More than thirty years ago, philosopher and Executive Director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff AO placed a dozen chairs in a circle in Martin Place in the centre of Sydney’s busy CBD. Next to them he put up a sign that said: “If you would like to discuss ideas with a philosopher join the circle”. 

At first, the circle attracted little more than sidelong glances from curious passers-by. But it wasn’t long before people paused to read the sign, a few of them taking up the offer to occupy one of the chairs and start a conversation. Soon the circle was full and the discussion buzzing. 

Simon discovered that many people had an unsated appetite for a different kind of conversation than the one that usually unfolded with friends, family and colleagues or, heaven forbid, online.  

This was a kind of conversation where they could open up and express their deepest beliefs and attitudes, where they could ask questions without people presuming the worst about them, where they could have their ideas challenged without feeling judged or threatened, and where they could explore a topic before making up their mind.  

Simon returned regularly to Martin Place with his circle of chairs, and each time more and more people stopped by to discuss ideas with him and the others seated around the circle. People started to come from far and wide to join in the conversation, having heard about it from friends or family. Rarely were chairs left empty.  

With his Circle of Chairs, Simon had effectively created a space where people were safe to talk about difficult and challenging subjects. What made it work was that it wasn’t just free and unregulated discourse. Simon was able to bring his skills as a philosopher to facilitate the conversation and set appropriate norms that enabled people to speak and listen in good faith in ways that are difficult to achieve in everyday conversations. 

This exercise all those years ago served as a crucial spark that led to the creation of The Ethics Centre, which still works to create safe spaces to discuss difficult and important subjects to this day. 

Welcome to the conversation

Presented by The Ethics Centre, Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) is Australia’s original disruptive festival. By holding uncomfortable ideas up to the light and challenging thinking on some of the most persevering and difficult issues of our time, FODI aims to question our deepest held beliefs and desires. 

Which is why Dr Simon Longstaff’s original vision of a Circle of Chairs is returning to this year’s FODI, in partnership with JobLink Plus. With six sessions held over the two days, we’re inviting festival goers to take up a chair and sit shoulder to shoulder with leading philosophers Dr Simon Longstaff, Dr Tim Dean and Dr Kelly Hamilton, who will be joined by special guest conversationalists to unpick some of modern life’s most dangerous ethical dilemmas. 

Will you agree with your fellow FODI attendee’s views? Pull up a chair and join or simply watch the guided conversations unfold as together we examine how we’re really feeling, thinking and doing.  

We hope to see more safe spaces opening up outside of FODI to help us all have the opportunity to share our authentic views and tackle the most challenging, and important, questions that we face today.

Circle of Chairs returns to Festival of Dangerous Ideas live 24-25 August 2024 at Carriageworks, Sydney. Book your free ticket to one of the sessions here. Supported by Joblink Plus.