On 6 Months of Grassroots Philosophy

After 6 months, 24 discussions, and over 70 individuals joining a conversation amid over 150 members online, we’re still asking how to live well.

It’s interesting to see how a steady balance of group dynamics emerge over time, how personalities interact with one another, how one person relates to another, how enduring questions resurface each week. After 6 months, 24 discussions, and over 70 individuals joining a conversation amid over 150 members online, it’s clear that the question of how to live well remains pertinent despite the large numbers of books, online columns, animated videos, corporate retreats, religious activities, advice letters, listicles, etc. A few impressions have proved salient.

  • I need a better understanding of how we communicate in philosophical conversations, of how we express concepts that most of us don’t have the language to articulate or the frameworks to place one’s thought within.

Discussion usually operates on three levels: experiential, questioning, and formal. Individuals usually use one of these forms to communicate their points, and this trait remains consistent across discussions. It’s importantly to look at how these interact with one another, and the appropriate balance, to ensure a welcoming environment for all individuals.

Experiential discussion revolves around the sharing of personal characteristics or experiences that led to and/or proved a specific outlook, lesson, or belief that relates to the primary question. It generally relies on a number of other assumptions and invokes other questions, frequently widening the scope of the discussion. It lends the question a newfound personal significance, triggers empathetic feelings across the table, and deepens relationships. It almost creates a sense of urgency, of internal self-reflection for some (how do I relate to this narrative) and external cross-examination (how is this narrative accurate or inaccurate) by others, depending on their personal styles and characteristics. This is the most common form of communication.

Questioning discussion merely consists of proposed questions without satisfactory conclusions. Being a philosophy group, all participants are encouraged to ask questions, and as such, this is fairly common. In large groups, however, multiple questions can be asked in a short period of time, limiting shared investigation on specific matters. Questions push forward the discussion, frequently widening its scope. While encouraging a shift from reaction to reflection, it can also put undue pressure individuals to come up with an answer. Certain questions can be probing or intrusive.

Formal discussion mirrors traditional philosophical practice, narrowing the discussion around a single aspect or point, using reasoning to compare, contrast, or clarify a certain definition or claim. It is less personal and more focused on the language of answers. These segments of the discussion are more inclined to back-and-forth debate, are less inclined to satisfactory conclusions, and slightly stifle acquiescence to the validity of an individual’s personal perception of their experience. This form of communication is less common.

The balance of these three levels relies on the demographics of the discussion, as well as the topic. Topics that revolve around narrow, more conceptual lines of thinking are often related to personal experience. Formal discussion is usually brief and developed by a minority. Why this occurs, exactly, is individual-specific. Some individuals have attended and found that discussions are dominated by experiential discussion and would prefer more structured, formal discussion. Questions frequently interrupt specific lines of thinking, opening up the conversations to new aspects of the topic without sufficient resolution of the previous.

All three of these levels remain within an associative method of analysis. Just as a conversation between two flows naturally from topic to topic, our conversations generally bring many questions into the public sphere as each contribution relates to x, relates to y, which also relates to z. Topics that are broader, and more popular, generally encourage a more linked discussion and decreased number of digressions. This makes intuitive sense; we’re operating under a larger umbrella when discussing happiness or nature, whereas redemption or logic can be viewed as substrates of larger topics and unrelated to an individual’s experience.

Our discussions commence with a brief overview and rapid firing of multiple questions on the topic. It may be more conducive to focused discussion to propose a single question and interject throughout the conversation with another leading question. This may limit the breadth of the discussion, despite the large group, and allow for further progress in one direction. However, the limitations to this approach include the cessation of a natural flow of conversation, as well as create an unwelcome atmosphere of quizzing, or assignments, that must be focused on.

Demographics seem to play a large role in conversations. GRP’s primary audience is in the 50-75 age range, white, with an even male/female divide. Despite achieving reasonable gender parity, diversity in age and race needs to be increased. Rough estimates would mark 95% of participants as white and 60% of online members as white. Similarly, roughly 80% of attendees are 40+, whereas more than 70% of online members are under 40 years of age.

This divide between in-person attendance and online membership needs to be closed. The reasons for low youth and minority participation are unclear. Arguably, public relations and recruitment materials could be improved to better target these populations. Diversity is essential to the continued success of Grassroots Philosophy. Excellent conversation emerges from the interactions of different viewpoints; participants have noted that sessions with young people in attendance are particularly worthwhile for intergenerational communication.

From personal experience, 10 to 12 members is the optimal number to have in attendance to ensure enjoyable conversation, with multiple perspectives and delivery methods present. This number allows for the different levels of willingness to contribute with respect to individuals, as well as creates a balanced conversation.

Looking Ahead _____

  • I need to better understand the relation between communication and philosophy. I’ve started reading about Wittgenstein’s work on language.
  • I’ll have to look into facilitation materials to improve my own skills on moderating discussion, as my hands-off approach occasionally limits progress.
  • I need to better convert online interest into in-person participation.
  • I need to examine how to increase participation among the 18-24 years-old age groups.

However, before any adjustments, it’s important to ask what the purpose of these discussions is. Originally, the purpose of Grassroots Philosophy was to specifically provide a casual environment in which formal philosophical discussion could occur. It’s important to note: by formal, I mean sustained investigative discussion on specific assumptions, beliefs, and experience; by casual, I mean open and welcoming to all individuals, regardless of their experience with philosophy.

It was, I think, my error to prioritize a certain type of communication in discussion. I considered philosophy, previous to this, as less so relevant to my personal experience and rather as an examination of universal certain principles; principles that merely needed to be created, justified, and applied in a world where existence preceded essence. Yet this form inherently is in opposition with various belief systems in which these principles are already developed and merely need to be applied. Moreover, it relied on a form of communication that was necessarily specific and at times inaccessible. It was a type of practiced philosophy that almost removed itself from the people practicing it. While the intention was to return philosophy to the public domain, it occasionally shifts from philosophy, as I perceived it, to the more mundane conversation of sharing viewpoints, of talking over one another, of merely expressing one’s self rather than reflecting. It is difficult, especially in an open, casual atmosphere, to maintain a balance between serious philosophical investigation and expressive conversation.

Yet expressive conversation serves many valuable purposes and should not be discarded. It creates community, engenders empathy across viewpoints, creates meaningful connections, improves moods, and increases engagement with others. Over the past six months, the most striking lesson that emerged was how philosophical conversation served as a tool for connection. Previously, I interpreted the sense of connection from conversation as ancillary to the quest of knowledge; instead, philosophy is often subsumed by the emergence of community for group members amid conversation. It is, at times, a group of friends rather than of a gathering of inquirers, for better or worse.

It is a sense of cohesion. A communal awareness that each person has struggled with similar questions internally; that someone else has the same depth that we perceive within ourselves – I contain multitudes – that we generally do not retain at the forefront of our awareness. We feel empathy for one another, hearing the most common thoughts that we all have during the repetitive and mundane moments of our lives; somehow, it’s the everyday occurrences that have affect individuals the most, when no one has an audience. It’s odd to imagine others washing dishes or sitting somewhere or eating dinner simply with themselves. There is some yearning to provide company and long-term companionship in moments like this. And instead of searching for the satisfaction of certainty, perhaps, creating connection should be the primary role of a conversation group like ours.

Written on July 2, 2018