The cameras flashed and clicked. People stood on tiptoe to get a better look over the crowd. It was the last World Philosophy Congress of the 20th century, and some of the most important philosophers were onstage Wednesday evening in the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel: Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Strawson and Donald Davidson. You might have thought that Plato and Socrates and Aristotle themselves had assembled for a symposium. When the cameras finally stopped flashing, the philosophers blinked and trained their thoughts on a single question: ''What have we learned from philosophy in the 20th century?''
The air fairly crackled with anticipation. Quick-witted Mr. Quine, a 90-year-old Harvard philosopher who is the premier 20th-century proponent of naturalism, the view that philosophy is a part of science, went first. ''I should have thought up an answer to that one,'' he said. ''I'm going to have to pass.''
Everyone laughed, but he wasn't kidding. Indeed, all six philosophers seemed to be confused about whether they were supposed to give little speeches or take part in a roundtable discussion. So Mr. Strawson, a 79-year-old Oxford metaphysician and philosopher of logic, was up to bat. His plan was to focus on the ambiguity of the word ''we.'' Is the question about what we have learned collectively or what each of us has learned individually, he asked: ''If it's the former, the possibility of any reply seems remote. And if it's the latter, there is no shortage of replies.''
That's not to say, he added, that any compelling answers will be found among them. People mistakenly believe that only the last two decades of philosophy are worthy of attention, Mr. Strawson said.
Truths may be hard to come by, but at least there are paradoxes to savor. Mr. Strawson offered one: Plato is generally taken to be the founder of philosophy and Descartes the founder of modern philosophy. And yet these days, Mr. Strawson said, ''to accuse a philosopher of Platonism or Cartesianism is a pretty serious charge.''
Mr. Davidson, an 81-year-old philosopher at Berkeley who has written about the relationship between our identity as people and our existence as physical objects, dodged the question. So instead, he discussed how ''very American'' philosophy had been in the 20th century, and then reconsidered: ''To be honest, it was mostly Harvard.'' Today, he said approvingly, it is more international. From there, he went on to talk about the merits of air travel and E-mail.
The big three had refused to answer the question. But they were joined by three less famous philosophers who were not so shy. Marjorie Grene, 88, a philosopher of science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, briefly worried the word ''we,'' toyed with tackling the word ''learned'' and finally decided she had more substantial fish to fry: ''Why is it important to do mathematical logic? Why?'' And why, she asked, is everything still Cartesian, relying on Descartes's separation of the mechanical brain and the incorporial mind? ''The only true statement he made was that he was born in 1596,'' she said, adding that even that might have been wrong, and that, by the way, ''Heidegger was evil and we ought to forget him'' and that ethics is ''just minding everyone's business.''
Karl-Otto Apel, a Frankfurt philosopher who practices a brand of philosophy that he threatens to call transcendental semiotics, reminisced about his neo-Kantian days of abstract reflection on the classic questions: Is there an outer world? Is reality a dream? Are there other minds? With the rise of linguistic philosophy, these questions, he said, became ''nonsense.'' But he now laments that reflection has been completely replaced by infinite mathematical series: ''The only philosophical thing left is 'et cetera.' ''
At last, the end of the line had come. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the great American scholar of Islamic philosophy, skipped over the chance to question whether ''we'' was a collective or individual term in favor of asking whether it included Eastern philosophy. ''I take it this means American philosophy,'' he said, noting that the West had virtually ignored the philosophical traditions of India, China, Japan and Islam. If the West paid attention to the East, he said, it would paradoxically rediscover its own traditions -- not the latest logical formulations but the great spiritual ''quest for truth and meaning.''
And so the original question had been torn to shreds. The purveyors of logic and mathematics seemed to have ceded the floor to those who promised to bring back spirituality and reflection. But maybe this was just because not all the logicians were disposed to ad-lib an answer to such a big question. As the night wore on, Mr. Quine was given a second chance. He replied, ''I really have nothing to add.''
Photo: Willard Van Orman Quine in his Harvard office. (Michael Quan)