"Philosophy should be abolished", a philosophy lecturer of mine once remarked. "He was talking about the academic study of philosophy, which is to say his own livelihood, so it was an unexpected comment. As a keen young philosophy undergraduate, I naturally smelled heresy, and promptly took him to task. I believe the exact wording of my retort was, "Uh?"
This penetrating critique floored him for a moment, but his was a trained mind, and he soon came back at me. Philosophy, he said, consisted of the application of clear analytical thinking to conceptual problems of all kinds. As such, it properly belonged everywhere. The major consequence of allowing philosophy departments to exist was woolly thinking in all other areas of society, because philosophy departments kept philosophers quarantined. "Instead of sitting in here arguing with each other, we should be out there arguing with everyone else!"
The conversation occurred years before the internet took off, or I could have replied it was possible to be "in here" and "out there" simultaneously. This is the concept behind the website AskPhilosophers.org: get trained philosophical minds in touch with ordinary civilians by putting them online.
The website doesn't do the job my lecturer was envisaging - it doesn't feature philosophers analysing the hell out of government policy papers or deconstructing the latest piece of Deep Thought from the Business Roundtable but it does offer people the chance to ask philosophers questions.
If you can come up with a question no one's asked yet - and people have asked thousands - one of several dozen philosophers from universities around the world will have a crack at it for you.
And now there's a book. It's a cut-down version of the website, a greatest-hits version: not searchable, but browsable, and therefore, to anyone who prefers the rustle of pages to the click-click-click of a mouse, a superior way to access this material. The material itself is a very mixed bag. In a way, it demonstrates the wisdom of my lecturer's comment, because it turns out some philosophers can't write straightforward English, even when they engage in a project that explicitly requires them to. More time spent outside the walls of academe might do these individuals good.
But as an introduction to philosophy, the range of questions and answers on offer is well judged, and many of the responses are both thoughtful and easily intelligible. A random sample of the questions: "Just about every theory in the history of science has either been revised or wholly rejected. So isn't there ample evidence to think that all our present-day theories are false?" "Should a perfect copy of a work of art be as valuable as the original?" "Can two plus two equal five?" "Was it moral to publish the Muhammad cartoons?" "What is the opposite of a banana?" (The last of these was posed by a 10-year-old, and ranks as my personal favourite).
Many people running up against philosophical discussions for the first time come away disappointed, having hoped for wisdom and encountered mere analysis. But in fact, there's nothing mere about analysis.
Defining your terms so it's clear what you're talking about and applying logic with rigour doesn't make intractable problems go away, but it does let you distinguish between problems you can solve and ones you can't. The book gives people new to the discipline a chance to see what this means, and how it's done.
And the opposite of banana? "Non-banana".
* David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.