THE MEZZANINE LEVEL at McMenamins Six Arms pub on Capitol Hill is lit only by a few dim lamps. Every scattered table, booth and sofa is occupied. Sometimes-animated conversations blend into a uniform din. And no one is looking at a phone.
All of which makes this feel like a natural place to hold the kind of deep discussions that aren’t possible in workplaces or at cocktail parties.
That’s what the Drunken Philosophers are here for.
As the name suggests, the group congregates at different drinking establishments, once every two weeks, to discuss philosophy. Beyond that, there aren’t many parameters.
The protocol is simple: Walk in, approach a group, introduce yourself and pull up a chair. People are encouraged to rotate among tables and topics. That’s easy to do tonight, because dozens have showed up to talk philosophy.
My husband, Bill, and I join two of the group’s organizers, Aubrey Black and Tiffany Yang, in a booth, with Kriston Sanders and Dana Clark. It’s not long before we’re into some pretty deep topics, including the differences (and whether there even are any) between being a hypocrite and simply being bad at following through on what you believe in.
The Drunken Philosophy group has one solid, blunt rule, which boils down to: Don’t be a jerk. Black says group leaders rarely have to enforce it. Most people seem to grasp that means not hogging the conversation, not shutting down others’ points of view and not getting offended if someone doesn’t agree with you. It’s surprising how long people are willing to listen quietly to opposing viewpoints. But they do.
“You can have strong disagreements, and everyone’s into it,” says Sanders.
Other philosophy groups, including the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club, have a similar focus on respectful discussion. But they tend to choose one topic per meeting and might invite guest experts to speak. “This group’s kind of nice because it’s really loose. There’s no discussion topic and no lecture,” Black says.
Later in the evening, our table has switched to talking about whether the wishes of the dead should be honored even if they’re potentially harmful to those still living. Wayne Adams, who’s already popped into other conversations, joins us mid-discussion but soon catches up.
The drunken philosophers, who arrange events through Meetup.com, are mostly millennials, and majority male.
All genders are welcome, and Clark and Yang say they’ve always felt safe venturing their thoughts. Clark is naturally an introvert, though, and it can take her a while to work her way into a discussion — which can be difficult when someone is dominating a conversation. “I’m happy to learn about something, but let me get a word in edgewise.”
Overall, people at this meeting seem more interested in exploring all sides of a subject than in showing off knowledge or trying to convince anyone to come over to their side. Which feels unusual, given how much of our public discourse seems to be about who’s right and who’s wrong on any given issue.
“Lots of times, people aren’t talking about anything specifically philosophical,” Black says. But in a world where few of us feel encouraged to discuss esoteric or abstract ideas, “It’s kind of a safe space to be inappropriately profound about things.”