Intro: I have recently been having a discussion/debate with a chap regarding the political works of a particular professor. I have studied this person's works for more than 20 years and feel as though I know them about as well as one can possible know another's works. The other chap hasn't read a single book by the person, and only a few out of context references from which he jumps to making absurd assertions and conclusions. Below is a basic example of the problem. A refers to the other fellow, while N refers to myself, and X to the professor in question: A: X thinks that 2+2=11 N: No, X's position is that 2+2=4, and there's nothing in his writings at all which would indicate that he thought 2+2=11. A: Prove it. N: I can't prove that somethings not there. (Hence the can't prove a negative.) A: Then it's likely to be there if you can't prove it. N: No, it's NOT there, nor has it ever been. And as I have read all of his material, listened to hundreds of hours of lectures, talked to him personally, I can...

Hi noodle, I don't think you're doing anything incorrectly. It sounds to me as though N is simply refusing to engage in a serious examination of either (a) X's ideas or (b) the possibility that his own interpretation of X's work is incorrect. To begin with, N is the one making the original assertion about X's position, so the burden of proof is on him to substantiate that assertion, not on you to refute it. If, as seems to have happened, he offers some evidence in favour of his position, then the question is: how good is this evidence? You suggest that the evidence is not good at all -- it depends on taking remarks out of context and attributing implausible interpretations to X. This shifts the burden of proof back to N, either to provide new evidence, or to show that his original evidence is better than you're claiming. And here is where it seems to me that N is simply being unreasonable. To begin with, N's evidence does not look any better just because he says 'You haven'tshown me that...

Is there philosophy of humor? I want to know if any professional philosophers have written on the necessary and sufficient conditions for quality comedic material.

Another great resource is Ted Cohen's recent book, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters . He explores how jokes work -- what makes them funny, what makes them offensive (when they are) -- as well as what jokes can do beyond simply making us laugh. Full of good examples.

On the tube in London many years ago, I was reading a piece in the Evening Standard by Ayer on some educational matters. In there he made the surprising statement 'After all all education is indoctrination anyway'. Bearing in mind education and indoctrination are characteristically opposed to each other, what could Ayer have been getting at? Or is this simply an example of a gifted philosopher not bringing his usual acumen to bear upon the topic under discussion? Ian g

I don't know Ayer's work well enough to comment on what he had in mind, but here are a couple of general observations about the relationship between education and indoctrination. First, there are certainly some similarities between the two. There is a sense in which they do the same kind of thing, namely, they both aim to bring it about that the people who 'undergo' them come to adopt some beliefs and behaviours and give up other beliefs and behaviours as a result of their education or indoctrination. Also, both can fulfill a common function, that of training individuals to occupy the various roles (doctor, soldier, parent, priest, etc.) that people fulfill in the societies in which the indoctrination or education takes place. One central difference between them, I would say, has to do with the attitude that a student is allowed or encouraged to take towards what she is taught. Education gives a student at least some freedom to question what she isbeing taught (and in principle, perhaps, complete...

I am looking for a good introduction to Continental philosophy, giving an overview of the key players, but written in lay-accessible language. Any suggestions of good books or the like?

The label 'Continental philosophy' tends to cover an extremely diverse collection of philosophers and approaches, and there's a lot of disagreement about who and what exactly should be included. So I'll just recommend two books that I (as someone who works in 'analytic philosophy') found useful as introductions to some of the major German philosophers and schools. First, Andrew Bowie's "An Introduction to German Philosophy: From Kant to Habermas" is a great overview of many major German thinkers, especially in making clear how their views grow out of and are connected with their predecessors. David Couzens Hoy's "The Critical Circle" is a bit more narrowly focused on hermeneutics and the connection between philosophy and literary theory, but it draws together the work of German, French, and American philosophers and literary theorists in a way I found very helpful.

A very popular view in academic philosophy is that knowledge of the history of philosophy is important for doing contemporary work in philosophy. But so much of the history of philosophy is filled with bad arguments and false theses, which serious people would never subscribe to. How does painstaking familiarity with ancient mistakes and false propositions help us do philosophy today? It seems to me that false claims cannot ground anything -- or add anything valuable to what we know now. They are false!

I completely agree with the reasons Sean Greenberg gives for thinking that the history of philosophy is philosophically valuable, but I'm inclined to think that knowledge of philosophy's history is important for doing contemporary work, for exactly the reasons he offers. Knowledge of the history of philosophy helps contemporary philosophers to avoid re-inventing the wheel, with respect to both the questions we ask and the solutions we propose. More generally, I would add that, while false claims can't 'ground' anything, they can be extremely valuable as pointers towards more promising directions. The possibility of learning from one's mistakes shouldn't be underestimated!

What books are most important for a neophyte philosopher to read?

As an alternative to starting with a broad survey, you might also consider diving straight into a single work, such as Hume's "Dialogues concerning Natural Religion", Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy , or Plato's Symposium . These (relatively short) classic works in the history of Western philosophy (and there are plenty of similar texts from other traditions and time periods) take you directly into central philosophical problems while being a treat to read.

I was wondering, what is it (other than so called intelligence and communication) that separates humans from animals or everything else in the universe? Pico della Mirandola in the "Oration on the Dignity of Man" describes it as human nature being undetermined or the right to determine destiny and animals have a determined nature. However, in general it seems as though humans act predictably given their environment and experiences.

It's pretty clear that we differ from other animals (and they differ from each other) in lots of ways -- some creatures can navigate by sonar or radar, we can't; some hibernate, we don't. And lots of work in both cognitive psychology and cognitive ethology is currently focused on trying to understand the specific differences between human and non-human animals' linguistic and conceptual abilities. But you seem to be asking whether there is something that 'separates' us in the sense of marking us out as better than or superior to 'everything else'. And I wonder whether there is any such thing. Moreover, I think it's illuminating to ask why it matters whether we are different in this way. One good reason humans might want to think of themselves as more important than other creatures is that it might justify our treating such creatures in ways that we don't generally think it's okay to treat each other (e.g. killing them for research purposes). But if one doesn't think that humans were created by God to...