Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Layman's Challenge

A Gardener (of sorts) asks:
If you were trying to explain what you study to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy, what would you say? (It should be short and clear, but you can't cheat by just saying "I study ethics".)

I have a hard enough time explaining my thesis to other philosophers! If asked by non-philosophers, I've always offered the 'cheat' answer: "I'm studying the concept of possibility." If made to explain further, I usually just end up confusing them. But perhaps the following would work:
The world is a certain way, but intuitively, things could have turned out in a completely different way, right? For example, Germany could have won WWII, and then things would be very different. I'm looking into the abstract question of how these various 'ways a world might be' are related to the world itself. I'm especially interested in which possibilities really could have come about (say, if you were to "rewind and replay" history enough times, it would eventually turn out that way). I'm also curious about how we learn what's possible, given that merely possible things don't actually exist.

Does that make sense?


  1. It seems all OK except for the "intuitively" operator. A non-philosopher would never use it and is more likely to be baffled by your use of it, IMO.

  2. Are you being asked 'What is philosophy?', or more specifically 'What is your philosophy?'.

    I've always found both questions impossible to answer. 'Philosophy' generally is a word used so vaguely it's hard to know what the question is, let alone the answer. As much as Socrates (according to Plato) would be bitter on this, I think giving examples is the most practical way to explain it to a layman. A list of the kind of questions you concern yourself with.

  3. The intended question was something along the lines of "What is your thesis about?"

    I like the idea of answering with further questions. ("Could the initial conditions of the universe have been different? Or the laws of physics? If so, how? If not, why not?"; "Do you need to look at the world to learn how it could have been, or might one learn such things through rational thought alone, more like a mathematician than a scientist?")

  4. Heh, that was the worst question of all. I was alway reminded of the 'Brilliant Thought': The closer I get to my goal, the better my chance of discovering what it is.
    But really, the worst thing about *that* question is how disinterested most people are in the actual answer. "Well, I'll leave you to it, shall I?" was a common follow up for me!

  5. Hey! Finally something I'm good at on this site...knowing nothing! My oldest son is twelve years old and at that age where he doesn't see an practical use for school other than meeting girls. He thinks it intterupts his Playstation time. I've told him that most of what he learns in school can be wiped clean from his pristine lobes straight away. Aside from reading, basic math skills and the exposure to various subjects, the biggest thing he needs to learn in school is how to arrange his thoughts in a cohesive manner and to be able to communicate those thoughts to others, regardless of which rung of the ladder they reside. You can have the answer to the meaning of Life and it is useless unless you can communicate it in a way that anyone can grasp it from Hawkins to Jake the Janitor.


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