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How to Talk to Philosophers

Book Review

Julia Galef

Volume 20.1, March 2010

A review of “Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects”

The cover of “Philosophy Bites: 25 Philosophers on 25 Intriguing Subjects” (Oxford; $15.95) sports a simple line drawing of a duck. Or does it? Mentally re-orient the picture, and the duck's beak becomes a rabbit's ears. The classic illusion makes a fitting mascot for philosophy, which is a field in the business not of collecting new facts about the world, but of figuring out how to look at the facts we already have.

The reader can perform a similar mental morph on the book itself, which is a collection of twenty-five interviews with professional philosophers, adapted from the popular “Philosophy Bites” podcast. Look at it one way, and it's an introduction to a broad range of topics in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, religion, politics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. But shift your focus from the answers to the questions themselves, and it becomes another book altogether: a practical manual on how to talk to philosophers.

There's no shortage of potential pitfalls in philosophical discussions, but interviewer Nigel Warburton leads by example in avoiding many of them. The first step: Never hesitate to ask, “What do you mean by that word?” It's a simple rule, yet perennially neglected, resulting in countless intractable arguments between people who never realize they're talking about different things. So Warburton wisely kicks off each interview by inviting his guest to define what she means by “minority,” or “natural,” or “rights,” or whatever that particular philosopher specializes in.

Sometimes the answers he gets are surprisingly thought-provoking. It may seem odd at first to hear bioethicist Peter Singer define “person” to mean “someone who is aware of their own existence over time,” but upon reflection, it seems even odder that our language never had a word for this concept before. Why do we use the words “person” and “human” interchangeably, when there are humans who are not self-aware, such as infants, and non-humans who are at least somewhat self-aware, such as chimpanzees? Singer's implication is that making this distinction in our language allows us to make a corresponding distinction in our ethics: when deciding what rights to bestow on other beings, should we be considering their species, or their personhood?

But while good definitions can clarify our thinking, bad ones only make it foggier. Theologian Don Cupitt, for example, says he does not consider himself an atheist, because he defines the word “God” to mean “a goal of life” or a “symbol of perfection.” One is tempted to ask, “Why? What is the point of redefining 'God' so completely that it must exist simply by definition?” Warburton is a little too polite to ask those questions, unfortunately, but it's a prime example of the kind of verbal sleight-of-hand that philosophy should ideally be debunking, not promoting.

The fog hangs heavy around several other chapters as well. Asked to define “infinity,” metaphysician Adrian Moore replies that it is undefinable, because “if you're trying to define the concept, then what you're trying to do is pin it down in some way, circumscribe it, give it parameters,” he says, which in his view contradicts the concept's very nature. This evidently strikes Moore as appealingly paradoxical, but it leaves him in the unfortunate position of being unable to say anything more coherent about his topic than “The infinite embraces everything.”

This sort of nebulousness is another hazard of philosophy, but Warburton generally succeeds in bringing the conversations back to Earth by following a second rule: Use examples. Test-driving his guests' abstract arguments on specific cases not only keeps the questions well-defined, but also makes us aware of why the answers might be important. So in order to address the age-old issue of whether everything people value can be viewed as a form of pleasure, Alex Neill examines our reactions to watching a tragedy like King Lear. Similarly, the abstract question of what constitute “natural” human limitations becomes tractable when Michael Sandel discusses why it doesn't ruin the satisfaction of watching a marathon if we allow the runners to wear shoes, but it does ruin a baseball game if we allow the players to take steroids.

But “Philosophy Bites” could have had an even sharper bite if Warburton had more consistently applied another guideline for discussing philosophy: Make sure your questions have answers. Sometimes they don't, which should be a tip-off that they were poorly formed questions to begin with. The interview with Timothy Williamson on vagueness is a particularly frustrating case in point. Williamson raises examples of cases in which it's not clear if a particular word applies: is this color red, or not red? Is that man tall, or not tall? He agrees the answers depend on the cutoff point, but he still thinks there is some objectively “right” answer in the borderline cases, albeit an unknowable one. “Yes, even if we could be bothered to count the exact number of hairs on Tony Blair's head we still wouldn't necessarily know whether he was bald or not. But either he is or he isn't,” Williamson argues.

That kind of hair-splitting helps neither people's understanding of the world nor their opinion of philosophy. Especially when contrasted with the examples of genuinely good philosophy sprinkled throughout the book – examples in which careful questioning of our language does yield new insight – it's clear that once we know how many strands of hair are on a man's head, we learn nothing by inquiring whether he is “really” bald or not. It's like looking at the cover of “Philosophy Bites” and wondering: “Yes, but is it really a duck, or is it really a rabbit?”

Julia Galef

Julia Galef is a New York-based writer and public speaker specializing in science, rationality, and design. She serves on the board of directors of the New York City Skeptics (http://nycskeptics.org/), co-hosts their official podcast Rationally Speaking (www.rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/), and co-writes its blog (www.rationallyspeaking.org/) along with philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci. She received her BA in statistics from Columbia in 2005.