Edited by Professor of Philosophy Alexander George. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2007. 256 pp. $19.95 hardcover.
Review by William G. Lycan ’66
In 2005, Professor of Philosophy Alexander George started a Website called AskPhilosophers.org. Its purpose was and is to put the knowledge and critical skills of professional philosophers at the service of the general public. AskPhilosophers.org maintains a panel of around 40 very accomplished professors of philosophy, from Amherst and elsewhere, who volunteer to take questions from visitors to the site and answer them as best they can. The answers are posted for all to see.
George’s book offers a representative sample of these question and answers, sorted under the Kantian headings “What can I know?,” “What ought I to do?,” “What may I hope?” and “What is man?” In his introduction, George reflects on what he calls the paradox of philosophy: that philosophy “is both everywhere and nowhere.” It is everywhere in that everyone “from nursery to nursing home” wonders about philosophical questions. It is nowhere in that few people ever take a course in philosophy and that few realize their own questions have actually been addressed and debated by people highly trained to do just that. The premise of AskPhilosophers.org, then, is that there is a widespread need for people to know that there are philosophy experts they can turn to.
The questions in the book come from all over the world—“from young children to the elderly,” George writes, “from doctors and lawyers to those untouched by education, from the hyperarticulate to those piecing together what little English they know to formulate their questions.” The questions are uniformly intelligent. Some are even profound: “Do ideas exist independently of us, out there in the ether, waiting to be discovered?” Others are confused, but illuminatingly so: “What happens to a moment of time after it occurs?” “Doesn’t the existence of something in one’s imagination at the very least give that thing a semblance of actuality?”
Still other questions sound trifling but prove to be serious—and quite tricky: if things have opposites (light vs. dark, cold vs. hot) then “what is the opposite of a banana?” (Professor of Philosophy Jyl Gentzler’s answer to that one is particularly good.) Questions range from the practical (“Is it morally wrong to tell children that Santa exists?”) to the metaphilosophical (“Why can’t philosophers agree? In philosophy, nothing ceases to be controversial.”) A few are about philosophers: “Do philosophers have a better track record of making successful personal decisions than the average individual?” (Ha!)
Of course, there is a problem with providing answers to such questions: since it’s true that, in philosophy, nothing can be considered permanently established, no answer is without controversy. As Mark Crimmins, associate professor of philosophy at Stanford University, concludes one of his entries, “Stay tuned for the answer. We’ll have it for you in a century or two, easily.” In general, the contributing philosophers are fair in flagging the more controversial parts of their answers as such. Some of the experts merely set out two or more rival positions for the reader to consider.
On the two subtitle topics: Nicholas D. Smith, the James F. Miller Professor of Humanities at Lewis and Clark College, argues that although there may be a kind of love that absolutely excludes loving more than one person at once, the massive majority of loves are not exclusive in that way. George himself takes up the question of nothingness, pointing out that the word nothing cannot, without contradiction, be taken as a name of anything; there is no such thing as nothingness.
The book closes, very appropriately, with answers to another question: “Why do philosophers make seemingly simple questions so complicated and confusing?”
Lycan is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.