Peter Fosl said in a post that philosophers are "astonishingly" bad writers. What exactly does he mean by this, and what makes writing bad or good? I assume he does not mean to say that it is bad because it doesn't appeal to a wide audience since, as he says earlier in the post, our culture is heavily invested in what may be considered shallow pursuits. Certainly it's not philosophy to blame if the masses aren't interested, is it? But I don't mean to direct this question just at Peter Fosl. First of all, every other panelist let this comment go without so much as a protest. Do you all consider yourselves bad writers, then, and astonishingly bad ones, at that? Or, perhaps, does philosophy, by its very nature, lend itself to uninteresting, technical, boring writing?

I am sure Peter does not think he is a bad writer, and if he does then he is mistaken! But it is certainly true that as philosophy becomes more technical and professionalized it has often lost its connection with ordinary language and issues. Some say that it started with Kant, who was one of the first people to actually earn his living as an academic and so developed a style of staggering complexity in order to persuade the public that here was a discipline deserving of a unique professional status and official funding. A certain degree of difficulty of expression does after all tend to lead to respect. Yet many philosophers are excellent writers, and they write well at the same time as expressing complex and subtle ideas. We all have our favourites here, and also those whose writings we only read because we have to. I don't think philosophers are any better, or worse, than anyone else in the academic world today. Some issues now have become so technical that it seems to be impossible to...

It seems to me that all morality is based on the belief that death is a bad thing. If we believed that death was desirable - for whatever reason - most everything would break down. But isn't it true that views on death are culturally determined - at least to some extent? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Thoughts on everything are culturally determined, including lying, stealing, murder, sex etc. so the fact that culture affects our thinking is not that relevant to understanding how morality works. I wonder why you think that death is so significant for morality. It seems to me that one might take a welcoming attitude to death without it having any relevance for one's attitude to morality. Do most people think that death is a bad thing? I just don't know, and why should not someone decide to welcome death for one reason or another (boredom with life perhaps) while holding firm to his or her general ethical attitudes?

After looking at the list of categories found on the left hand side of this site a question came to me. What subject if any has been either vaguely or not at all covered in the field of philosophy? Is there any possibility for a breakthrough in some uncovered field that doesn't follow from some previous philosopher's argument or have all subjects relevant to philosophy been already covered? If there is no such subject, or it is just too abstract to consider what has not been considered, could you please point out some of the Cutting Edge or "hot topics" that are currently setting the philosophy world ablaze. Thank you for any consideration.

To respond to your last question first, what people think are cutting edge depends on who they are, of course, and so there could be no general answer. As to whether there are issues that have not yet been considered by philosophers, and should be, I am sure there are, and I have noticed during the last few decades that more and more people are working in areas which would previously have been regarded as obscure such as philosophy and economics, philosophy and business, and so on. It has to be said, though, that we as a group tend to come back to familiar controversies and debates since that is where our bread and butter is to be found, and being in a slightly unusual area is not generally that good in career terms. It is impossible to predict the occurrence of a breakthrough argument, by the nature of things, until it occurs. They do take place in philosophy, but the conservatism of the profession means that many refuse to accept them and continue to operate in the old way, and from the...

Why is it that prostitution (paying someone for a consensual sexual act) is illegal in most states while the production of pornographic movies (paying someone to perform a consentual sexual act on film/photography) legal?

I suppose there is generally a distinction between actually doing something and doing it in order to represent it "artistically". Suppose for example that I set out to cheat passersby by operating a scam; then if I am caught I may be prosecuted and sent to prison. If I act in a movie in which I do exactly the same thing, I would not be charged since although I am being paid to represent something in itself illegal, the representation is not itself illegal. None of this of course suggests that it is a good idea to have laws against prostitition.

From reading these pages it strikes me that almost all philosophers in the Amherst group are not religious (Professor Heck is a notable exception). Is this true of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, generally? I suspect it is, and, if so, what are the ramifications? Do the religious types know they are right - surely a presupposition of their faiths - and do they consider it their role in philosophy to convert doubters? The 'it-works-for-me' anecdotal/testimonial religious argument is surely as worthless in philosophy as it is in, say, pseudosciences like homeopathy, however. Shrugging one's shoulders because one has absolute certainty in one's religion surely doesn't pass muster if one is a professional philosopher whose job it is to explain one's philosophical worldview to one's students? Is the only recourse to be a proponent of Intelligent Design theory, which doesn't work? I can't see any way round this. Your thoughts are very welcome and thanks in advance.

I don't know that philosophers as a group have any particular attitude to religion, just different attitudes. Believers may feel that they can justify their religious beliefs philosophically, and set out to do so. I doubt whether they try to convert students, though, and if they do it does not look like it has been very successful, but then students are pretty well innoculated against the things that their teachers tell them in any case. Many philosophers who are religious do not see their religious views as having anything to do with their philosophical views, since the former are based on faith and as such an entirely different ball game from their philosophical work. I don't agree that it is the job of philosophers to explain their philosophical worldview to students, if part of that worldview includes religion. One can neatly consign religion to a non-philosophical area of one's life and leave it entirely alone. After all, in many people's lives a very important allegiance is to a particular...

Does the fact that other religions exist give us reason to disbelieve any one religion, or is this not a relevant piece of evidence?

I suppose it has something to do with how you see those religions as relating to each other. One might see them as all different parts to the same truth, in which case their existence does not serve to disprove the basic truth that they all embody. The only question then would be which one is the most acceptable or accurate, and there could be grounds for selection based on their respective internal features, e.g. their attitude to what we might regard as significant ethical issues, the ceremonies they support and so on. Even if you saw one religion as the only viable one and the rest as just wrong, their existence would not be a problem. It would just be the case that many people make mistakes when thinking religiously and will continue to do so until they realise which religion is the true one. Whichever one that might be.

How is love between sexual partners different from the love between friends?

A contrast has often been drawn between these two kinds of love, and also between them and love for God. It would normally be said that love that takes a sexual form brings in all sorts of issues that are absent in love between friends that does not, such as the nature of physical passion, issues dealing with how people treat the bodies of others, and how a relationship might change over time physically as well as emotionally. Many writers take the contrast to lie very much in the strength of the relationship, with a sexual relationship being generally stronger than just that between friends, and also the former might involve more arational features. That is, one falls in love and makes love to people who are often quite unsuitable, and that is the staple of cheap fiction, whereas who we choose to be our friends tends to be better considered and the result of a cooler ratiocination.

Is the translation of philosophical texts from one language to another a cause of problems? Can one really know unless one is bilingual except by being told by others who are? I found Heiddeger and Sartre very difficult in translation - is it me or them or the translation that is the problem? (Jokes welcome!) Also, what about philosophers who wrote in now dead languages like Plato, etc? Nuances and tone must be lost, even to classical scholars. At best do you get a rendering, or does this apply more to classical literature than philosophy? New translations of Homer are popping up all the time. Is the same true of Aristotle, for example, and can we ever say there are definitive texts by him in English?

It is often claimed that to understand anyone you need to read him or her in the original language, but I doubt whether that is true. To have a detailed understanding of the particular views of a thinker it is necessary to know the language, but to grasp the argument in general this is not required. After all, arguments can be expressed in a range of language or even just formally in symbols. It very much depends what you see philosophy as. If you take the history of philosophy seriously and see philosophy as exploring in detail particular individuals' ideas, then the relevant languages have to be learned and used. If on the other hand you see the ideas as coming first and who has them as secondary, you can look at those ideas in any language. Some thinkers like Heidegger use language in such a complex way that it is difficult to distinguish between his language and the argument, and that is often taken to be an objection to his way of doing philosophy!

There's an article in The New Yorker this week (Feb. 12) about two philosophers-turned-scientists who, in the course of their studies, developed a strong distaste for the philosophical way of things (one of them bashes Thomas Nagel's bat thought-experiment as an incompetent way to approach the mind-body problem). Is it true, as the article asserts, that philosophy is continually ceding its territory to the sciences (philosophy of the mind may be rendered obsolete by neuroscience), so that less and less is left to philosophers over time? Could science make philosophy obsolete?

I don't think so, although this is often claimed. The links between philosophy and science are complex and easy to get wrong. Philosophers are not looking for answers to problems in the same way that scientists are, although the difference is quite subtle. With the mind-body problem, whatever scientific developments on this occur, the issue of how to best characterize the relationship remains a conceptual problem, and no scientific discovery would force the philosopher's hand to come down on one approach or another.