Hegel wrote: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." What did he mean? What is the owl of Minerva? And what might David Brooks be trying to convey when he writes in a recent column: "But that’s the perpetual tragedy of life: the owl of Minerva flies at dusk."

"Minerva" is the Roman name of the Greek Athena, goddess of wisdom and philosophy, and associated with the owl (as preserved in the saying "bringing owls to Athens" which means bringing something to a place that already has more than enough thereof). The meaning of Hegel's saying is that philosophy/wisdom takes flight only at the end of the day, after the day's main events have taken place. For Hegel, this was not tragic. His particular point is that it is only at the end of human history (which he associated with his own time, the early 19th century) that human beings can come to understand history's developmental logic. In fact, our coming to understand history is part of this developmental logic; and once we fully understand we are reconciled to history and thus would not have wanted history to have gone differently in any important respect. As for David Brooks, I assume he meant that human beings tragically come to understand things fully only when it is too late. His specific reference...

I read Aristotle and Kant in the original languages with enjoyment and profit. But I am finding Hegel extremely difficult to follow. Is there any easy way in?

Indeed, there's no easy way in. But you would do a great deal better beginning with the Philosophy of Right (or the Phenomenology ) than with, say, the Logic . Hegel's Philosophy of Right is hard, but no harder, in my view, than Kant's Metaphysics of Morals or Aristotle's Metaphysics . And the effort to understand this work by Hegel is well worth the effort.

Which edition of Kant's critiques do you recommend? (And for that matter, where is there reliable information to be found about which editions of philosophy books are best?)

I think the Cambridge University Press editions are probably best in all three cases, they tend to do very good editions -- both of translated and of originally Anglophone works. Typically, a good indicator is what the best recent secondary literature is using or what top scholars assign in their classes. This information is often easily obtainable through Amazon or the internet generally.

Who is the most influential philosopher in US history? How did he or she affect US ideology?

Most influential on US history was probably John Locke (1632-1704, see plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke), who influenced our conception of limited government (as developed especially in the Federalist Papers ) as well as the relative unconcern in the US with economic inequality. It is hard to find influential philosophers in US history. I would rate as the most influential John Dewey (1859-1952, see www.iep.utm.edu/d/dewey.htm ; plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-political). His pragmatist philosophy left a lasting mark especially on the US education system, emphasizing learning by doing as well as civic education. Generally, the historical influence of philosophers is very indirect and slow to manifest itself. Judgments about such influences are therefore difficult to defend and controversial. Still, it seems that philosophers have played less of a role in influencing US history than they have played in the history of other countries such as China, Germany, France, and Great...

I'm interested in knowing if there is anyone who has written about philosophy in contemporary Canada. Many thanks.

There are a fair number of distinguished philosophers in contemporary Canada. Among the better known are Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Thomas Hurka, David Dyzenhaus, Frank Cunningham, Jennifer Whiting, Arthur Ripstein, Daniel Weinstock, Michel Seymour, Wayne Norman. But there are many others who have made substantial contributions to philosophy. A good way to find out more is to surf the philosophy faculty lists of major Canadian universities. They often provide links to faculty CVs which, in turn, offer lists of publications.