Can we be right in viewing ourselves -- our lives, our decisions, our contributions to social issues -- as important, if that means important, period, not just important *to* someone? I mean, I'd feel meaningless if what mattered to me mattered only to me, or to any particular people...but is there a sensible way to view ourselves as important, with a capital 'I', to no-one in particular?

Alex is suggesting that unless something is “important, period,” nothing can be important at all in a way that gives meaning to human lives. We might understand Alex’s argument for this conclusion as a kind of reductio of my suggestion that I could be reasonably satisfied with the meaning of my life if I were important to things that I cared about, things that I believed were themselves of value and importance. If, as Alex adds, the value of those to whom I am important depends on their importance to something else of value, then unless something ’s value is a matter of its “importance, period,” my life’s meaning never gets grounded: the value of my life depends on my importance to Xs who are valuable because they are important to Ys who are valuable because they are important to Zs, and so on ad infinitum . However, this regress goes on ad infinitum only if it can never turn back on itself. Certainly, I wouldn’t think that my life had much meaning if I were important only to...

I think that it’s very difficult to make sense of the idea that I amimportant, period. It used to bother me that I couldn’t make sense ofthis idea, but now I’m perfectly content with the idea that I’mimportant to those I care about, or that I make an importantcontribution to projects that I care about. I’d like to think thatthese people and projects are themselves important, and I think thatthey are, but only because they are important to themselves or toothers– that is, genuinely important to themselves or to others, not just thought by me (or others) to be important in these ways.

Do you think that Socrates really believes that moral facts exist? He seems to never decide on an answer.

By “Socrates,” I’ll assume that you are referring to the characterSocrates found in Plato’s early, so-called Socratic dialogues, acharacter who many (though not all) ancient scholars believe accurately represents theviews of the historical figure Socrates. It’s easy to bepuzzled by Socrates’ attitude toward moral facts. He’s famous forexposing his fellow Athenians’ lack of moral knowledge and forproclaiming that he has no moral knowledge of his own. One possibleexplanation of everyone’s moral ignorance is that there are no moralfacts to be known. However, it seems to me that this cannot beSocrates’ explanation, since Socrates justifies many of his own actionsby appeal to moral considerations. Consider, for example, the followingstatements: “Then I showed again, not in words butin action, that, if it were not rather vulgar to say so, death issomething I couldn’t care less about, but that my whole concern is notto do anything unjust or impious. That government, strong as it was,did...

This is a follow-up to the question "What is the difference between analytical and continental philosophy?". Even if the distinction should be retired, it still gets used, and those of us outside the profession don't have a sense of what the terms mean. It would still be useful to give us a sense of what the (stereotyped, misleading) distinction is supposed to be. What is the flavor of the rhetorical differences between the two? Do the two address different sorts of question? (This is the characterization I've gotten from philosopher friends: continental figures make up grand sweeping theories about everything, whereas analytic figures try to answer one small question at a time, more like the method of contemporary science.) Who are some of the major figures claimed by either side?

Like others, I believe that this popular dichotomy is in many ways morepernicious than helpful. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to make thefollowing observations. The Western philosophical tradition has itsroots in Ancient Greece. After the European rediscovery of Aristotleduring the Crusades, this tradition continued in Europe and eventuallyin the United States and Europe's other former colonies. In the early twentiethcentury, this tradition broke into two distinct styles of approachingphilosophical questions: the so-called Analytic or Anglo-Americantradition (influenced by philosophers Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein,Moore, Carnap, and Quine, some of whom, as has already been observed,are neither Anglo nor American) and the so-called Continental traditionthat continued in continental Europe (whose foundational figure is the19th century German philosopher Hegel, and which also includes suchphilosophers as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre).

I never understood Heraclitus' river analogy. Does it mean that we are constantly changing or changing only by degrees? Why does it say the "same" river if it is in constant flux? It seems like in the fragment "one can never step in the same river twice" that we could interpret the "step" as "never step in the same river" or as "never step into the same waters". Which is correct?

In Plato’s Cratylus , the character Socrates makes thefollowing comment about Heraclitus: “Heraclitus is supposed to say thatall things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to thestream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same rivertwice" (402a). Ever since Plato, the view that we can’t step twice intothe same river has been attributed to Heraclitus. However,let’s consider the following two fragments about rivers that manyancient scholars regard as Heraclitus’ own words (in translation): "On those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow– and souls are exhaled from the moist things" [B 12]. "We step and do not step into the same rivers, we are and we are not" [B 49a]. Inthe first fragment, Heraclitus suggests that we do step into the samerivers, even though the water in these rivers changes. The secondfragment raises interpretative problems of its own, but here tooHeraclitus speaks of the same rivers. So how can we choosebetween...

What's the best definition of Nature and its contrast to the supernatural?

I'm sure that I can't say what the "best" definition of the natural is, but I can try to say why an answer to your question has proven very difficult. Many philosophers, like myself, thinking of themselves as enlightened, scientifically educated folk, have wanted to avoid committing themselves to anything "supernatural." They balk at the idea of immaterial souls, ESP, poltergeists, miracles, vampires, magic, and the like. But just what do these things have in common in virtue of which they count as supernatural? It can't be that they aren't now recognized as existing, or as ever having existed, by current natural scientists. Current natural scientists will be the first to confess that they do not know all that exists in the universe: they expect to be surprised by future discoveries of natural phenomena. It can't be that what makes something supernatural is the fact that the recognition of such objects would require that one countenance the existence of objects that would violate those laws of nature...

Is happiness (eudaemonia) possible?

The answer to this question will depend on your conception ofhappiness. Not only do different philosophers differ in their viewabout what constitutes happiness (go here ),they also have different views about how much of anything thatcontributes to happiness is required before one counts as happy. Thinkabout it this way. On different philosophical conceptions, differentthings count as good or bad for us. To the extent that we have the goodthings, we are better off. To the extent that we lack the good thingsand possess the bad things, we are less well-off. On a scale from very,very badly off to very, very well-off, there is a point at which onecounts as happy or eudaimon – namely, when one has enough ofwhat is good (and lacks enough of what is bad) to count as living a good life (that is, good foroneself), or as flourishing. Depending on how high on the scale oneplaces happiness and depending on the difficulty of achieving theconstituents of happiness, it will be more or less easy to becomehappy. If...

I teach a sophomore level course at a public university and recently asked two questions on an informal evaluation of the course: How concerned are you with getting all of the points you deserve on every assignment? and How concerned are you with getting more points than others who did less work on every assignment? Students responded with a number on a 7-point scale such that 1 = not at all and 7 = highest priority. I thought the responses to the two questions would be highly correlated and that I could use this information to point out that giving unearned points to one student is unfair to the rest of the class. However, there was almost no correlation between the responses (r=.08), the mean response for the first question was very high (5.8), and the average for the second question very low (2.1). The question: is it possible to make sure every student gets all the points they deserve without also making sure they get more points than students who did less?

It seems to me that your students’ position is very reasonable on oneunderstanding of what you mean by “less work.” Students come intovarious classes with different levels of preparation and skill, and so,it will take “less work” --i.e. “less effort”-- for some students, forexample, to answer all of the questions correctly on an exam than itwill take other students. On this understanding of “less work,” yourstudents are saying that they don’t want their effort to be taken intoconsideration when you are determining their grades. They are sayingthat they don’t deserve a better grade just because they worked harder. Ifon the other hand, by "less work" you mean "answered fewer questionscorrectly," then I see your difficulty. It doesn't seem possible forstudents to get the grades that they deserve, if they don't get morecredit when they answer correctly more questions. I wonder whether youand your students have the same thing in mind when you think of "lesswork."

For what reason should beliefs of others be honored or respected? That is to say, if something I say makes another uncomfortable because of their belief, what reason do I have to not say it? I have heard many times people say, "Don't say that, it will insult people because of their beliefs." Given this reason, if there were a person who was deeply insulted by the word "is" in any conjugation I would have to really tip toe around any speech! I suppose I am talking mostly about religious/superstitious belief. There doesn't seem to be any reason to respect beliefs in this regard when the belief may or may not be true. My second question: Did I just answer my own question?

Do people's beliefs deserve our respect? I'm not sure what this would mean. I think that often what people who offer this sort of advice mean is that one should be respectful to other people whose beliefs are different from one's own. But I don't think that a respectful attitude toward others requires us to pretend that we don't disagree or to refrain from saying anything that might lead them to question their beliefs. It's true that I can disrespectfully disagree. I can be condescending, abrasive, ordismissive. But equally, I think, I could disrespectfully agree (or at least not voice my disagreement). I might think that the other person is so irrational that neither of us could profit from a discussion of the basis for our disagreement.

Is it philosophically defensible, or morally right, to inculcate your child to an organized religion when you yourself do not firmly believe in it? Along the same line, is there anything wrong about avoiding religious topics with your child with the intent that the child will choose her own set of beliefs when she becomes more mature?

I’ve long been a non-believer, but I remember that when my firstdaughter was born, I too began to worry about the sorts of questionsthat are raised here. It’s one thing for me to be a non-believer— can’treally help that, since the only thing that can give me a reason tobelieve in God would be evidence that suggests the existence of a God–but it’s a separate matter whether I should try to inculcate a beliefin God in my daughter. After all, I reasoned (in a panicky sort of way–overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the responsibility that I hadjust taken on), I could be wrong, I’ve been wrong before, and if othersare right in their belief that the existence of God is necessary foreternal bliss and non-belief in God is sufficient for eternaldamnation, then perhaps itwould be morally wrong for me to take a chance and doom my child toeternal damnation. I got over this worry pretty quickly, but now thatI’ve just rehearsed it again, I’m beginning to panic again. What in theworld is wrong with that reasoning? ...