Archive for Friday, May 25, 2001

Truth seekers go casual

May 25, 2001

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— Look closely, very closely, at this Denny's restaurant menu. There, lurking between the country-fried steak and the chicken strips, you will find Truth, Beauty and Reason.

The steak costs $6.59 and the chicken costs $6.49. On every other Tuesday evening, from September through May, Truth, Beauty and Reason are $4. (Half-price for students.)

Twice a month, this Denny's, at the southwest corner of LBJ Freeway and Midway Road, provides a refuge from the stream of mind pollution that inundates our lives. Here, the Dallas Philosopher's Forum meets to hear guest lecturers and earnestly discuss humanity, science, religion, ethics and other meaty topics.

Members often arrive early for a bite of dinner and some relaxed chat. When the meeting starts, however, it gets down to the bedrock: grappling with who we are, the nature of our universe and our place in it.

But Denny's? Why not a college lecture hall or library, or some other similarly serious setting?

Forum president Bob Winiecki, a fellow with an intense yet friendly manner, explained before a recent meeting: "We're trying to get philosophy out of its academic hothouse environs."

In fact, the Forum met at a local Wyatt's and then La Madeleine before moving to Denny's a few years ago. As Winiecki said, "Coffee and food are natural partners with philosophy."

After all, did not the great French philosopher Rene (A La) Descartes say, "Cogito, ergo Sumatra Estate," or "I drink coffee, therefore I am really wired"?

Well, maybe not. But philosophers have never been averse to mundane surroundings. Socrates, for one, frequented the markets and meeting places of ancient Athens to discourse on his beliefs. Denny's would have suited him perfectly.

Few spring chickens

The Forum, which began about 16 years ago, has around 60 members and usually draws about 30 to 45 of them to each meeting.

Winiecki says the group seeks to make philosophy more accessible and less intimidating to the layperson and welcomes anyone with even a passing interest.

Still, the group leans heavily toward white-collar and professional types: doctors, engineers, physicists, computer people, business executives.

"We really do not have a blue-collar presence," Winiecki said. "I am the closest you will get to that, and I quit doing factory work 34 years ago."

The group is heavily male about five to one. Membership is also light on the spring-chicken quota, with most people between ages 35 and 70. However, you'll see a few twentysomething faces at the meetings, and Winiecki said more young people are getting interested. At one recent meeting, newcomers included two 18-year-old seniors from Trinity High School in Euless.

"I hope this represents a growing interest on the part of younger people in philosophy," Winiecki said. "In my view, there is a real need for this to happen."

Like many other Forum members, Winiecki, 52, is no stranger to the search for deeper truths. A former graduate student of theology, clergyman and church organist, he also has done graduate work in philosophy.

"My approach to philosophy is problem-solving," he said.

For other members, such as John Dale, a 61-year-old CPA, philosophy helps answer other questions, such as religious ones.

"If you look at the phenomenology" the study of the purely subjective aspects of perceptual experience "of Christianity or Buddhism, for example, you have another way of understanding it," he said.

Yes, indeed: These people know phrases such as "existential phenomenology" and they're not afraid to use them.

Wild and woolly

The Forum's setting may be casual and jokes may be cracked, but you don't have to listen hard to hear the whirring of some very heavy-duty mental gears. In the past few months, meeting topics have included "Agency, Behavior and Meaning: Watson's Behaviorism in the Light of Maurice Merleau-Ponty" and "Aquinas' A Priori Answer to Kant's Agnosticism."

At this meeting, University of North Texas philosophy professor Pete A.Y. Gunter will discuss the work of Paul Feyerabend "one of the wild and woolly philosophers of science," as Gunter puts it.

Born in 1924 in Vienna, Feyerabend, who died in 1994, was a philosophical anarchist. He contended that the notions of scientific rationality, truth and progress were myths, as was the scientific method itself. Science, he believed, had no monopoly on truth.

After the group settles in to a meeting room in the back of Denny's, Gunter delivers an animated, engaging, often humorous talk. ("What do we have of Aristotle? Just his class notes.")

Feyerabend, he said, "was unique in that he wanted to be human plastique. He wanted to blow up the system."

After exactly 55 minutes, some internal lecture-hall bell goes off in Gunter's head and he concludes his talk. Then come the Forum members' questions; freewheeling post-lecture discussions are a staple.

What matters, perhaps, is that these people continue to stretch their minds and challenge themselves to rethink their existence.

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