Philosophy question? There’s an app for that

May 18, 2010

AMHERST, Mass. — The world’s leading online resource for questions about the meaning of life, ethics and other existential matters has now launched an app for mobile devices such as the iPhone and Android phones.

AskPhilosophers.org, which was founded in 2005 by Alexander George, a philosophy professor at Amherst College, will now broaden its reach to include those who are pondering the big questions without easy access to a PC. (The app’s development has been covered by various blogs and media outlets, including the New York Times Arts Beat blog, AppsScout, the Boston Globe Brainiac blog, Open Culture and 3 Quarks Daily).

“People don’t stop thinking when they leave their computer terminals,” George says.  “When philosophical questions occur to people away from their desks or computer screens they’ll now have the opportunity through their mobile devices to see quickly whether other people have already asked that question and whether it’s received interesting responses.”

AskPhilosophers.org’s simple mission – to deploy a virtual team of professional philosophers to tackle the questions that have been vexing mankind for generations – has yielded more than 3,000 responses, archived on the website and arranged according to categories that include ethics, love and rationality.

As befits a philosopher, George is careful when describing the service to specify that the site’s panelists provide responses, but not definitive answers, to the queries that arrive on a daily basis.

“I don’t think there are definitive answers and more importantly I don’t think the panelists do either,” George says. “In fact, what I love about their responses is that the panelists are not about: ‘Here’s the question; here’s your answer — next!’ Instead, they’re much more inclined to say something like ‘Here are a few concepts, some distinctions, and several positions to throw into the mix to sharpen your question a bit and to bring your reflections to the next level.’”

Since its launch, the roster of philosophers who regularly tackle queries has grown to more than 30. That collective wisdom has resulted in widespread media coverage as well as a book, an anthology of questions and responses that has been translated into several languages (its English title is What Would Socrates Say?).

Another book, dealing with ethics and titled What Should I Do?, is forthcoming.  A podcast project that involves Amherst students who select and read queries and responses, is also in the works.

For now, the mobile application is taking center stage, and George and his fellow panelists will be monitoring its usage closely. Ready to tweak it with more features if necessary will be George, along with his collaborators in Amherst College’s Information Technology department.

“This is Amherst’s first app, and the fact that it’s a philosophy app is quite appropriate for a liberal arts college,” George says.

NOTE: The AskPhil application is suitable for the iPhone, the iPod touch and the iPad. It can be downloaded for free at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/askphil/id371299815. (It is also available in the Android Market; just search for “AskPhil”.)  For more information or to arrange an interview with Alexander George, please contact Peter Rooney, Director of Public Affairs, Amherst College, at 413-542-2321 or prooney@amherst.edu.