As clock nears midnight, students get philosophical

‘Night Owls’ draws hundreds for discussions on life, death and divorce

Agnes Callard didn’t know how many students would show. Nearly two years ago, the University of Chicago philosopher booked a free room in the basement of Ida Noyes Hall for her fledging event. She prepared enough cookies for about 30 people—an optimistic number, given the feedback from well-meaning friends and colleagues.

“Don’t expect too much,” one warned, “because this is pretty weird.”

“Even if 10 people show up, you’ve done something good,” another said.

More than 100 packed that room, sitting on and underneath tables to discuss the topic of the night: “Is Philosophy a Blood Sport?”

And so “Night Owls” was born. Callard’s late-night discussion series gives students and faculty a distinct opportunity to explore philosophical topics—and what the UChicago associate professor sees as a way to break intellectual inquiry out of classroom confines. As the clock ticks toward midnight, people feel a little looser, a little less self-conscious, a little braver with their questions.

The enthusiasm from that first night has only grown. This past fall, Agnes and her ex-husband Ben Callard, a UChicago lecturer, hosted the most popular “Night Owls” to date: “The Philosophy of Divorce.” Roughly a third of the estimated 300 students who arrived were turned away at the door.

The popularity of “Night Owls” reflects a trait Callard loves about UChicago students.

“You want to prove to people not that you’re necessarily the smartest, or that you’re going to be the most successful, but that you’re the one who cares the most,” she said. “You’re the one for whom being here means and matters the most.”

“If people want to prove that to themselves and to other people, then they’re motivated to go to events like these.”

Tackling the big questions

Callard, AB’97, would know. She first came to UChicago as an undergraduate more than two decades ago, hoping to study physics because she “cared about the truth.” But after taking classes in the College’s Core curriculum, she began to realize that truths might exist in other fields—ones that interested her more than atoms and molecules. So, she became a philosopher.

When she became the Department of Philosophy’s director of undergraduate studies in 2017, Callard noticed that most existing events had an administrative bent. They were valuable in their own way—guiding students to the major, through a thesis, or toward graduate school—but none of them involved the actual practice of philosophy.

“Night Owls" was Callard's attempt to fill a void. The series, which she runs with department administrator William Weaver, is now supported by the Stracke Family Core Innovation Fund.

A conversation with Zena Hitz, a friend who teaches at St. John’s College, inspired Callard to launch the late-night philosophy discussion—one led by faculty, but tailored to spin off in whatever direction students want. Rather than close-reading classical texts like in class, “Night Owls” offers a chance to engage with the big questions that push people toward philosophy in the first place: What exists? What does it mean to live a good life? What is the meaning of death?

“This feels like the way philosophy should be done,” said Anya Marchenko, AB’17, a regular “Night Owls” attendee. “Late at night, with snacks—and attended by a ton of people who are really invested in these types of questions.”

The draw of a late-night debate over Kant or Kierkegaard shouldn’t come as a complete surprise—not at the University of Chicago, where similar conversations often spill into dorm rooms and dining halls.

“‘Night Owls’ is the epitome of the fun and rigorous inquiry that drew me to UChicago,” said fourth-year Nora Bradford. “Where else would you find this many people gathering for three hours on a weeknight to talk about philosophy?”

Fellow fourth-year Nur Banu Simsek has missed just one “Night Owls” session, absent only because she was out of the country. The series, she said, has “honestly been one of my favorite parts of the overall college experience.”

Rain or shine (or polar vortex)

Last month, “Night Owls” faced a new test: The latest session was scheduled at the end of the January polar vortex, which saw temperatures dip to negative-20 degrees and prompted the University to cancel over a day of classes and non-essential activities.

Callard considered canceling “Night Owls” too. But her guest, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, had already landed at O’Hare International Airport. Weather for the 9 p.m. event was forecast to hover around zero degrees—unpleasant but bearable. Opening the doors to those willing to brave the cold, she decided, was better than trying to reschedule.

More than 200 people turned up, warming themselves with hot chocolate and coffee after trekking through snow. “Night Owls” had returned to Ida Noyes Hall—but instead of the basement, students filed into the third-floor theater, flanked on either side by Renaissance-inspired murals. A dozen or so settled in without a seat, standing in a back corner or sprawling out on the hardwood floor.

Callard and Cowen settled on stage, accompanied a small, turquoise owl statue. Billed as a “Philosophy vs. Economics: The Battle for Your Soul,” the two assumed their roles as friendly adversaries, eager to win over the young minds gathered before them.

Callard opened with a shot across the bow.

“Welcome, philosophers,” she said, “and future philosophers.”

“Night Owls” will hold its next event on April 25, with Prof. Chris Blattman (Harris School of Public Policy) for a discussion on organized violence. The series will close the academic year on May 25 with “The Meaning of Death,” featuring a discussion with Assoc. Prof. Dan Morgan (Cinema and Media Studies) and a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Find out more at