about a subject we experience everyday). Those at Socrates Cafe are not there to pursue a harmonious, uniform thought, but to view things with a more curious, open-minded attitude.
Cory Matthew Timmons, one of the first members recently mentioned, “Socrates in Busan is not only about philosophy…For me, it's a chance to use parts of my brain that I don't get to use during the week. I get to spend time with interesting people and learn new things. It really is the best part of my week.”
We have been meeting every Sunday in Seomyeon continuously for 3 years (there was only one exception–the Sunday when Kim Lee was getting married) and successfully pooled some of the coolest nerds around the world. Come join us.
You can join the Socrates Cafe Facebook Group here. Or, just head on down to the Starbucks in Seomyeon just outside Exit 10, Sunday mornings at 11am.