Ask a Philosopher: Answers to Your Most Important and Most Unexpected Questions, by Ian Olasov (Thomas Dunne Books), $12.99
Ian Olasov’s Ask a Philosopher is a brilliant work of public philosophy that both surveys a wide array of philosophical topics and serves as an introduction to philosophical methodology. The scope of the book is astounding. It covers issues ranging from classical core philosophical questions (e.g. Do we have free will? Why is there something rather than nothing?) to some of the most important questions in contemporary philosophy (e.g. What makes a boy a boy?) to fun, and deceptively complicated, questions you didn’t know you needed answered (e.g. Is ketchup a smoothie?).
This book was born out of philosophical discussions Olasov had with people he met at the “Ask A Philosopher” booth he runs. Olasov, with a rotating group of fellow professional philosophers, set this booth up all over New York City at “farmers markets, stores, subway stations, parks, book festivals, and street fairs” where individuals from all walks of life asked Olasov and company whatever philosophical questions were on their minds. One of us even had the privilege of accompanying Olasov at the booth and witnessed first-hand what a fun, educational, and transformative experience it can be for all involved. This book captures some of those experiences and, in so doing, provides an engaging introduction to philosophy. The structure of the book is straightforward. Each chapter is a short stand-alone work that focuses on a question someone asked at the booth. This means that the book can be read out of order and, since most chapters are only around five pages, it’s a brisk and consistently exciting read.
To give you an idea of what Olasov does in each chapter, let’s examine one of our favourite chapters, titled “What is Happiness?”. The chapter begins with Olasov defining his terms to first get clear on the question he’s answering. He then briefly reviews the four major theories of happiness in the philosophical literature, viz. the hedonic, preference, life satisfaction, and emotional state theories respectively. Then, in a mere four-and-a-half pages, Olasov walks the reader through a concise and crystal-clear explanation of each theory, while highlighting the reasons he has for favouring hedonism.
While he always stakes out his own position, Olasov manages to consistently toe the fine line between offering his own response to each question and laying out alternative viable responses to the question being asked. The book never morphs into Olasov just defending his favoured answer to these issues. Olasov’s ability to give different views a fair shake encourages the reader to think through every question for themselves, which is one feature of the book that makes it an exceptional piece of public philosophy.
The chapter on happiness, like many others, ends with an amusing and insightful anecdote about the in-person exchange Olasov had with someone at the booth. These anecdotes are a fantastic touch because they help bring the book to life, making the reader feel as if they’re actually at the booth. This chapter’s anecdote recounts Olasov discussing the “Experience Machine” thought experiment with the person who asked about happiness. These real-life anecdotes not only ground the book in reality, but repeatedly show how non-philosophers have given serious thought to many of the questions philosophers discuss. Each anecdote is infused with Olasov’s refreshingly light and humorous writing-style. This is a nice contrast to more formal philosophy texts, which can often be too dry to hold the attention of someone not already interested in the field.
Ask A Philosopher succeeds in many ways on many levels. It serves as a perfect introduction to the field for the non-specialist with philosophical interests. In so doing, it shows that the questions philosophers focus on are of great interest to everyone and not just academics. It emphasises the need to incorporate philosophical thinking into everyday discourse. This is done, in part, by discussing difficult practical questions, such as how one should deal with the mortality of their parents. More importantly, it does so with a level of philosophical rigour absent in places these questions are normally discussed, such as newspaper advice columns. Reading this book will help everyone think about these issues a little more clearly and come to more carefully considered positions.
This book should also be good PR for philosophers, as it does a phenomenal job at demonstrating what it is that we actually do. We hope it will help curb the pernicious myth, prevalent in pop-culture, that philosophers are just a bunch of pretentious people who spend their time writing dressed-up jargon about esoteric questions irrelevant to everyday life. Olasov expertly illustrates just how applicable and wide-reaching philosophical inquiry can be with the books’ flavourful variety of topics.
Overall, Ask A Philosopher is a model of public philosophy. Olasov’s experiences at the booth illustrate that philosophers and non-philosophers alike share a natural curiosity about the most fundamental questions of life. Olasov’s answers to these questions illustrate how beneficial it can be for philosophers to integrate their research into public discourse. For these reasons, we highly recommend this book for everyone, but especially for the philosophical novice interested in the field.