Philosophy Community Endeavors

We believe that philosophy is grounded in the here & now and its questions (the things with which it is concerned) are extremely practical & relevant.  Our community endeavors include a range of philosophy in the community activities designed specifically around the interests of community members. Some of these are ongoing; others are structured to be stand-alone.

From local shin-digs and collaborative efforts to our ongoing Thinking About Place and What Say You? programs, our community endeavors are all about you (and philosophy, of course!).

Philosophy Camp

(A Collaborative Venture with Cottonwood ALC)

Thinking in the Wild is a week-long outdoor philosophy camp. 

We’ll spend time conversing in parks, taking walking journeys and venturing to nearby bodies of water, with a particular focus on ‘wildness’ as it is present in the urban landscape.  Each experience will be oriented toward getting us to think philosophically together. What is Nature? and What is it to be a human being? 

This program is suited for curious young thinkers ranging in age from 12 to 18.

Led by Mitchell Conway through Cottonwood ALC. 

“Thinking About Place”

(A Collaborative Venture with Historian, Artist & Urban Designer Dennis McCahon)

A straightforward way to reduce our “carbon footprint” is to make more real footprints — to get out of our cars and walk. Urban design should invite us to do so — to get back to what is, after all, our natural way of moving around and engaging with our environment (think of it, maybe, as “habitat restoration”). New urban design should be about walkable space.

Cars aren’t going away though, and there’s little sign that they’ll be getting any less bulky. So,
acknowledging the SUV in the room, what can walkable urban space look like? How can it work?

We’ll explore this idea and more on a couple of group walks this Spring & Summer — the first walk “Place, Climate Change & Urban Design” is scheduled for May 29th w/ walk co-leader Patrick Judge.  

There are clues to be found in parts of town where, despite the cars, walking remains the dominant or co-dominant way of moving around outdoors. There’s Main Street for example, “The Gulch” from the north end of the 400 Block south to the vicinity of the Library and Reeder’s Alley. I always enjoy walking that path, not just because of my favorite destinations scattered along the way, but because, from one end to the other, I never lose the sense of being in a single “place.” All of that commercial, architectural, topographic, historic and social complexity holds together as a unit.

What holds it all together, the binding element throughout, is foot traffic — a certain kind of foot traffic. It’s not the kind found in car-centered suburban commercial areas — limited, by design, to the shortest possible scuttle across the parking lot — but rather it’s mixed through-traffic, diffuse and sociable, the kind of foot traffic that can coalesce into “street life”. It’s foot traffic itself as the most dynamic element of “place”.

Obviously there are lots of destinations on the Gulch, all within walking distance of each other, but that alone doesn’t make walkable urban space. There’s the character of the architecture defining that space and — especially here — there’s the topographic setting of the architecture. I’ll get to the architecture, but first I’ll give thanks for quirky topography. It’s made the street narrow and crooked, and that’s a big difference.

On the 300 and 400 Blocks, narrowness slows down the cars and limits them to two lanes and one direction, so they don’t quite dominate their space. It’s an irresistible temptation to jaywalk, in effect keeping both sides of the street equally accessible for (careful) pedestrians.

That word “jaywalker” has a story. When cars were first coming in, a century or so ago, motorists’ groups wanted a pejorative term for the hordes of pedestrians who tried to keep using the streets as they always had — more or less as elongated public squares — crossing wherever and whenever they wanted. The motorists coined “jaywalkers”. It stuck. Of course the practice itself also stuck, a sign of pedestrians’ stubborn sense of possession of their urban outdoors. It merits study now by those who see “the street” as more than merely a conduit and storage space for cars.

That other gift of topography, the Gulch’s crookedness, shapes walkable space by how it positions and crowds the buildings and frames what’s seen between them, and even by how it plays with sunlight in this north-south slot. While a straight street tries to hurry my eye straight through a place and out into the gray urban distance, glances down this crooked street keep bumping, at a dogleg angle, into architecture. The street reads as a chain of walkable sightlines, renewed at each dogleg. The angles range from 10 to 15 degrees, each showing just enough of the next link to keep drawing me on.

Walking Main Street suggests that urban “place” and walkable urban space are much the same
thing, or, to put it another way, “place” is pulled together by walkable sightlines. There’s more to
urban walkability of course; there’s what’s underfoot, and the character of the architecture, and
what might be called the “right-angle factor” — stuff I’ll get to in my next walking notes.

To learn more, contact me, Dennis McCahon, at [email protected]

When we get that “sense of place”, what’s going on? What are we “sensing”, and to what extent might it be a shared sense, something we can compare ideas about as we consider Helena’s future?

This is an experiment. Consider this your invitation to take part. Walk routes you like, and think about why you like them. What draws you on? Take notes. If enough curious folks do this, we can all get together and share our observations and see where it leads. How might sense of place be helpful to the growth and preservation of Helena? We can have some useful fun with this.



Walking Guide & Walking Guide (Additional Details)Download both documents & use alongside any of the site-specific walking notes below!


Benton Avenue – Walking Notes 1

Reeder’s Alley – Walking Notes 2, Walking Notes 3 & Walking Notes 10

Bluestone House – Walking Notes 4

Last Chance Gulch (from the Library to Placer St.) – Walking Notes 5Walking Notes 6 

Mount Helena/South Hill Trails – Walking Notes 7

This project invites people to explore Helena afoot & consider questions about “place” – an oft overlooked but critical element to the understanding and appreciation of a city and its history. A space is abstract; a place is a space with meaning. From its historic storefronts and iconic architecture to its meandering natural walls and pathways, Helena is packed with “place.” But why? What is it about Helena that continues to call out — not as a dot on map but as a unique lived experience that beckons and makes one feel at home?Dennis & Marisa

Helena by Foot

First, we’re pretty sure that “sense of place” has much to do with how we experience our unique built surroundings within their unique natural context, and that the experience is most accessible on foot.

So, we suggest that one of your walks be entirely within town — maybe in one of our historic districts or someplace else where the architecture seems intent on getting your attention — and that another walk cross from within town to some point that feels “out of town” — maybe across the interface between old Helena and our public open-lands.

  • In both cases think about the shape and “feel” of the spaces you’re walking through, and about how the spatial sequence unfolds as you go along. Think about what you’re walking toward, among, past, between, under, etc. Think about the topography underfoot and the lay of the land. Is there a sense of elevation, slope, enclosure, edge, etc? Are you entertained by the lay of the land? If so, how and why?
  • Do you take delight by what’s built on it? If you like walking among Helena’s old buildings, for example, is it because of the history? Or is it the character of the architecture itself — style, scale, texture, materials, workmanship, etc? What holds neighborhoods together? How “pedestrian-friendly” is the infrastructure?
  • Think about the landmarks and viewpoints and transition points by which you navigate. Are transitions clear and inviting? Do glimpses of open land in the near distance — Mount Helena, South Hills etc, — bring on a welcome sense of proximity to the Montana countryside? Can you walk to it?

Access Some Questions We Considered at Our September "Thinking About Place" Drive-In Below!

Questions About "Sense of Place"
  • Do you think that a person’s appreciation of a “sense of place” must necessarily involve an understanding about that place?  Or can the recognition of a sense of place happen with little to no knowledge about what is being looked at/experienced, etc.? For example:  Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there” has been used as a description for placeless spaces.  Can place be recognized just by looking at it…in the sense that it’s either there or its not?  Or is some sort of special knowledge required in order to recognize place?
  • Insofar as our sense of place is connected to our environment, and insofar as our environment is constantly changing – can any one location really have an enduring sense of place?  Or will this always be fluid?  Can you think of an example of a place you have been to that seems to defy this….and, if so, how so?  What sorts of things might contribute to an enduring sense of place?a space, spot (be that a coastline, or building, or a city, etc.)
  • Can a space/location/building etc. have a sense if place while at the same time being unremarkable,  less than breathtaking, and common?  Can you think of an example of this here in Helena?
  • Must a sense of place evoke a sense of contentment?  Or can it evoke a sense of discontent?  Is there a space/spot/building/other here in Helena that you can think of that has a sense of place to it….but evokes feelings of discontent?
  • What “place” ingredients are involved in what makes Helena, Helena?

Access Notes & Resources from our October "Thinking About Place" Workshop Below!

Helena by Sight

Second, note the sights that strike you as being unique, in any way, to Helena — sights essential to your mental image of the place. These might be the “iconic” sights, or “evocative” ones. They might be lucky visual accidents, or oddball juxtapositions. They might be sights that are surprising, quirky, peculiar (in any sense of that word), amusing, beautiful or engaging in any other way. Use whatever adjectives come to mind.

  • We’re betting that by walking around out there and thinking about Helena in this way, and then getting together to share those thoughts, we can begin approaching “sense of place” in terms realistic enough to enter into consideration of Helena’s future growth and preservation. 

To join in, contact:


“The Power of Spaces” (TED Radio Hour)

~Architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri explore the power of spaces with NPR’s Manoush Zomorodi.


“What Makes a Building Beautiful?” (A Why? Radio Podcast)

~Philosopher & jazz musician Jack Russell Weinstein explores beauty, design, and more with Sarah Williams Goldhagen~


“What Say You?”

(Philosophical Musings with Dr. Barry Ferst)

“What Say You?” is a fun and casual internet-based philosophy in the community activity inspired by our belief that physical distancing need not equate to social distancing.  Each week philosopher Dr. Barry Ferst will share some of his philosophical musings on our Merlin Facebook page and invite readers to comment and discuss.

Ideas and dialogue can be shared in a variety of ways.  “What Say You?” is one way to do this and a casual means by which to explore philosophy with a guest scholar on-line. Think SNL’s “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy”….only with somewhat more gravity (maybe).  Learn more here!

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