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Philosophy at your fingertips

By Claire Carlson '12
July 23, 2010

When a senior at an Ivy League university recently wondered how philosophers would advise her to approach the next step of her life, she turned to a Web site that connects the masses with scholarly minds.

Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro has contributed nearly 100 responses to questions posted at AskPhilosophers.

There to answer her question was St. Olaf College Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro. First, he pointed out that Socrates advised his people to care for their souls instead of only pursuing material wealth and power. Then he offered his own advice, urging her to consider the difference between a vocation and a job, and recommending a book that she could read for further guidance. Finally, Taliaferro wrote, “I suggest the question ‘What should I do?’ is dependent upon a prior question: ‘Who am I?’ To go back to Socrates, he admonished us to care for the soul, but he also put out there some vital advice: Know Thyself. I think if you take on that task, the rest will follow."

This was just one of the nearly 100 responses Taliaferro has written to questions posed at AskPhilosophers, a Web site where scholars from around the country do their best to answer eternal questions posed by members of the general public. St. Olaf Professor of Philosophy and Kierkegaard Library Curator Gordon Marino also contributes to the site, often offering his expertise on questions regarding ethics, happiness, and existence. Taliaferro responds frequently to questions concerning religious philosophy and ethics.

Before the creation of AskPhilosophers and other Web sites like it, those who contemplated lofty questions regarding the existence of God or the nature of love rarely had access to philosophers and scholars who could provide thought-provoking responses. Accordingly, the purpose of AskPhilosophers is to “put the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public.”

Whether at work on a computer, or on the subway headed home, an individual need only to go to the Web site and click on the "ask a question" link in the upper left-hand corner of the home page to begin their philosophical journey. Once their question is released into cyberspace, all that's left to do is wait until one of the 33 panelists — from institutions such as Vassar College, the University of Cambridge, and Brown University, among others — responds.

Taliaferro was approached to contribute to AskPhilosophers by the site's founder, Amherst College Professor of Philosophy Alexander George. Since accepting the position, Taliaferro has responded prolifically. As someone who enjoys puzzles and succinct paradoxes that engage others, Taliaferro says the Web site is perfect for his temperament. "The work I do for the site is intellectually stimulating," he says. "It can be amusing and entertaining, but can also have a very serious side."

Gordon Marino

AskPhilosophers gets nearly 13,000 hits each day, and in one recent week alone, curious minds posted 54 questions at the site. Taliaferro volunteers a minimum of two to three hours per week to respond to questions, and could certainly spend more time if he desired. Responses typically appear on the site within a few days, and past questions are archived according to topic and the philosopher who responded.

The site is unique in that it breaks down the barriers that typically stand between the masses and philosophical inquiry. Taliaferro notes that having access to so many philosophers at once is a unique aspect of technological innovation. "The field has never been better for an honest inquirer to have easy access to the best arguments that are around, and then make up his or her own mind," he says.

Not only does AskPhilosophers break down barriers between the general public and philosophers, but it also negates barriers of age, gender, and culture. For example, an 11-year-old boy wondered, "If everybody in the world thought blue was the best color, would it be a fact that blue is the best color?” and received a complex and thoughtful reply from an established philosopher.

Fast-Paced Philosophy
The site was launched in 2005, and is now available as an application for compatible cell phones. The phone application is simply one more prong of the increasing technology that Taliaferro says "speeds up the history of ideas." Based on accelerated modes of transportation and communication, "what used to take 20, 40, or even 100 years could now take place in six hours," he says.

AskPhilosophers has grown significantly in the past five years, in part because of the attention it has received from different media sources. In May and June of this year alone, the Web site was the focus of an article in the New Yorker and a New York Times blog post.

Taliaferro noted that similar to most areas of academia, it is the more radical or creative philosophical views that receive attention and publicity. Perhaps that's why this revolutionary, egalitarian approach to philosophy has become popular — or perhaps it is simply the expression of natural human curiosity. We'll have to ask the experts.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or