I recently read an article where a doctor remarked that he had considered becoming a philosopher but eventually realized that he "didn't have the knack for asking the right sort of philosophical questions." Also, philosophy graduate school applications I read often say that they want the writing sample to demonstrate an ability to detect fruitful areas of philosophical inquiry. Is the ability to pick up on the "right" philosophical questions a skill that can be honed?

Yes it is. But now I suppose you expect me to say how. You are asking a lot. Here are a few tips. (1) Look for a question that is small but not trivial. It’s often a good idea to look for a question that is about a specific argument for a big claim, rather than a question directly about the big claim itself. This gives you focus and specificity. It also gives you automatic structure, since it gives you the distinction between the issue of whether the premises are acceptable and the issue of whether the conclusion follows from the premises. (2) Look for a question that is relatively clear (though you may still need to spend a lot of effort making it clearer). (3) Look for a question that immediately suggests different readings that you can distinguish. More generally, look for a question that will enable you to make useful distinctions. (4) Look for a new question that looks like an old question that...

I am only in my first few years of studying philosophy, yet I have been reading simple introductions, and philosophical novels since I was quite young. When I was younger I often thought I had stumbled upon some "great new theory" or other, only to find out that, not only had it been done before, but done much better than I ever could have. Now that it is the main focus of my academic life, I find myself truly discouraged every time I have what I think might be something new to the world of philosophy, or some original thought. It seems that all there is to discover in philosophy has been picked apart to the bare bones, or that my own thoughts simply could never in my wildest dreams stand up to any critical analysis. I have thought of simply giving up on the subject to start writing novels about my far-fetched ideas. Should I let it go and save myself the discouragement and disappointment? (please don't take this late night e-mail as evidence of my writing skills... I promise with some coffee I...

I suspect that many of us suffer from your incoherent-footnote-to-Plato worry from time to time, but let me say two encouraging things. The first is that although philosophy does often circle back to issues and arguments in its own history, when we consider them anew we consider them in a new context, and this makes room for originality. Of course it helps not to expect too much. You don't have to provide a definitive reply to scepticism about the external world: it's glory enough to push the discussion along in smaller but still productive ways. The second encouragin thing to say is that originality isn't everything. Even if it turns out that someone else had the idea centuries ago, working things out for yourself has a special intellectual value for you. Philosophy is not a spectator sport.

Is it true that the professional academic philosopher is a relatively new phenomenon? If so, what have been the benefits and shortcomings of professionalising philosophy? I ask this because someone told me recently that the most significant contributions to philosophy have been made by people who never considered themselves to be philosophers as such, but who got philosophical about their primary area of interest - mathematics, science, politics or whatever.

I think that almost all of the central figure in the western philosophical canon would have considered themselves philosophers, though not necessarily academic. Some of them were also notable for other things -- for example Aristotle for biology and Descartes and Leibniz for mathematics. There have also been great scientists who might not have considered themselves philosophers but did some significant philosophical writing -- for example, Galileo, Boyle, Newton and Einstein. But perhaps one shouldn't put too much emphasis on disciplinary affiliation. And even if one is in the first instance a philosopher, it is a real plus if philosophy is not the only thing you know about since (among other things), so much philosophy is Philosophy of X, where X is some other discipline.

Why did you take philosophy? Was it a long standing goal in life or did you just wake up one morning and decide to be the next Plato or Socrates?

Fortunately, I never thought I would try to be the next Plato or Socrates. I was originally attracted to philosophy because I thought that it asked particularly basic questions, questions that where underneath a lot of the other questions people ask. (I felt somewhat similarly about physics.) When I started studying philosophy seriously as an undergraduate, I wasn't disappointed. I really enjoyed the issues and the arguments, and I didn't mind that we kept circling back to the same big questions without ever definitively answering them. Maybe it's a case of arrested development, but these feelings and pleasures have stayed with me.

Seeing as you are Philosophers I thought you would be the ones to ask this question. Is there, or has there ever been, any truth to the existence of the Philosopher's Stone?

You have probably asked the wrong website, since the 'Philosopher' in 'the Philosopher's Stone' does not refer to a philosopher but to a scientist, or an alchemist. The term 'scientist' was only invented in the 19th century; Newton was a 'Natural Philosopher'. And in fact Newton himself was centrally concerned with the search for the Philosopher's Stone. For Newton put an enormous effort into alchemy, and the Philosopher's Stone is what the alchemists were looking for, a substance that would convert base metals into gold. There is alas no reason to believe this substance exists. Transmutation of elements does occur -- think of radioactivity -- but we've no way to convert lead into gold.

Is it that philosophy is competitive or is it just the way in which we (as humans) have come to be in general that is competitive? I'll try and spell out the distinction. My professor seems to vie for his idea. Descartes defends his position. Hobbes attacks Descartes' idea. Spinoza attacks both. There are dissertational "defenses". These are just a few examples of competitiveness in philosophy. Are humans just competitive? But if we are trying to get at truth, how does competition help? I can't understand why I feel the need to be the smartest person in my class. If I am not, I feel anguish and despair. Is it that anguish and despair come from losing and philosophy for me is just a competition and for other people it is not that way at all? But that is not true. Does philosophy harbor competition, and if it does, is it intrinsically flawed? Would art be a better way to get at truth? But art is competitive too! Is existence, then, a Schopenhauerian nightmare--endless striving to overcome, when...

Here is one reason why one limited form of competition in philosophy (and many other areas of inquiry) is good. Faced with a philosophical problem, our best bet is to propose a possible solution, criticise it, and on that basis to try to improve it, or improve on it. But almost all philosophers are better at criticising other people's ideas than their own. So competition yields an epistemic advantage. Karl Popper proposed this kind of methodology of 'conjectures and refutations' as the key to inquiry, especially in science. Although there is a lot I would criticize (sic) in Popper, I think he is right to emphasise the importance of trying to find the weak points in the best ideas people can come up with.