What happened when philosophers set up a public booth to answer anyone’s question

Brian Irwin and
Ian Olasov answer philosophical questions.
Brian Irwin and Ian Olasov answer philosophical questions.
Image: Olivia Goldhill/Quartz
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On the longest day of 2018, a group of philosophers went to Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, to offer their wares to the public. Next to a large “Ask-a-Philosopher,” sign, Ian Olasov, a bespectacled, gregarious philosophy doctoral candidate at the the City University of New York, and a handful of colleagues set up a table and promised to philosophically answer any questions posed.

Several people asked whether life had meaning, and if so, what it might be. “Well, what do you mean by ‘meaning,’” Olasov asked in turn. “Do you mean purpose or design? If so, I think not, and I think it doesn’t matter.” Imagine, he proposed, that aliens had created the human species such that we’d grow our population to an enormous size, at which point they would feast on us. Would knowing your purpose for being was to feed an alien species encourage you to live to that end, and breed as many tasty children as possible?

“Well no,” replied a woman with short hair who’d been listening closely. “But I would start planning my attack on the aliens.”

The conversation was free-flowing and sprawling, moving from aliens to Aristotle’s theory that our purpose is to grow to our full capacity, with no neat conclusions. Olasov, along with Brian Irwin, philosophy professor at John Jay College, and Vinny Andreassi, a philosophy doctoral student at Brooklyn College, sat at a table with three cups: One held sample philosophical questions, such as “Is the US a democracy?” and “If you could live forever, would you?”; another was full of philosophical thought experiments, such as whether there’s a difference between existing in a machine that simulates life and existing in the world, and whether a ship that gradually has each of its planks replaced can still be considered the same ship; the last was stuffed full of candy.

Questions did not have to be profound to be worthy of an answer. One woman said she was confused by a sign she’d seen on the way over: “Fatima’s halal kitchen: Authentic Chinese Cuisine.” Wasn’t that promising contradictorary cuisines?

Halal describes a way of preparing food according to Islamic law rather than a specific cuisine, explained the philosophers, and so it’s quite possible to have halal Chinese food and no inherent contradiction. But then the philosophers raised another question posed by the sign: What signifies true authenticity?

Irwin mentioned he’d once heard a philosophical discussion of authentic food that highlighted the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, in which it was noted that, to be truly authentic, the dish must contain cheese from a can. In other words, the “authentic” version of the sandwich requires an inauthentic version of cheese. Perhaps authenticity signifies close resemblance to the original version, Olasov suggested, or whatever the creator perceives as the original form of their dish. This certainly makes sense when it comes to food, but it contradicts existentialist theories on authenticity. Existentialism claims that, to be authentic, people must recognize their freedom and full array of choices. This view holds that it’s inauthentic to restrict yourself to mimicry. Perhaps, if existentialists were to critique food, they would probably call “authentic” views inauthentic.

Some of the people who visited the booth had many questions, while others posed objections to the philosophers’ theories, and still others stood listening quietly, occasionally reading over the sample questions provided. Over the course of an afternoon, roughly 50 people came by to talk philosophy.

Rashel Penson, 17, said she likes reading philosophical books and plans to study philosophy when she gets to college, but rarely has had the chance for such conversations. “The people around me aren’t like me,” she said. “I have a lot of questions every day.”

Penson asked the philosophers whether, if it was an option, they would choose to live forever. The resulting conversation drifted around to an article in the New York Times’s philosophy section on why life is absurd. Just as a skirt short enough to be mistaken for a belt might be considered absurd because it fails to fulfill its intended purpose as clothing that covers the bottom, life can be considered absurd because it’s far too short to allow many people to fulfill their desired purpose of, say, being a good parent and/or a successful professional and/or having a substantive impact on the world. (Some people have quite different purposes but, on the whole, most of our ambitions do not fit into just one lifetime.)

I asked a question that had been bugging me lately: Is it immoral to be messy? There’s a blurred line between what’s simply good etiquette and what’s moral, and messiness seems to be right on the ridge. Perhaps the etiquette preference for tidiness is tied to Christian ideas that emphasize cleanliness as a reflection of a pure soul, suggested the philosophers. Irwin bought up Aristotle, noting that he defines virtue as a mean between the two extremes of deficiency and excess. This would make both inordinate messiness and obsessive tidiness vices, and so suggests what is most moral is to behave in a way that falls between the two: A little messy, but not too much.

Olasov, who’s planned a similar event for a Flatbush Ave street fair in July, says the insights of passers-by are always interesting. “Seeing people do philosophy is heartwarming,” he says. “If you got your idea of humanity from the news then you might think that people are vicious and irrational. But frame a discussion as philosophical and people are willing to debate and engage rationally with strangers.”

Of all the questions asked, the philosophers had a succinct answer for only one—which also happened to be Olasov’s favorite of the afternoon: What philosophical idea can you express in 10 seconds or less? Olasov answered by bringing up Socrates, the namesake of the park in which we stood. In Plato’s The Apology, an oracle names Socrates the wisest person alive, and when Socrates investigates this claim, the philosopher realizes he’s wise precisely because he recognizes his own lack of wisdom. This Socratic paradox is a definition of wisdom that can be expressed in less than 10 seconds: “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” True to the Socratic spirit, those who visited the philosophy booth left, on the whole, with more questions than answers.