Some months ago, Mark Wickens of Randex wrote to me about “AskPhilosophers.” The site describes itself as follows: “This site puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public. Send in a question that you think might be related to philosophy and we will do our best to respond to it.”
The questions asked range all over the map:
- Even at the lowest levels of proof does not the existence of something in one’s imagination give it at the very least a semblance of actuality?
- Is it morally wrong to tell children that Santa exists?
- What books are most important for a neophyte philosopher to read?
- Is medical care or education a basic human right? If so, why? what is a basic human right?
Are women philosophers more insightful than their male counterparts?
As expected, some of the answers are better than others. In his e-mail, Mark quoted this passage from the web site explaining their purpose:
“There is a paradox surrounding philosophy that AskPhilosophers seeks to address. On the one hand, everyone confronts philosophical issues throughout his or her life. But on the other, very few have the opportunity to learn about philosophy, a subject that is usually taught only at the college level. (Why? There is no good reason for this and plenty of bad ones.) AskPhilosophers aims to bridge this gap by putting the skills and knowledge of trained philosophers at the service of the general public.”
Mark then said:
On the one hand, I’m gratified that they think philosophy has practical value. On the other, I am very worried about people taking the advice of most philosophers! Anyway, it should be a fascinating read (in a car wreck kind of way) once they get some content. I wonder of maybe Tara Smith or some other Objectivist could be persuaded to join (and be accepted on) the panel. Seeing how an Objectivist answers questions vs. a standard contemporary philosopher — now THAT really would be fascinating!
I agree with all of that. Yet upon perusing some of the questions and answers, I’m struck by just how totally out-of-context the whole enterprise is, in the sense that most of the answers to questions are pretty thoroughly isolated from the philosopher’s broader philosophic context. That’s to be expected from modern philosophy, given the standard disdain for “system-building”. Consequently, the answers on AskPhilosophers often read as little more reasoning from arbitrary premises. Certainly, I’d hate to see answers from Objectivist philosophers fall into the same trap, simply due to the limitations of the medium.