Philosophical Outliers


By Lisa Autz

Zed Adams for Brooklyn Public Philosophers. Photo courtesy of Jen Ortiz.

At the age of about three years old, children begin to be filled with questions: What happens when we die? Is there a God? Are we reborn after death?

Then, somewhere along the line, children cease asking questions that don’t seem to have an answer. Our educational system begins rewarding them for solving inquires rather than posing great, probing questions.

Ian Olasov, a philosophy graduate student at The Graduate Center, CUNY and the founder of the Brooklyn Public Philosophers (BKPP), pondered the same kind of queries in his youth. Once he went on to Bard High School Early College (Manhattan), an alternative public high school in the city, philosophy professors expanded his inclinations in life-examination with philosophical theory grounded in real world relevance.

“My interest in philosophy seriously began in high school,” Olasov tells BTR. “There I had a couple philosophy professors, Bruce Matthews and Steven Mazie, who were both really great and did a great job at making philosophy seem approachable and important and something that I felt I could contribute to in some way.”

Bridging this gap between public accessibility and the academic discipline has inspired his creation of Brooklyn Public Philosophers, a monthly forum of philosophical discussions and lectures open to anyone at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“There are a lot of philosophers doing really interesting work that people should know about and should have an opportunity to find out about in a way that is approachable, open, and inclusive,” explains Olasov. “That’s something that I wanted to do–provide that sort of venue.”

The crossing Olasov seeks to build between these two worlds brings into question a heavy assumption that our lives could somehow be enriched by the structural and systematic argumentation of this ancient field of study.

Uplifting the poverty of public dialogue on complicated issues, along with the invaluable skill of formulating logical, rational, and critical explanation of opposing view points are some of the most beneficial symptoms of adopting philosophical tools, according to Olasov.

For instance, learning the structure and theories of Kant’s categorical imperative, or the theory that morality is based on a standard level of rationality, could enhance our ability to deconstruct every day problems. Ethically conflicting issues like how to better approach a relative who has committed criminal acts of robbery: Was there a rationality to their decision and if so, does it make the decision somehow moral?

The culminating revelation through applying these tools could bring forth a deeper commonality that lies within even the most opposing, foreign viewpoints and expand our logical compassion towards one another.

“In philosophical discussion you have to be prepared to talk and find enough common ground to engage with people who differ with you on the most fundamental matters,” says Olasov. “So trying to understand views that are completely alien to yours is a really useful skill and trying to articulate and explain the reasoning behind the views that you disagree with is, I think, really valuable.”

BKPP, which started in September of 2013, creates a space in the community where people can openly debate and begin to construct their own methodology to argumentation. Each monthly gathering holds a 45-minute-to-an-hour lecture, usually from an academic in philosophy, then a communal conversation begins between philosophy students, professors, and non-academics on the topic at hand.

Olasov admits he is continuously surprised at the variety of people that attend, usually a group of 20 to 50, and the interesting perspectives they supply.

For instance, the most recent lecture was given by Anna Gotlib, an Assistant Philosophy professor at Brooklyn College, who presented her work on memory and the self. Her research looks into our individual and societal pursuits to control, manage, and erase memories. Spanning from personal fears of dementia and Alzheimer’s to political and legal practices that subdue or erase facts in history from public memory.

“People apply the argument to ideas or phenomena that the speaker hadn’t anticipated,” confesses Olasov. “For example on Gotlib’s talk, one person started talking about the ways that your bank records follow you around in the modern world in a way that they didn’t 60 years ago and that your reputation is more easily Google-able now, sticking with you for a longer period of time today, and whether those conditions were a good or useful thing.”

Olasov’s philosophical pursuits at The Graduate Center, CUNY give him access to a large range of professors in the field that are eager to present their work to the community. Olasov’s personal work centers on moral theory and the philosophy of language.

He is interested in analyzing how people talk about morality in hopes to discover the core significance and role of morality in our lives. His queries include: What is the reason for morality? What are our intentions in expressing our morality? Are there cohorts of people that are dominating our moral discourse?

“In particular, I want to find out how we can use large collections of transcripts of conversations to address questions of interest to philosophers,” clarifies Olasov. “You can go a long way towards answering these questions just by looking closely at how people talk.”

The next lecture held by BKPP will present Geoff Holtzman, a philosophy alumnus of The Graduate Center, CUNY who is part of a movement called experimental philosophy. By developing and conducting experiments, Holtzman investigates answers to traditional philosophical questions. His topic will address the wide gender gap in philosophy.

“Women have historically been underrepresented in philosophy and in the past few years I think people have become much more conscious of how serious a problem that is,” asserts Olasov. “Anything we can do to understand why women are often turned away from academic philosophy, or how philosophy could grow from opening more doors for women, is really important.”

It’s subjects like these that faintly gain traction in casual conversation, boardroom meetings, or other spaces in our lives. Yet, are bubbling under the surface, waiting for a safe place to develop into everyday awareness.

Perhaps BKPP has the potential to tend to the overgrown questions of our youth within the system of philosophy. After all, once we’ve outgrown the shielding image of childhood inquisitive innocence, where else do we go to communicate the pressing questions that still arise and are left unanswered?

Olasov insists that our current climate for discussion does not permit the level of genuine dialogue in which people are yearning to engage and hopes BKPP can help change that.

“In polite company, among grown ups, it’s hard to raise philosophical questions without someone looking at you like you’re nuts or without it being somehow feeling awkward or too abstract for the purpose of everyday conversation,” argues Olasov. “It’s a shame because people are interested in those questions but don’t necessarily have an opportunity to discuss them with other people.”