Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered


“How do you respond to those who wonder whether philosophy questions can ever be really answered once and for all and who therefore conclude it’s a waste of time?”

That’s Richard Marshall, who has conducted around 300 detailed interviews of philosophers for 3:AM Magazine. He continues: “No matter how good an argument for a position there always seems to be the philosopher who later challenges it. Philosophical questions never seem to die. How do you defend philosophy against these skeptics?”

He puts this question to Duncan Pritchard (Edinburgh) toward the end of a recent interview about Professor Pritchard’s work in epistemology. Here’s his response:

The best way to respond is to actually solve some problems. I think I have done that. In particular, I think that my anti-luck/risk virtue epistemology really does offer a philosophically satisfying complete account of knowledge (and much more besides, such as casting light on how knowledge relates to other epistemic standings like understanding). And I think I have also solved the problem of radical scepticism, at least in one of its most influential guises anyway. Of course, a lot may hang on your phrase ‘once and for all’, as in writing the foregoing I am obviously not suggesting that debate about these topics will end as a result of my contributions! I do get e-mails from time-to-time from philosophers who have read either proposal and found it compelling as a solution to the problem in hand, but I also get far more correspondence from philosophers that is critical of my views. That’s to be expected. The point, however, is to find solutions that one finds philosophically satisfying, and to articulate them and defend them as clearly and openly as you can; you can’t do anything else beyond that.

What philosophical problems have solutions that are “philosophically satisfying”? Your examples are welcome.

Daniel Stoljar (ANU) offers some in his book, Philosophical Progress: In Defense of A Reasonable Optimism, as he discussed in a guest post here last year.

On Professor Stoljar’s view, we can roughly group philosophical questions into categories of small, big, and topic-setting. We decisively answer small philosophical questions all the time—whether, for example, philosopher so-and-so committed such-and-such fallacy in her argument. However, as Stoljar notes, such small questions are typically not what skeptics of philosophy have in mind when they, in Richard Marshall’s words, “wonder whether philosophy questions can ever be really answered.”

What are they interested in, then? Something larger. Stoljar argues that answers to larger philosophical questions have been forthcoming, too—if we’re careful about how we understand what these questions are. Important to his answer is distinguishing between big and topic-setting questions. Topic-setting questions are the questions that identify areas of inquiry, such as “What is the mind and how does it relate to the body?” or “Are we free?” or “What is justice?” These questions are sometimes trotted out by skeptics as examples of big philosophical questions that we do not have complete, settled answers to.

Stoljar argues that the fact that these questions remain unanswered doesn’t tell us much, as we can see by looking at the status of topic-setting questions in fields besides philosophy. Consider a topic-setting question in biology, like “How does the body work?” We do not have a complete and settled answer to this. In fact, it is astounding just how little we know. Do you know that it was just last year that biologists learned that our lungs play a major role in making blood? It’s not like we just discovered the lungs, people. We’ve been cutting those things up and looking at them closely for a really long time. Or consider the relatively nascent appreciation and understanding of the role that our microbiome plays in our functioning (and the questions it raises for our understanding of what kind of organism we are).

Would we take the fact that we don’t have a settled answer to the question “How does the body work?” as good evidence that there has been no progress in biology, or that there are no agreed-upon answers to big questions in biology? No. Likewise, the lack of answers to topic-setting questions in philosophy isn’t good evidence that there’s no progress in philosophy, or that there are no agreed-upon answers to big questions in philosophy.

Biologists are no longer framing their research questions about how the body works in reference to the four humors, and questions about the fruitfulness of that approach have been answered. That biologists are asking different questions now (for example) is a sign of progress. Likewise, on Stoljar’s view, we no longer frame our inquiries in certain ways because they’ve been shown to be unhelpful or based on mistakes. We’re asking better questions now, as our understanding of the problems we’re asking about develops—and that’s a sign of progress. Stoljar argues that we’ve conclusively answered Descartes’ version of the mind-body question and now grappling with better ones (again, see this post) and provides additional examples in his book.

It’s true that the mind-body problem is still with us. But so is the body problem.

Yves Klein, “Anthopometry of the Blue Period”

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