The Philosopher Is In

Graduate Center Ph.D. student Ian Olasov answers a question at the Ask-a-Philosopher booth.
Ph.D. candidate Ian Olosov (Philosophy) at the Ask-a-Philosopher booth in NYC's Union Square

Next time you find yourself wondering about the meaning of life, you might want to find Ian Olasov. Olasov is a doctoral candidate (Philosophy) at the Graduate Center who, with his fellow philosophers at the Ask-a-Philosopher booths, encourage the big questions — and the very small. A big fan of public philosophy, Olasov is also the founder of Brooklyn Public Philosophers, a speaker and event series, and an organizer of the Night of Philosophy, an all-night event of lectures and music that this year drew about 7,600 people to the Brooklyn Public Library.
We sought out Olasov for some answers.
GC: Is there something about public philosophy that you find especially appealing?

Olasov: You get to make these intense, ephemeral connections with a lot of interesting people. For me, but I think especially for people outside of academia, philosophy is often a lonely activity, and it's nice to do something that says, Your ideas count, and your questions count, and you're not a creep or a weirdo for caring about these things. There's also a guerrilla theater aspect to things like the Night of Philosophy and the Ask a Philosopher booth, which I enjoy. And as someone who's spent the last few years working on his dissertation, it's a welcome break to do something with a relatively short distance from start to finish.
GC: What sorts of questions do people ask at your booth?

Olasov: A lot of them! Whether God exists, what's the meaning of life, why anything exists at all … how we know that animals feel things, what love is, whether ketchup is a smoothie, the mind body problem, what's the purpose of a liberal education, whether sexual orientation or gender identity is socially constructed, whether it makes sense to be afraid to get old … and a bunch of other things.
GC: It seems as if the Night of Philosophy has really tapped into something people are searching for. 
Olasov: I'm told that around 7,600 people came this year, which is fabulous. It's a really diverse crowd, too, by age, ethnicity, religion, and hipness. I think a few different things attract all these people. Part of it is that we're living in a time of real political unrest. Somehow or other, society isn't working for a lot of people, and people want to get together to think about what's gone wrong and where we should be headed. Part of it is that a lot of philosophical questions — questions about how to live, about how we know what we know, about whether the physical world is all there is — are perennially interesting, and the Night of Philosophy is one of the few highly visible places people can go to reason with each other about them. Part of it is that there's a lot to do, with dancing, screenings, performances, and spontaneous conversations between the people who show up ... Part of it is that, somehow or other, it's just cool. There are all of these people who are excited to talk and learn and dance in this big, beautiful space that's "supposed to be" quiet and buttoned up and closed for the night.
GC: What do you hope people take away from this?
Olasov: I hope people find out about interesting work that philosophers are doing. I hope people see how the work that philosophers do engages with their personal interests or the puzzles that they've found for themselves. I hope philosophers are motivated to do more public work. I hope that people pick up the norms of reasoning and discourse that drive the best philosophical conversations, and that allow us to form rational bases for agreement and to understand the sources of our disagreements. 

Photo by Rachel Ramirez. 

Submitted on: FEB 7, 2018

Category: General GC News | Philosophy | Student News