Greek philosopher Socrates. Nice_Media_PRO/Shutterstock.com
The life choices that had led me to be sitting in a booth underneath a banner that read “Ask a Philosopher” – at the entrance to the New York City subway at 57th and 8th – were perhaps random but inevitable.
I’d been a “public philosopher” for 15 years, so I readily agreed to join my colleague Ian Olasov when he asked for volunteers to join him at the “Ask a Philosopher” booth. This was part of the latest public outreach effort by the American Philosophical Association, which was having its annual January meeting up the street.
I’d taught before – even given speeches – but this seemed weird. Would anyone stop? Would they give us a hard time?
I sat between Ian and a splendid woman who taught philosophy in the city, thinking that even if we spent the whole time talking to one another, it would be an hour well spent.
Then someone stopped.
At first glance, it was hard to tell if she was a penniless nomad or an emeritus professor, but then she took off her hat and psychedelic scarf and came over to the desk and announced, “I’ve got a question. I’m in my late 60s. I’ve just had life threatening surgery, but I got through it.”
She showed us the jagged scar on her neck. “I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve got a master’s degree. I’m happily retired and divorced. But I don’t want to waste any more time. Can you help?”
Wow. One by one, we all asked her to elaborate on her situation and offered tidbits of advice, centering on the idea that only she could decide what gave her life meaning. I suggested that she might reach out to others who were also searching, then she settled in for a longer discussion with Ian.
And then it happened: A crowd gathered.
At first I thought they were there to eavesdrop, but as it turned out they had their own existential concerns. A group of teenagers engaged the philosopher on my right. One young woman, who turned out to be a sophomore in college, stepped away from the group with a serious concern. “Why can’t I be happier in my life? I’m only 20. I should be as happy as I’m ever going to be right now, but I’m not. Is this it?”
It was my turn. “Research has shown that what makes us happy is achieving small goals one after the other,” I said. “If you win the lottery, within six months you’ll probably be back to your baseline of happiness. Same if you got into an accident. You can’t just achieve happiness and stay there, you have to pursue it.”
“So I’m stuck?” she said.
“No…” I explained. “Your role in this is huge. You’ve got to choose the things that make you happy one by one. That’s been shown from Aristotle all the way down to cutting-edge psychological research. Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”
She brightened a bit, while her friends were still puzzling over whether color was a primary or secondary property. They thanked us and moved on.
Suddenly, the older woman who had stopped by initially seemed satisfied with what Ian had told her, and said that she had to be on her way as well.
Again it was quiet. Some who passed by were pointing and smiling. A few took pictures. It must have looked odd to see three philosophers sitting in a row with “Ask a Philosopher” over our heads, amidst the bagel carts and jewelry stalls.
During the quiet I reflected for a moment on what had just happened. A group of strangers had descended upon us not to make fun, but because they were carrying around some real philosophical baggage that had long gone unanswered. If you’re in a spiritual crisis, you go to your minister or rabbi. If you have psychological concerns, you might seek out a therapist. But what to do if you don’t quite know where you fit into this world and you’re tired of carrying that burden alone?
And then I spotted her … an interlocutor who would be my toughest questioner of the day. She was about 6 years old and clutched her mother’s hand as she craned her neck to stare at us. Her mother stopped, but the girl hesitated. “It’s OK,” I offered. “Do you have a philosophical question?” The girl smiled at her mother, then let go of her hand to walk over to the booth. She looked me dead in the eye and said: “How do I know I’m real?”
Suddenly I was back in graduate school. Should I talk about the French philosopher Rene Descartes, who famously used the assertion of skepticism itself as proof of our existence, with the phrase “I think, therefore I am?” Or, mention English philosopher G.E. Moore and his famous “here is one hand, here is the other,” as proof of the existence of the external world?
Or, make a reference to the movie “The Matrix,” which I assumed, given her age, she wouldn’t have seen? But then the answer came to me. I remembered that the most important part of philosophy was feeding our sense of wonder. “Close your eyes,” I said. She did. “Well, did you disappear?” She smiled and shook her head, then opened her eyes. “Congratulations, you’re real.”
She grinned broadly and walked over to her mother, who looked back at us and smiled. My colleagues patted me on the shoulder and I realized that my time was up. Back to the conference to face some easier questions on topics like “Academic Philosophy and its Responsibilities in a Post-Truth World.”
About The Author
Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University
Philosophy 101: From Plato and Socrates to Ethics and Metaphysics, an Essential Primer on the History of Thought (Adams 101)
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Too often, textbooks turn the noteworthy theories, principles, and figures of philosophy into tedious discourse that even Plato would reject. Philosophy 101 cuts out the boring details and exhausting philosophical methodology, and instead, gives you a lesson in philosophy that keeps you engaged as you explore the fascinating history of human thought and inquisition.
From Aristotle and Heidegger to free will and metaphysics, Philosophy 101 is packed with hundreds of entertaining philosophical tidbits, illustrations, and thought puzzles that you won't be able to find anywhere else.
So whether you're looking to unravel the mysteries of existentialism, or just want to find out what made Voltaire tick, Philosophy 101 has all the answers--even the ones you didn't know you were looking for.
Explore the history and concepts of philosophy, from the big thinkers to complex theories, with straightforward text and witty illustrations that demystify an often daunting subject matter. Now in paperback.
Are the ideas of René Descartes, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes still relevant today? The Philosophy Book unpacks the writings and ideas of more than 100 of history's well-known philosophers, taking you on a journey from ancient Greece to modern day. Explore feminism, rationalism, idealism, existentialism, and other influential movements in the world of philosophy.
From Socrates to Confucius to Julia Kristeva, The Philosophy Book breaks down difficult concepts using innovating graphics that pop off the page alongside creative typography. Cutting through the haze of academia and untangling complicated theories to show how our social, political, and ethical ideas are formed, The Philosophy Book contextualizes the information around time periods, innovative thinkers, method, and philosophical approach.
As part of DK's award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, The Philosophy Book uses graphics, clear writing, a philosopher directory, and a vocabulary glossary as a perfect and comprehensive introduction to a complicated and fascinating subject.
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Considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of all time, the History of Western Philosophy is a dazzlingly unique exploration of the ideologies of significant philosophers throughout the ages—from Plato and Aristotle through to Spinoza, Kant and the twentieth century. Written by a man who changed the history of philosophy himself, this is an account that has never been rivaled since its first publication over sixty years ago.
Since its first publication in 1945, Lord Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy is still unparalleled in its comprehensiveness, its clarity, its erudition, its grace, and its wit. In seventy-six chapters he traces philosophy from the rise of Greek civilization to the emergence of logical analysis in the twentieth century.
Among the philosophers considered are: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, the Atomists, Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, the Sceptics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, Plotinus, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Gregory the Great, John the Scot, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Utilitarians, Marx, Bergson, James, Dewey, and lastly the philosophers with whom Lord Russell himself is most closely associated—Cantor, Frege, and Whitehead, coauthor with Russell of the monumental Principia Mathematica.