UCI News

Philosophy for the masses

Ph.D. student runs engaging kiosk at cafés and farmers market

by Roy Rivenburg, UCI | October 28, 2019
Philosophy for the masses
“If just one person comes by and finds a conversation meaningful, that’s important and worthwhile,” says UCI doctoral student Rena Beatrice Goldstein, who operates an “Ask a Philosopher” booth. Steve Zylius / UCI

Around the corner from booths selling volcanic lava bracelets, organic vegetables and aromatherapy crystals, two UCI students peddle Plato, Kierkegaard and other weighty thinkers at an “Ask a Philosopher” kiosk.

Visitors can either formulate their own questions or reach into one of two fishbowls filled with sample conundrums, such as whether an ancient Greek ship that had all of its planks replaced over time would still be the same ship.

The Q&A project – staged at a Long Beach farmers market earlier this month – is spearheaded by Rena Beatrice Goldstein, a Las Vegas transplant who surfs, writes fairy tales and wants to make philosophy more accessible to the general public.

“Historically, philosophy has been the domain of intellectuals and elites,” she says. “But the methods used to think through difficult issues can be valuable to anyone.”

Goldstein, a third-year doctoral student, is part of a movement to bring philosophy to prisons, elementary schools and other nontraditional outposts. After hearing about an East Coast ask-a-philosopher program that operates outside subway stations and libraries, she decided to create a Southern California version.

She debuted her booth in front of a Huntington Beach café in August – and ran a livestreamed session at a campus Starbucks in September.

Rena Goldstein, stationed here at a Long Beach farmers market, is part of a movement to bring philosophy to prisons, elementary schools and other nontraditional venues.

Goldstein, stationed here at a Long Beach farmers market, is part of a movement to bring philosophy to prisons, elementary schools and other nontraditional venues. Steve Zylius / UCI

The goal is to inspire thought-provoking discussions, not provide definitive answers, Goldstein says: “We’re not here to tell people what they should or shouldn’t think.”

Those who visit the kiosk seem to appreciate the mental workout. “I can’t remember the last time I met a random person who was more interested in the ocean floor, so to speak, than the waves at the surface,” one man told cable channel Spectrum News, which covered the Huntington Beach event.

But the vast majority of passers-by don’t stop to chat. “Not everybody cares to think deeply,” Goldstein theorizes. Others may be pressed for time or worried that they somehow aren’t smart enough to talk philosophy, she adds.

To spur more participation, Goldstein sometimes steps out of the booth and flags down pedestrians, inviting them to pluck a question from a fishbowl.

Classmate Adam Chin helped staff the farmers market kiosk. “I was on a waitlist to do this,” he said, before launching into energetic dialogues with visitors about free will, the nature of wisdom, and whether the power of invisibility would encourage criminal behavior in otherwise upstanding citizens.

Goldstein, who previously studied philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder and Cal State Los Angeles, plans to trot out the booth once a quarter at different venues in the region. She has tried to persuade local libraries and other farmers markets to host the forum but hasn’t had much luck.

Although she doesn’t earn course credit for the project and sometimes struggles to attract foot traffic, Goldstein says the effort brings psychic rewards. “If just one person comes by and finds a conversation meaningful, that’s important and worthwhile,” she notes.

After finishing her Ph.D., Goldstein hopes to work as a philosophy professor or think tank scholar – and devote more time to riding waves and writing. (She likes to pen fairy-tale fables with moral messages.) In the meantime, she’s figured out a way to combine all of those passions. As a member of Wahine Kai, a surf club for women, Goldstein recently published an article on philosophy and surfing in the group’s newsletter.


Rena Goldstein fun facts

Favorite philosopher: None, but Ayn Rand brought her to tears by overturning many of her beliefs

Job history: Worked for a nonprofit in Thailand and taught philosophy at Los Angeles City College, Cal State Dominguez Hills and Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown

Cost of booth: $377 for a table, a canopy, a banner, fishbowls and candy

Preferred method of contemplating difficult philosophical problems: Standing on her head for three to five minutes with eyes closed, one of her favorite yoga poses