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Book Review - The Socratic Universe

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 199-200. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Socratic Universe: Interviews With California Philosophers. 

(1995) Walnut, CA: Mt. San Antonio College Philosophy Group. 93-page paperback.

This book is the result of student interviews with 39 California college and university philosophers. The philosophers were asked standardized questions about their favorite and least favorite theoretical orientation, philosophers they most admire, and questions about ethics, science vs. religion, free will vs. determinism, life after death, and which philosophy book(s) they would take if stuck alone on a deserted island. The book begins with the usual scholarly disclaimer that “the selection is a small one and not necessarily indicative of the majority of professional philosophers in California” (ix). It is but a sampling of California philosophers, not representative of all philosophers within the state, or nation. It then devotes a short chapter to answers, by respondent name and in direct quotes, to each of the standard questions. The answers are almost always fascinating and thought-provoking.

As to favorite orientation, respondents ranged from the scientific to the speculative, Aristotle to Wittgenstein, analytic to phenomenological. Listed among the most disliked: materialism, utilitarianism, relativism, the mystical, post-modernism, and anti-realism. There was an interesting range of past and present thinkers most admired, from Aristotle and Aquinas to Descartes, Bertrand Russell and John Rawls. Aristotle, Kant, and Spinoza were mentioned the most relative to ethics.

Answers to the question “does God exist?” elicited a wide range of interesting ideas. Many answered with a simple “yes” or “no” or “I don’t know.”: One answered “Why do you ask? Why do you need to ask?” Another considered the construct of “God” to be a “gross oversimplification.” Other interesting answers: “Yes, but what kind?” “Yes, but not at all what people think.” “Depends on what you mean by God.” The vast majority answered with a firm and final “no” to the question of a life after death. Many saw no conflict between science and religion as long as both openly sought the truth, a kind of scientific religion or religious science. Interesting.

As for free will vs determinism, besides yes and some no answers, some were typically philosophical: “Even if there is conflict, not all of us use free will anyway.” “We’re machines that may or may not be deterministic.” “Both are involved in emergent evolution.” Books they would take if stranded alone on a deserted island varied quite a bit, but four were reported most: Descartes, Plato, Spinoza and Kant.

For so few pages, this little book manages to give full-time heavy-duty philosophers’ answers to basic questions many of us ask ourselves. It is refreshing to hear them say much of what we think and feel, and to express the same uncertainties and tentative hypotheses. For that reason, this little thought-sampler is a useful book.

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.

Christopher Newport University

Newport News, VA

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17 2000