If You Could Ask A Dead Philosopher…


Suppose you could ask a dead philosopher one question. Who would you ask, and what would you ask them?

[Kumi Yamashita, “Question Mark”]

Maybe there’s a philosopher to whom you’d ask something like the (now) classic “best question to ask God’s angel”, described by Ned Markosian (who himself attributes it to Donald Turner) in a 1997 paper in Analysis, The Paradox of the Question“:

Once upon a time, during a large and international conference of the world’s leading philosophers, an angel miraculously appeared and said, “I come to you as a messenger from God. You will be permitted to ask any one question you want—but only one!—and I will answer that question truthfully. What would you like to ask?” The philosophers were understandably excited, and immediately began a discussion of what would be the best question to ask. But it quickly became obvious that they needed more time to discuss the matter, so they asked the angel if he could get back to them. The angel was obliging, and said that he would return at the same time the next day. “But be prepared then,” he warned them, “for you will only get this one chance.” All of the philosophers gathered at the convention worked at a frenzied pace for the next twenty-four hours, proposing and weighing the merits of various questions…

Finally, just as the philosophers were running out of time, a bright young logician made a proposal that was quickly and overwhelmingly approved. Here was her question… “What is the ordered pair whose first member is the question that would be the best one for us to ask you, and whose second member is the answer to that question?”

While such “clever” questions are welcome, it might be more interesting and useful to figure out what contemporary philosophical problems you’d want their insight on, or how they might respond to objections raised to their views in the years since they’ve died, or what they might say about current or historical events, and so on. (Maybe the questions will end up being a list of possible paper topics.) Keep in mind, too, the angel’s answer to that clever question:

It is the ordered pair whose first member is the question you just asked me, and whose second member is this answer I am giving you.


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