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What Would Wittgenstein Do?

October 7, 2005

A moral commuter wants to know whether it is ethical to get off and on the expressway multiple times -- to save time -- even if he will thus be adding to congestion in merging lanes. A physician needs guidance on how to handle a pregnant woman with asthma who may be making decisions that could endanger her fetus. And then there's the person who is trying to understand memory and what it really is.

This week all of them turned to a new Web site, Ask Philosophers, where starting this month philosophy professors are reviewing their questions and providing answers. The intended audience is not fellow philosophers, but the general public.

"I just thought that the Web offered philosophers a chance to do public service of the kind that they haven't always had," says Alexander George, chair of philosophy at Amherst College and creator of the site. "Philosophy is ubiquitous in people's lives, but there is an unfortunate disconnect between the interests of most people in philosophy and their access to information about philosophy and the great ideas and history of philosophy."

George recruited 34 other philosophers -- many from Amherst and colleges in New England, but others from colleges elsewhere in the United States or the world. The panelists were selected for having expertise in different areas -- medical ethics, Chinese philosophy, African philosophy, the philosophy of love and sex. (The latter expert, sure to be popular, is Alan Soble of the University of New Orleans, author of The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction and Pornography, Sex, and Feminism.)

The way the site works is that George reviews questions that are submitted by reviewers and posts those that are appropriate. Between 20 and 30 questions are coming in each day, he says, even though this is only the site's first week, and about half of them are worth posting. Then panelists pick questions to answer -- George hopes they will tackle 1-2 questions a week. Those who want to comment on the answers or converse among themselves can do so on a Google group that George has also created.

George stresses that the site is not trying to be an intellectual Dear Abby, but to connect people with great ideas. "I hope people find illumination and clarity, not necessarily a particular direction to go in," he says.

Ask Philosophers is so new that most philosophers haven't really had time to analyze it -- and they aren't really the intended audience anyway. Still, George says he hopes "those in the business will want to see what their colleagues say" on the site.

A philosopher with a large Web following among those in the field isn't sure about the new site. Brian Leiter, a University of Texas at Austin scholar, says he has only glanced at the site. He calls it "a clever idea," but worries that the panel is "a Harvard-centric list, as run through Massachusetts liberal arts colleges." Adds Leiter: "Is that fatal to the project? Probably not."

The answers thus far, while clearly written by highly educated people, do not feature Cambridge name-dropping and seem to respond to questions directly.

The commuter who asked about the shortcut that might contribute to congestion, for example, receives a reply explaining "Prisoner's dilemma" situations and a discussion of why philosophers are interested in "unstable attempts at cooperation" and why they succeed or fail. But whether to take the shortcut? That's left up to the questioner.

 

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