Constitution Cafe

Christopher Phillips

Tuesday, 11 Oct 2011 at 7:00 pm – Sun Room, Memorial Union

Christopher Phillips is the author of Socrates Cafe: Philosophy for a Passionate Heart, Six Questions of Socrates, Socrates in Love; and Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution. He draws on our nation's rebellious past to inspire meaningful change today. With Thomas Jefferson as a guide, he taps into a broad cross-section of Americans' timely and timeless concerns about the need to give our country's democratic framework a makeover. His most recent teaching appointment was with the graduate program in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. He earned his doctorate in communications from Edith Cowan University in Australia.
Dr. Christopher Phillips has a passion for inquiry. A foremost specialist in the Socratic Method, he reminds us that we ought to ask questions not about any chance question, as Socrates put it in Plato's Republic, "but about the way one should live."

Phillips believes that the process of dialogue and the space of human interaction are good for us as individuals and essential for us as a society. At a time when there are widening rifts between Americans, and when American culture is frequently perceived as exclusionary and self- involved, Phillips encourages us to approach others with greater openness and less fear. His goal is to inspire curiosity and wonder, to nurture self- discovery and democracy.

To this end, Phillips is the founder of the Democracy Cafe and Socrates Cafe dialogue groups. These groups aren't just about good conversation, however. "It's grass-roots democracy," Phillips told Time magazine. "It's only in a group setting that people can hash out their ideas about how we should act not just as an individual but as a society."

Phillips induces his listeners to examine their assumptions rationally, in hopes they will see the way to improving the meaningfulness of their lives. These dialogues are intriguing, interesting, and often unexpected, as Phillips modestly considers himself a fellow inquirer, rather than a didactic instructor.

In his first bestseller, Socrates Cafe (2001), Phillips travels across America, launching philosophical discussion groups designed to stimulate inquiry and debate. In Six Questions of Socrates (2004) and Socrates in Love (2007), he expands the scope of his explorations, engaging in spirited and provocative discussions with Japanese fifth-graders, Somali refugees, a Mexican museum worker, an Israeli university student, and Korean Buddhists,among others. These conversations reveal surprising points of intersection between classical philosophy, modern life, and the intellectual richness of societies far removed from Western philosophical tradition.
To date, Phillips has helped create more than 500 ongoing discussion groups around the world. In the words of Time magazine, "Socrates Cafe have found a surprisingly large and diverse following." The subjects under discussion are Life"s Big Questions: love and friendship, work and fulfillment, justice and religion, death and aging.

Phillips's newest project, Democracy Cafe, is a space dedicated to the Jeffersonian idea of freedom: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In these groups, a broad cross-section of actual and aspiring Americans grapple with how they would sculpt the United States Constitution if they could start from scratch. In his upcoming book, Constitution Cafe (W.W. Norton, 2011), Phillips describes what led him to hit the road once again and launch an initiative aimed at generating a new, nationwide Constitutional Convention. Energized by the initial optimism surrounding Obama's presidency and the fierce partisanship infecting Congress, Phillips wants Americans to understand and challenge our most fundamental freedoms with a little help from Thomas Jefferson.
"If challenging received wisdom can be a precarious occupation, Phillips believes it's as necessary now as it ever was," says the Los Angeles Times. "America, he thinks, is politically and spiritually adrift, a condition not unlike that facing Greece in the time of Socrates."
Dr. Phillips, who earned his PhD in Communications, and who has Master's degrees in the humanities, the natural sciences, and in education, is a professor, writer and pro-democracy activist. He currently teaches in the graduate program in Media, Culture and Communications at New York University. He is also the founder and executive director of the Democracy Cafe and the Society for Philosophical Inquiry (SPI). Dr. Phillips frequently lectures on such topics as Leading Change, Deliberative Traditions and Democracy, and Socratic Inquiry.
Phillips, his wife Cecilia, and their daughter Caliope divide their time between Mexico, Virginia, and New York.

In his forthcoming book, Constitution Cafe, and in forums across the country he offers an offbeat and innovative project. Phillips engages Americans of all stripes as they grapple with how they would sculpt the United States Constitution if they could start from scratch. If Phillips has his way, Constitution Cafe will be the launching pad for a new Constitutional Convention.

The author suggests that the reason the last election left many progressives feeling betrayed by Obama's leadership and boosted his Tea Party opposition is because the system itself that was handed to us by our Framers prevents meaningful reforms that facilitate more responsive and responsible government. Rather than continuing to amend the Constitution, Phillips argues that the time has come to draft a new one. All that would be needed is a vote by two-thirds of state legislatures to hold a new convention. To help the process along, he has been traveling around the country facilitating meetings with students, green activists, Tea Party supporters and others, in an effort to mobilize a grassroots discussion on what a new Constitution might look like. The author bases his proposal on a similar one by Thomas Jefferson that a Constitutional Convention be held every 20 years to review the founding document. He reports proposed new constitutional articles ranging from the far out that every citizen be given $50,000 at the age of 18, and that the election process be modeled on reality-TV shows like American Idol to the serious, such as the right of every child to high-quality education. The author skillfully interweaves a history of the early days of the Republic and the disputes at that time with a discussion of Jefferson's involvement with constitutional issues in the state of Virginia as well as for the country as a whole, and he offers useful insight to Jefferson's thoughts over his long career. A provocative extension of Jefferson's original plan.


This lecture was made possible in part by the generosity of F. Wendell Miller, who left his entire estate jointly to Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. Mr. Miller, who died in 1995 at age 97, was born in Altoona, Illinois, grew up in Rockwell City, graduated from Grinnell College and Harvard Law School and practiced law in Des Moines and Chicago before returning to Rockwell City to manage his family's farm holdings and to practice law. His will helped to establish the F. Wendell Miller Trust, the annual earnings on which, in part, helped to support this activity.

Cosponsored By:
  • Honors Program
  • LAS Miller Lecture Fund
  • Committee on Lectures (funded by Student Government)

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