Beer, pizza, perspectives

A history of the Jacksonville Philosophy Slam


Courtesy of Erich Freiberger

Students attend a Philosophy Slam at North Star “The Pizza Bar”

As the downtown scene along 119 E. Bay St. settles into an evening calm, life just beyond the paned glass widow of Northstar “The Pizza Bar” begins to rattle up.

It’s 7:30 p.m. and a speaker stands. Grabbing a microphone, the night’s instigator moves through a growing murmur of clattering dishes, chatter and rush of beer pouring steadily from the drafts, to the center of the bar.

Playing the role of a lightheartedly confrontational navigator, the speaker looks into a crowd of approximately a hundred faces, ready to invite their beliefs on the stand, preparing to steer the nighttime crowd through an experience of thought, laughter, questions, and debate.

The question of the evening is posed, thoughts and beer flow and the Jacksonville Philosophy Slam begins.

The Philosophy Slam, an event organized by Jacksonville University once each month during the academic year,  brings an informal, open forum for discussion of philosophical, controversial topics into the Jacksonville community.

Each slam, a speaker presents a topic to a mixed crowd of college students, professors, members of the community and unsuspecting bar-goers and then passes the microphone through the crowd to stimulate an interactive discussion.

“It’s really enjoyable, and a very unique experience,” said Mae Davis, JU sophomore philosophy major. “It shows the Jacksonville community that philosophy is intertwined in everyday life.”

In the past, the Slam has tackled a wide expanse of topics including animal rights, drone warfare and the ethics of disgust.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Davis said. “The vibe is always changing, but no matter what, the audience will have something to say.”

It’s a venue where no topic is off-limits.

“Anything that can be discussed respectfully, no matter how explicit, no matter how graphic, we’ve probably talked about it,” said Erich Freiberger, Ph.D., JU professor of philosophy. “We try to find some hook, some engaging way to drum up controversy and get people to speak and discuss ideas in public in an informal context that is fun and amusing. If somebody starts getting too boring, I’ll start shouting things from the back of the room just to lighten it up a little bit.”

Since first stepping out into the city fourteen years ago into its first venue, Fuel Coffeehouse, the Slam has stirred up a following that stretches beyond the standard reaches of academia.

“I’m very proud of the slams.” Freiberger said. “I don’t think there are a lot of people doing this elsewhere. I think it’s something very unique to JU.”

The Slam offers its unique experience to anyone who steps into the bar.

“It’s actually kind of funny when people are just at the venue for their own reasons and find themselves in the middle of a philosophy slam,” said Scott Kimbrough, Ph.D., JU professor of philosophy.

Earl Coggins, Jacksonville resident and president of the First Coast Freethought Society, has been actively attending the slams since they began.

Coggins described the experience as, “frictitious.”

“There’s a lot of friction,” Coggins said. “That’s the way it’s set up to be. I guess that’s why they call it a slam. That’s what makes it so fun. You can get in there and it’s like an intellectual wrestling match.”

It’s the jovial “ruckus” take on philosophy that keeps him as well as other members of the community coming back, Coggins said.

The Philosophy Slam began in 2000, born from communal interest between the student philosophy clubs and departments at JU and The University of North Florida.

Before the Slam, when JU professors of philosophy Freiberger and Kimbrough came to JU in 1998, the university’s approach to education and discussion of philosophy was tied to the campus setting.

“We’d come up here and try to run discussion groups at night in some empty, sterile classroom after everyone had been here all day,” Freiberger said. “We didn’t want to be here. The students certainly didn’t want to be here. We tried a lot of different things, but it’s the informal, outside the university gates experience that seems to foster a certain kind of freedom and openness to the public and the real world that I think is helpful.”

Through the efforts of Freiberger, Kimbrough, David Schwam-Baird, UNF associate professor of political science, and Ellen Wagner, Ph.D., UNF professor of philosophy, the event expanded from about a dozen people participating the first night to, at one point, an average of 200 participants each Slam.

As the years progressed, the Slam moved through a variety of venues, including one event held on-campus, before finding its present home in Northstar.

“It’s very important that it’s off campus,” Kimbrough said. “It’s also always been one of our criteria that it be at a bar. We want it to be a fun event and communicate through the choice of venue that philosophy isn’t stuffy, that it’s fun to discuss things. And people do talk philosophy at bars all the time. We just formalize it.”

Everything about the setting makes the experience different from an event held in a lecture hall or classroom, Kimbrough said.

“It’s still serious but people are more irreverent or sarcastic than they would be in a classroom,” he said. “In class, sometimes people worry if they’re giving the wrong answer. I think people are a little less inhibited out of that setting.”

Outside the classroom, students have the opportunity to encounter a much wider array of perspectives from individuals of different age groups and experiences than can be found within the confines of a college campus.

“In 2003, a guy was shipping out to Iraq the next day in a Slam about Just War Theory and of course the lurking question in the background was ‘Is the Iraq War just?’ This guy who was about to ship out and go to war giving his opinion in the middle of a heated discussion, that was memorable.”

From the same token, the public nature of the philosophy slam also brings in characters that are more amusing than intellectual.

“There have been all kinds of crazy people,” Freiberger said. “ One time, in an early Slam at Fuel Coffeehouse, there was a drunk who came in saw us all sitting there and started singing a song about the atomic bomb. It was hilarious. He just wanted the attention. He got a hold of the microphone and we had a little trouble getting it back. We totally cracked up about that. We’ve had all kinds of wacky things but it made for a really interesting, safe place to have an unusual discussion.”

In 2008, Wagner retired and UNF participation in the Slam began to dwindle. After that point, the Slam transitioned into a fully JU organized event. However, in recent years, efforts have been made toward rekindling the Slam’s original intercollegiate nature.

“In the last year or two, UNF has started to get more involved again,” Kimbrough said. “The next two Slams are actually being hosted by UNF faculty. We’re very happy about that and I think it’s going to make it a much larger event.”

The remaining semester Slams will take place March 11 and April 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Northstar “The Pizza Bar.” On March 11, UNF Assistant Professor of Philosophy Paul Carelli will pose the question, “Can We Choose to Act Against What We Know Is Best?” On April 8, UNF Assistant Professor of Philosophy Sarah Mattice will ask, “Must Philosophy be Combative?”

A full update of the Philosophy Slam schedule can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

“The whole point is to show people that it is fun and interesting to talk about ideas,” Freiberger said. “The best ones are when I see students up there asking questions because they’re engaged by the topic who otherwise wouldn’t be asking those questions. They wouldn’t be thinking about that idea were they not there.”