During the 1980s, Vukovar was just another small industrial town in socialist Yugoslavia. Shoes and rubber factories maintained around 20, 000 employees, supplying almost the entire country with quality products. People who were coming of age then tend to reflect on it as a happy and peaceful time.
Tragically, Vukovar found itself in the heart of the horrific Yugoslavian Civil War of the 1990s. Located right on the Danube River, bordering Croatia and Serbia, the town was almost completely destroyed between 1991 and 1995. Almost 30 years after the conflict, Serbs and Croats still live here, now mostly reconciled. However, this story is less about the tumult of regional conflict and more about how philosophy can be used to heal and inspire action.
This narrative is about the people who still live in Vukovar—my people—those who are trying to get on with their lives. Still, there is a feeling of division between the nations, and a sense of community has largely been lost.
[Read “The Locking Spine“]
Philosophy and Community
The term “community” has recently found new ways into philosophical discourse on the Continent. Some German and Dutch philosophers in the 1980s, like Gerd Achenbach and Ad Hoogendijk, wanted to break away from the aloof halls of academia, bringing philosophy out into the streets. This movement later became known as philosophical practice, offering various formats and techniques, both for individual clients and groups.
However, by 2010, none of these practitioners seemed active or visible within Croatia. So when a few of us local philosophers rediscovered it, we began travelling abroad to learn more—first in France, and later in Germany, Netherlands, and Scandinavia. We attended seminars and conferences, picking up the trade, reviving forgotten methods, first in our classrooms, then among the broader public.
In 2011, I began with philosophical counseling and then in 2013 established a philosophical cafe. Word soon spread almost like wildfire, especially among philosophy and ethics teachers in high schools. Put simply, philosophical counseling is a practice in which a client aims to question and better understand or even solve a practical problem they face. Such an approach is based on Socratic imperatives to question the self and to know the self: rather than speaking about emotions and past experiences, it is based on argumentative discussion and reason. This method is mainly done one-on-one, while philosophical cafes usually bring together a small group to meet and discuss broader philosophical and ethical issues (as well as social, political, and cultural ones). These tend to be relevant or contemporary challenges such as relations toward migrants, debates on education reform, and abortion.
With a relatively strong non-governmental organization (NGO) sector in Croatia, these approaches have rapidly gained popularity. Petit Philosophy, an NGO from Zadar, was formed in 2009 with the aim of doing philosophy for children. Its founder, Bruno Ćurko (a former professor of mine at Osijek University), and I quickly established a philosophical practice approach of our own, first by doing philosophy summer schools along the coast where we combined a camping atmosphere with workshops in philosophy—or rather critical thinking.
Soon we were organizing projects for universities, schools, libraries, NGOs, and local cafes throughout Croatia. Starting with philosophical cafes, these workshops primarily used methods of critical thinking to promote dialogue, especially among young people. In other words, our approach isn’t based on any particular philosopher but on techniques and tools generally used in philosophy to discuss relevant matters. For example, our method is informed less by what Plato or Aristotle said or wrote and centers more around questioning the concepts we talk about in our daily lives: What is happiness? How does one lead a good life? Should we legalize same-sex marriage? Are social media networks good for us?
Creating a Philosophical Cafe
In establishing a philosophical cafe, we knew we needed to first find a venue. It had to be somewhere pleasant and comfortable for our participants to feel at ease and informal, taking into consideration that a cafe owner needs something to gain from it. If the business was slow on Tuesday nights, we would bring 10 to 20 people—paying customers—and the owners would provide us with free space to do philosophy. Frequently they were amenable. We would meet sometimes for up to three hours, discussing various topics in philosophy, ethics, art, politics, and current affairs. And we always started from our personal views and insights, exchanging and criticizing ideas, and wrestling with arguments.
This is the philosopher’s task as a facilitator—to help foster dialogue and to ask relevant questions during discussion.
We investigated thorny issues like drug legalization, the separation of church and state, and our relation to social technologies. This gave our collective a proper space for dialoguing and learning. Albeit mostly Croatians, we came from rather different backgrounds and experiences—young people heard stories from the tumultuous past, while older participants learned about emerging technologies and challenging cultural developments. Our membership varied greatly. We had policemen, lawyers, doctors, artists, singers, teachers, and even some ex-prisoners among our participants. Anyone could join as long as they observed the basic rules or club etiquette. Our membership was passionate because we provided them with something they had never experienced before—a public space for debate and exchange of ideas. Such an audience was accustomed to attending public lectures where they had been merely a quiet audience but never had they engaged in a practice where they were the protagonists.
We have since organized philosophy cafes in over 20 towns and cities across Croatia. In the meantime, we’re expanding into other formats: Philosophical Wine (similar to a cafe, but with an emphasis on wine tasting), Philosophy with Children, Philosophy with the Elderly, Philosophy in the City, Philosophy Summer School, and Philosophical Treasure Hunts. Feeling compelled to find new ways of introducing the public to philosophy, I’ve started a new venture—Philosophy of the River.
Taking to the Water
In Vukovar, there is a tourist boat that sails almost every day on the mighty Danube, the biggest river in Eastern Europe. An enthusiastic couple, Zrinka and Zoran, run a boat and a tourist agency. Both were born and raised in Vukovar. Exiled during the war, they returned after to establish their business, sailing the Danube almost every day during the busy season (spring to fall). During the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns, I received a message from Zoran, boat owner and captain. He invited me to their operation, mentioning that they had some ideas about integrating their river enterprise with philosophy. “I figured you could use the boat,” he said.
What philosopher wouldn’t dream of holding philosophy workshops on a sailboat?
The first time I visited his water vessel, Zrinka informed me that they had a resident owl. I recall seeing it standing on the boat, having probably just flown down from a nearby tree, looking very curious yet calm. What a good sign for a philosopher! We ideated and plotted logistics, considering how we could best combine our visions, finding common ground. From the beginning, Zoran and Zrinka gave me full autonomy; they would run the boat, and I would run workshops. I had some time to think about the approach, and then it struck me—the river!
Yes, the flow of the river, water, life in flux.
Theseus had sailed on a ship, serving as one of the earliest thought experiments: Is it the same boat or a different one if a crew changes all of its parts during a long trip? Heraclitus made appearances with his philosophical fragments and famous dictum: “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Both ultimately deal with identity. We examined Zygmunt Bauman and his idea that we live in liquid modern times—everything flows: people, travel, traffic, money, and ideas. Nobody likes the red traffic light; everyone likes to ride the green wave. I wanted to further explore concepts related to flow, the flow of time, the flow of life, and, finally, the concept of a flowing path.
The flow of time is related to impermanence. Our life is final. It has an end, and the older we get the more we have the feeling that time runs faster. Traveling and sailing, in the end, is all related to the river.
[Read “Wanderlust Is a Vice, Not A Virtue“]
Following the Path
A few years ago I hosted a guest through Couchsurfing. She told me that she had decided to treat herself for her 70th birthday, realizing that there were some paths she didn’t need to pioneer herself—they were already there. In her mind, the Danube had forged her way. She was determined to follow it from the source to the delta, a journey that took her directly through Vukovar. And this struck me. Yes, the Danube is a path, one among many.
From there we had our first program. Six weeks of workshops, three of which were dedicated to different philosophers and their ideas, and three dedicated to discussion on life issues, available for everyone to join. The idea was to invite local people, no matter whether they had any background in philosophy or not. We wanted the wider community to join the discussion and contribute with their own perspectives.
Initially, people were shy, not knowing what to expect. They didn’t engage much in conversation, and their dialogue was conservative; few would open up. At the least, everyone was amazed and enchanted by the sailing trip. In cafes the atmosphere is different; it’s very static and dry. On a boat, however, everything moves, changes and flows, the same as the river. On one side, we have an urban landscape with buildings, churches, and a view of the town. On the other, we have the coast, the forest, and nature. I believe some philosophers, especially Martin Heidegger or Albert Camus, would have loved the sight and the opposition of the two.
By our third week, we already had regulars. People who visit Vukovar often hear about the boat and try it out. They enjoy the views and are thrilled by the discussions. Mostly, our audience consists of local teachers, but we also have business owners, local government officials, and tourists from nearby cities. At our fifth meeting, a small group of tourists came from the capital to visit the Danube, not even knowing about the workshop. It turns out, a retired couple among them had studied philosophy, probably in the 1970s, and were elated to participate. They soon engaged in the conversation and forgot about the sailing they came for in the first place. They were delighted with the group, and gave us a rather different perspective, coming from a big city and being much older than anyone else. “Life just goes too fast, kids,” the woman said, “don’t waste any opportunity you have!”
Rather immediately, participants realize that the philosopher is not there to lecture or teach immutable truths but to facilitate discussion with the proper questions. I aim my prompts toward that which is most relatable to everyone. What is the meaning of your life and how does one lead a good life? What is the best use of one’s time? Or, what are your views on our contemporary consumerist society? Their responses are mostly positive to the practice, and participants quickly pick up the pace, engaging fiercely after the first couple of meetings. In recall instance in which someone had stated that their goal in life was personal and that they were still in pursuit of it. The obvious next question seemed to be about how they hoped to achieve it. Participants encouraged them with prompts and questions: tell us a bit more about your pursuit, is it hard for you, can you do it on your own, what about the others in your life?
From my experience, people are mostly honest. They do not get the chance to be asked these questions often, even among friends and family. This is where philosophizing begins, in questioning things we take for granted. Sure, we all know that traveling involves moving from point A to point B, but what does traveling mean for myself, in the immediate moment in which I find myself, and how does it relate to my broader worldview? This is a step further. As one participant put it, “This path is mine for the making. I am the only one who is undertaking it.” This lets you peek through the window of this person’s home and look for deeper insights into their own understandings.
Furthermore, questioning their answers deepens their involvement in thinking activities. This is a highly philosophical demand, which has its roots in the Socratic tradition. I asked you a question, so now you must respond to me, i.e. you are responsible to me (as well as I am to you). In such a way, we start a dialogue and then enrich it with arguments, ideas, opinions, or propositions. During one workshop, a participant was only giving us general answers, as though they were reading from a book. Naturally, the others objected. One person asked, “Could you be more specific? Tell us what you think about consumerism! Surely, you have your own view, and not something we can all read in a book.”
These techniques are used to move us from our safe perches. We already come with our own ideas and opinions, formed over many years of experience. Once somebody questions them, or presents another perspective, we are shaken, and we need to defend, abandon, or question them from within a community of inquirers. This is what our main goal is—to create such a community in a town where community is often just an empty phrase. Once you bring people together and invite them to share their ideas, and especially put them to the test of reason and argumentation, you can build a new foundation for their shared experience and motivation for something creative and positive—from within a tangible community.
It is our firm belief that we have succeeded in this, but only as the beginning of a much broader plan.
With our Philosophy of the River program, we’re making a start, and a good one, one which tickles the imagination of the locals—my people—provokes them to participate, to think, to contribute, and to create. With such ideas, as a start, we demand from ourselves to push further and to investigate more, to contribute to our particular place. It all starts with the community and the resources we already have at our disposal, with a strong will to put words into action. Changing the world for the better is a noble and grand idea, but sometimes it takes just small steps starting at one’s local café or boat. By creating such a public, people have a place where they can share their stories and examine them in a fresh way.
This is what we wanted to do in Vukovar with the philosophical community—to be a group of people with a common interest, examining deeper understandings of life, going beyond the mundane and shallow conversations.
Philosophy always offers this to us: the realization that everyone can participate, for the betterment of us all, not just as a local community, but as sentient beings who strive for wisdom and meaningful living. Philosophy, like the Danube, has almost always been there in one form or another—as an ever-shifting entity, it demands adjustment, change, and something new, strong, and creative to happen, in every time, with every new generation. Philosophy, the same as a river, is an ongoing inspiration and possibility for creativity and the progress of our species.
Zoran holds a MA degree in literature and a PhD in philosophy. He teaches in high schools and works for the NGO and private sector on various philosophy related projects and critical thinking training. He is a philosophical practitioner and a private philosophical counselor. He regularly publishes popular and scientific articles in philosophy and is the author of 3 books.
He lives by the Danube.