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Are There Answers for the Big Questions?

Book series offers an overview of new developments in philosophical inquiry and future directions.

By Suzanne Wu
November 16, 2009

Scott Soames is chair of the philosophy department at USC College. Photo credit Philip Channing.

Scott Soames is chair of the philosophy department at USC College. Photo credit Philip Channing.

While working on Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century, Volumes 1 and 2, a definitive two-volume history of analytic philosophy, Scott Soames came to a conclusion that a less-reasoned mind might consider rather bleak: There will never be another philosopher in quite the vein of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume or Kant.

“We’re not seeing now and haven’t seen for some time the production of grand philosophical systems,” said Soames, chair of the philosophy department at USC College. “No philosopher, and nobody else either, keeps track of what’s going on simultaneously in say, physics, biology, psychology and the other disciplines down the line. It’s too big for one brain.”

Still, the problem remains for those who have chosen to devote their lives to big questions: How do we begin to discuss the tremendous advances in human knowledge in the last century?

“The job of relating different areas to one another and of making their overall projects understandable and accessible, remains,” Soames said. “But if it can’t be done in one grand synthesis, we must find a better way to do it.”

In 2006, Soames proposed an ambitious new project, a major series of books by top philosophers that would give scholars and advanced students an overview of the most important unanswered questions and landmark developments in various sub-fields of contemporary analytic philosophy.

“Instead of one grand picture, what we need is a series of overlapping pictures in which we get visions of particular areas of philosophical inquiry and try to assess what has been achieved, where we stand today and where we are or should be going in the future,” Soames said.

Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy (Princeton University Press), for which Soames is series editor and instigator, will eventually feature 22 volumes – providing, in some roundabout way, the potential for unifying perspective and common understanding through synoptic overviews of intensely specialized thought.

Philosophical Logic, the first book in the series by John Burgess, Soames’ former colleague at Princeton University, was published in September. Soames’ volume, Philosophy of Language, will be released next year. Other titles range from Philosophy of Physics to Aesthetics to Philosophy of Law, by USC Gould School of Law professor Andrei Marmor.

“The big questions have become more complicated and more intricate,” Soames said. “Nonetheless, the quality of the philosophical work that has been done and the reach of that work across all sorts of intellectual disciplines is really quite stunning.”

For more information about Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy, visit the Princeton University Press Web site at press.princeton.edu/catalogs/series/pfcp.html