Thursday, December 13, 2007


kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, collections

Go take a look at, where you can ask a question and one or more of a stable of 34 philosophers will post an answer.

An example "Question of the Day":

What is music? I can recognise music from cultures other than my own as being music, even if I don't enjoy it; but what makes a series of sounds 'music'? Similarly (I assume), when does human vocalising become song?

Response from Peter S. Fosl on January 5, 2007

What a fascinating question. I hope that some of my co-panelists can give you the answer this question deserves. For myself, I would briefly and cautiously answer this way: What makes a series of sounds (or even a single sound or even a silence) music is our agreement to consider it as music. Just as John Cage invites people to consider the silence and random sounds that occur during a 4 minute and 33 second period music (his piece is called, 4' 33") and Marcel Duchamp invites people to consider a urinal as sculpture (he called the piece Fountain), we make something music when we interpret it as music.

[Now we're back to me] As I recall, very, very few people accepted either Cage's or Duchamp's invitation. To most people, there is more to music than a chosen, empty interval, and many things are sculpted (dentures, for example) yet not considered "sculptures".

However, as nearly any philosopher will note, disagreement is central to philosophy. If you and I agree on everything, one of us is redundant. To me, divergent views complement one another, as the two not-identical views from our two eyes allow depth perception.

"askphilosophers" Site creator and organizer Alexander George has gathered a couple hundred of the best Q/A (of 1700+ so far submitted) into a fun little volume titled what would socrates say: philosophers answer your questions about love, nothingness, and everything else. The 34 contributors (and 21 former contributors) bring a wide assortment of philosophical viewpoints to bear on the "big questions" kids ask, and adults sometimes forget to ask.

To the question "Do good and bad luck exist?", Thomas Pogge offers one of the longer answers, which boils down to the principle of statistical independence: a series of instances of either good or bad luck ("streaks" in sports lingo) have no bearing on the goodness or badness of the next event coming down the pike.

A more probing question prompts three answers: "If every life ends in death, then how could life have any value?". Two short answers put the value in the experiences we have. A third, longer one, points to the hidden assumption that only unending life could have meaning or value, claiming instead that "endless existence would actually undermine the value of life." To me, this equates to the statement that a blank sheet of paper is less interesting than almost any other alternative; the background is needed, however dark it may be, to make the foreground visible by contrast. And I like that view.

The book is organized in four sections: "what can i know", "what ought i to do", "what may i hope", and "what is man". These are certainly more friendly than the "official" words for philosophy's branches: epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics (both personal and general).

When I first saw the book, I thought I'd be writing a posting that began, "What is duller than reading philosophy?". Fortunately, I underestimated author George and his colleagues. All are not only good writers, they are interesting writers.

No comments: