Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Questions and answers about philosophy

Whenever an academic philosopher tells you he has an answer, he's lying. Philosophy is not about answers, it's about questions.

To a normal person, an answer is, in a sense, a stopping point. If you ask me, "How tall is the Empire State Building?" I'll answer, "1,454 feet," and we're done. I've answered your question. Ask me where 4th & Main is, and I'll give you directions. Ask a physicist how the Sun shines, and he'll answer you with what we know about fusion. Ask a doctor why you have little bumps all over your skin, and he'll do some tests and tell you what disease you have, and how (if possible) to cure it. These are the kinds of things that people think about when they talk about answers.

While of course every scientific answer leads to new questions (yay!), scientific answers also serve to, well, actually answer real questions. We have since learned a lot more about evolution, for example, but Darwin's work really does, all by itself, definitively answer questions. There are certain things about which Darwin, Newton, Einstein, etc. (not to mention thousands upon thousands of non-famous research scientists) were just correct. They answered their questions, and unless observations go very far awry, nobody in the world ever has to spend much time going back and revisiting and re-answering those questions.

Philosophy is different. One way to define philosophy (and how to define philosophy is itself a philosophical question) is that philosophy deals with questions that do not and cannot have Answers in the scientific sense. Like the the humanities, arts, and literature, philosophy deals with questions that each society and each individual must answer for him- or herself. What is knowledge? What is existence? What is good? What is beautiful? What is truth? And, most importantly, what is justice? When I say each person must answer these questions, I mean "must" not in the normative sense but the literal sense: just as it is physically impossible to not accelerate towards the surface of the Earth at ~10m/s2, it is physically impossible for a human being to not answer these questions. A being that does not answer these questions, somehow, is not a human being. Even the most unsophisticated, philosophically "naive" person answers these questions.

We don't study philosophers because they've answered these questions. We study philosophers because they've thought about these questions. Really, their answers are not very interesting. We don't read Aristotle, for example, to learn how to be a good middle-class slave-owning Greek citizen of a polis. We read him because we want to see how a very smart guy picked up and examined the same questions our nature forces us to answer.

Philosophy is, I think, like climbing a mountain. Sure, a mountain climber needs her share of ordinary, prosaic, scientific answers: she needs to know all about pitons, carabiners, ice-axes, crampons; she needs to know techniques (of which I am entirely ignorant). But all of that knowledge doesn't get her one inch closer to the top of the mountain. She must, somehow, find the will and drive to actually complete the climb. She can read about how other climbers found their will, but she must find this will and drive completely anew, by herself. So too with philosophy. I can find out how Plato, Aristotle, Rawls, etc. answered philosophical questions, but I still have to answer all these questions for myself. It's a lot, but all that another philosopher can do for me is help me think more clearly and deeply about these questions; no philosopher can answer them for me. (Even if one adopts another philosopher's answers in toto, he has done so because he's thought them through himself, and the answers are his own.) In philosophy, thinking about the question is the thing, not coming up with the right answer.

Philosophers are, of course, human beings, and human beings, I think, have a tendency to think of their answers to philosophical questions as The Right Answers. But this is simply not so: a question that has The Right Answer is ipso facto not a philosophical question. When philosophers are honest about philosophy, they offer considerable value; when those reading philosophy understand what to expect, they can profit. But if you read philosophy expecting to learn what The Right Answer is, you will be disappointed. And if you write philosophy and think you're telling people what The Right Answer is, you are either mistaken about what philosophy is, or you are lying that you offer anything but your own answers.

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