Not seeing philosophical questions

Beth asked:

I can’t think of any philosophical questions. Is there something wrong with me?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

There may be many things wrong with you but since I don’t know you I can’t say what they are.

If you want to know about some philosophical questions then read a book about philosophical questions. Try Bertrand Russells History of Western Philosophy.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

In Bertrand Russell by A.J. Ayer (1972) there is the following interesting comment about the divergence in the views of Russell and Wittgenstein after the publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

"Wittgenstein coupled Russell with H.G. Wells as men who had run out of problems, and Russell, though he retained great affection for Wittgenstein, could see little merit in his later work." (p.16)

Obviously, if you have never been gripped by a philosophical question, you are missing out on something. As a philosopher, I would have to say that, wouldn’t I? But what does it mean to ‘run out of problems’? Is it possible that your thinking could take you to a place — as Wittgenstein thought it had done with Russell — that you were no longer able to believe that there are any philosophical questions to answer?

This is an occupational hazard for philosophers who search for, and think they have found, the Big Theory. Russell’s ‘Big Theory’ was logical atomism. The theory furnished him with an epistemology, a metaphysics, a complete methodology for philosophical analysis, in short, a way of breaking down and resolving any philosophical problem. Ergo, there were no real problems left.

This view is ironic, given that Russell, more than most philosophers who had attained his level of prominence, was not afraid of changing his mind about answers he had previously given. (He makes a remark about this somewhere.) True, he didn’t see what the later Wittgenstein was getting at in his ‘philosophical therapy’ but this is a common issue with philosophers. ‘You do not appreciate the problems I am working on’ does not equate to ‘You have lost the ability to appreciate philosophical problems.’

This is of special interest to me because, like Russell, I have, or had, a ‘Big Theory’. The difference is that while logical atomism had an answer to practically everything, my theory of subjective and objective worlds merely redescribes the problems of philosophy, leaving things largely as they were before — apart from ‘one big thing’ which is all I really know. In terms of Isaiah Berlin’s classification, I am a hedgehog rather than a fox.

I see lots of philosophical questions. I fear that some of these questions, those which are the most fundamental, have no answer even in principle. They are conundrums. Wouldn’t it be better if one could just let these go? What is the point of continuing to ponder questions which have no answer? The only reply I can give to that question is simply that this is what I have to do.


One thought on “Not seeing philosophical questions

  1. Beth, there ARE no problems around ! Problems are not grazing like cows or standing like trees. They are in your head. There are questions that can be solved by science. The Earth is a globe, so are the Moon and the Sun. But what about God ? Does he even exist ? In the USA a priest was chided lately, because he said that God and Allah are the same “person”. His Christian superior said “no way” ! But any atheist would say : “Both are wrong, since there is neither God nor Allah !” From this “simple” quarrel quite a number of truly philosophical questions arise :

    – In what sense are the claims ((1) God exists, (2) Allah exists, (3) they are the same ‘person’, (4) the are just fancies in the minds of the believers and do not exist in any other reality) meaningful in the first place ? All 4 claims could be meaningless. That is a problem of the “philosophy of language” : What do we refer to when we make a claim. Could you answer any of the 4 claims ?

    – And suppose you would support claim (1) : God does exist. How would you know that ? And what sort of God ? If you point to the Bible, the atheist would say : “The Bible is just a text that Christians claim to be the word of God, but the Muslims don’t think so, and the Buddhist would not either, so this does not prove anything. There are just some people sharing a conviction. There is not scientific proof convincing everybody like a mathematical or physical formula. So what are people fighting about that are fighting about some religious convictions ? Are they fighting over a true statement or just over convictions — or mayby over misunderstandings ?

    – And if as a true believer (I am not) you are ready to kill or to die for your conviction : How do you justify this ? Would Einstein have killed or died for his theories ? But whole peoples have fought over religious convictions ! What makes the difference ?

    I could go on and on over many pages. There are philosophical problems everywhere, but – as Aristotle knew already : Philosophy starts from wonderment ! You have to wonder why things are as they are, why people support strange claims, why bright and erudite minds call each other potheads and disagree over answers that they find important while those answers seem completely irrelevant to you.

    So to start philosophizing you first have to be a bit estranged, you have to find the world a strange world to be in, full of questions. But, as I said : Those questions are not hopping around, they are in your own mind. Or, onde more : There ARE no questions, but YOU can have questions. You are generating the problems by putting them, by asking yourself : “Does it make sense ?”

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