3 philosophers set up a booth on a street corner – here’s what people asked

The life choices that had led me to be sitting in a booth underneath a banner that read “Ask a Philosopher” – at the entrance to the New York City subway at 57th and 8th – were perhaps random but inevitable.

I’d been a “public philosopher” for 15 years, so I readily agreed to join my colleague Ian Olasov when he asked for volunteers to join him at the “Ask a Philosopher” booth. This was part of the latest public outreach effort by the American Philosophical Association, which was having its annual January meeting up the street.

I’d taught before – even given speeches – but this seemed weird. Would anyone stop? Would they give us a hard time?

I sat between Ian and a splendid woman who taught philosophy in the city, thinking that even if we spent the whole time talking to one another, it would be an hour well spent.

Then someone stopped.

At first glance, it was hard to tell if she was a penniless nomad or an emeritus professor, but then she took off her hat and psychedelic scarf and came over to the desk and announced, “I’ve got a question. I’m in my late 60s. I’ve just had life threatening surgery, but I got through it.”

She showed us the jagged scar on her neck. “I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “I’ve got a master’s degree. I’m happily retired and divorced. But I don’t want to waste any more time. Can you help?”

Wow. One by one, we all asked her to elaborate on her situation and offered tidbits of advice, centering on the idea that only she could decide what gave her life meaning. I suggested that she might reach out to others who were also searching, then she settled in for a longer discussion with Ian.

And then it happened: A crowd gathered.

At first I thought they were there to eavesdrop, but as it turned out they had their own existential concerns. A group of teenagers engaged the philosopher on my right. One young woman, who turned out to be a sophomore in college, stepped away from the group with a serious concern. “Why can’t I be happier in my life? I’m only 20. I should be as happy as I’m ever going to be right now, but I’m not. Is this it?”

It was my turn. “Research has shown that what makes us happy is achieving small goals one after the other,” I said. “If you win the lottery, within six months you’ll probably be back to your baseline of happiness. Same if you got into an accident. You can’t just achieve happiness and stay there, you have to pursue it.”