The Coffee Shop Philosophers

 |  February 26, 2015

Fancy yourself a bit of a philosopher? You are not alone. If pontificating on the existence of reality, the language of religion or the historical context of will is how you while away much of your time, you have company.

In Chiang Mai, there are a number of communities and sub-cultures to become a part of. Whether you’re an entrepreneur seeking a net to work with or a retiree looking to meet up with fellow bird watchers or wine lovers, it’s likely you’ll be able to find a group of similarly minded people. And if not, you can simply found your own group!

That’s what expats Julia and Kriss did when they started Chiang Mai’s first Socrates Café last year.
Now, once a week a group of budding and serious philosophers meet at Kaweh Café, where all sorts of existential and complex questions are debated and pondered over.

socrates cafe

But Chiang Mai’s Socrates Café is not a lonely island; it’s part of a worldwide network of over 600 ongoing gatherings across the globe, coordinated by volunteers and started a decade ago by an American philosopher and writer named Christopher Phillips. The groups are based on the idea of “Socratising; the idea that we learn more when we question and question with others,” according to Phillips, who has written several books on the subject.

Kriss and Julia, a pair of travelling nomads, launched their first Socrates Café in Kuala Lumpur in 2013 before moving to Chiang Mai last year to start a weekly meetup here. The group is organised via the aptly named, a social networking site designed to link up various offline groups around the world. In Chiang Mai alone, there are 37 different meetups and counting, specialising in everything from tech to tennis to tantra.

“Socrates Café is a philosophy meetup that is open to absolutely everyone,” write the organisers on their site. “We will meet to discuss questions that are common to all of humanity. It’s held in a casual cafe environment and we encourage everyone to join in the discussion – but there’s no obligation to do so. We’re bringing philosophy back to the people!”

Indeed, many travellers and expatriates share a certain curiosity of the imagination, some even finding entertainment in the philosophical inquiry to broaden their visions and hone their insights into the unknown. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy discussing philosophy, much like it takes a certain type of person to travel across the world.

Chiang Mai’s Socrates Café currently has 148 members on the site, although generally only around 15 members show up to each meetup. That is likely to change though, as they plan to open up other locations to accommodate their increasing numbers. At the meetups, participants will focus around one specific question. Discussions can often veer far off topic as related questions are explored. But as I discover upon attending my first meetup, this is perfectly alright, since to answer any question in a satisfying way one must thoroughly explore related topics and subtopics.

“It’s difficult to simply create a philosophically heavy conversation in just any coffee shop,” says Julia. “While I often find myself wanting to, I choose to avoid irritating people. This group is the best way to get my dose of discussion in.”

At my first meetup, I am welcomed with smiles and firm handshakes from Julia and Kriss. Since I’m new, they kindly give me first privilege in picking a topic for the evening’s discussion. I decide to go big or go home, and offer up “religion and spirituality’s place in the world today, and where it’s going.”

In Kaweh’s spacious workspace, which is decorated eclectically with a bit of a Moroccan theme, we gather around four tables set with colourful chairs. The table itself serves as a symbolic representation of the variety of backgrounds and perspectives joining together for the singular purpose of philosophical inquiry.

The members themselves are a rainbow of nationalities and proclivities. There are representatives from the UK, Singapore, Sweden, Russia, Israel, and both ends of the United States. There are self-proclaimed modern spiritualists, non-dualists, agnostics and atheists. As I pull up my chair and settle in, I feel a bit of a rush, excited for the discussion to begin.

A woman from San Francisco opens the floor by explaining that she is “broadly spiritual” as a result of having travelled extensively throughout the past decade. She believes that this is the direction that religion is going.

A networking entrepreneur from Croatia introduces himself. “That may be true,” he says. “I for one cannot say I prescribe to anything, I’m just curious.”

The discussion, now underway, starts branching off like a rapidly growing tree. It quickly becomes clear that there is a discrepancy not only about how to define religion and spirituality, but also which umbrella to work under. Indeed, it is quite an appropriate amount of confusion for a philosophical discussion. We’re all very different, but we find ways to connect.

Then, in predicting the possible future for religion, we run into a wall.

“Religion will die out in 400 years, tops,” says an atheist from Boston.

“Religion can’t die out. It has always been and will always be a part of humanity as a way to explain that which we do not know,” replies the San Franciscan.

“No, that’s spirituality. Spirituality will survive somewhat; religion will die.”

“Is this organised religion we speak of?”

“What’s the difference?”

There is a collective pause. We continue in this vein until somebody suddenly blurts out, “Atheism is a religion!”
“Ha! Atheism is not a religion,” responds an atheist. “It is too broad to be a religion. There isn’t a system of beliefs that atheists all fall under.”

“There’s a non-denominational Christian Church that says it’s not a religion, are they right?”
The atheist isn’t sure how to respond. Kriss repositions the conversation with a new line of inquiry and things move on from there, moving back and forth, with varying levels of mood – tense, uplifting, inspirational, puzzling – for about two hours.

Kriss stops the discussion ten minutes prior to 9pm and everyone gives their concluding thoughts. He and Julia are careful to make sure that each voice is heard, from beginning to end.

As the café empties out into the warm night air, groups splinter off. Some head home, some linger on into the evening, planning to meet up at various bars in the area for a nightcap where the conversation can continue. I join a small group and we talk on until midnight. By the time I leave, it’s with a sense of mutual respect and sincere appreciation for the presence of these people, for their willingness to talk so openly and avidly with a near stranger.

We never do decide exactly what religion’s role is in the world today, or where exactly it will go from here, but that’s okay. It was never about that. Indeed, philosophy is never really about finding a conclusive answer. It’s about spinning the wheel of perspective.

To join Chiang Mai’s Socrates Café, sign up at