The “problems” range from logic puzzles and paradoxes, to optical illusions, to ethical puzzles, to basic problems of knowledge. All are intended to illustrate some part of the domain of philosophy, I guess, and most are at least a little interesting. But in the end I was left wondering just what to make of it all.

I’m probably not alone in thinking that philosophy is pretty much done as a separate discipline, having been overtaken by science and mathematics, with not much left to add to add to our understanding of either the world or ourselves. Even ethics, the last outpost of philosophy, is being studied now as a product of evolution. It’s not obvious that a scientific account of ethics is capable of providing the sort of answers we typically expect when thinking about ethical problems - but it’ not clear that 2500 years of philosophy has done much for us in this area, either.

But for now philosophy hangs on in the role of thinking about other disciplines; thinking about the foundations of the disciplines that have stolen philosophy’s thunder. So, for example, Wittgenstein’s “Foundations of Mathematics” takes a deep look at the nature of mathematical proof, especially proofs that involve limits or notions of infinity. All very interesting - but no mathematician will learn anything from it, or do anything differently as a result of having read it.

And so it has also been with the philosophy of science, where philosophy has mostly limited itself to a descriptive role. Think, for example, of Karl Popper’s “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”: an excellent description of scientific method as it had already evolved. This, at least, was an improvement over all previous philosophical attempts to understand how science ought to be done.

And so it goes. We might be tempted to think that epistemology is an area that philosophy can help with. After all, the question of what we can know and how we can know it is something that philosophers have thought about for millenia. Surely they’ve come up with something useful in all that time. Well, maybe. But as late as the 1940s one of the most eminent philosophers of modern times was claiming that most such epistemelogical problems were mere failures to use language in a proper way!

So, by all means buy and read this book. It’s interesting, mostly, and thought provoking occasionally. But don’t expect any eureka moments or deep insights into the workings of the world or of your own mind. For that, study physics, or neurobiology.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: 101 Philosophy Problems
  • Author: Martin Cohen
  • Published: 1999
  • ISBN: 0415635748
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 3.0 stars