The One Statement To Best Restart Philosophy

The One Statement To Best Restart Philosophy


If all existing philosophical work—and all records and knowledge of it—were to be destroyed in some disaster, and only one sentence could be passed on to future intelligent beings (roughly like us we’ll assume) for them to restart the philosophical enterprise, what should that statement be?

The question is based on a similar one about science, which Richard Feynman originally asked and answered, and which Tom Chivers recently asked a dozen scientists (via Kottke). Feynman said: “I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

The aim of the question is not to solicit your favorite philosophical nugget, but the one you think would be the most useful philosophical head start or orientation at the rebirth of philosophy.

(image: detail of “Maelstrom” by Simona Prives)

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Stephen Clark
6 years ago

Refutation is the greatest and chiefest of purifications, and he who has not been refuted, though he be the Great King himself, is in an awful state of impurity; he is uninstructed and deformed in those things in which he who would be truly blessed ought to be fairest and purest (Plato, Sophist).Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
6 years ago

Here is mine:
We should think after and cultivate “the ability of the soul to soar up to heaven to behold beauty, wisdom, goodness and the like” (Phaedrus 24).Report

Ian
Ian
6 years ago

“That question, while interesting, is beyond the purview of this paper.”Report

Jorge A.
Jorge A.
6 years ago

To me the most important statement comes from Timothy Leary: “Think For Your Self Question Authority”Report

Will
Will
6 years ago

This question is ambiguous between two projects: first, to reconstruct existing philosophy (what I assume Feynman was answering) and second, to rebuild philosophy anew.
I offer “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates) for former and “To ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might result from the truth of that conception—and the sum of these consequences constitute the entire meaning of the conception.” (Peirce) for the latter.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
6 years ago

I’ll cheat by using a compound sentence:

Where there are no arguments, there is no philosophy, _and_ put the focus not on ways others tend to get things wrong but on the ways you get things wrong.Report

Rhiannon
Rhiannon
6 years ago

If we are aiming to kickstart a new (and better?) form of philosophy, I think Wittgenstein’s instruction “Don’t think, but look!” might be a good choice.Report

Valeriu
Valeriu
6 years ago

“Let’s discuss about that.”Report

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
6 years ago

‘What shall I do tomorrow?’Report

Alo
Alo
6 years ago

“Yes it is true, we were once stupid beings.”Report

Geoffrey Haselhurst
6 years ago

We all experience existing in space because space exists and matter-energy in space-time is really just wave interactions in space, thus we unite matter, energy, space and time with the wave motion of space, this being the source of truth, the necessary connection between material bodies due to waves flowing through space (all is one and active, the foundation of metaphysics and philosophy).
PS – The central problem of physics was the theoretical construct of discrete ‘particles’ to explain discrete standing wave phenomena. The correct mathematics for describing this reality of waves in 3D space is quaternion wave equations, which deduce all of modern physics.Report

Rob Tempio
Rob Tempio
6 years ago

Philosophy Begins in Wonder (Theatetus)Report

Rob Tempio
Rob Tempio
6 years ago

My second choice: : “The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” (Sellars)Report

nein
nein
6 years ago

“All knowledge is contained in this sentence.” Let the foundations of logic begin!Report

Deep Thought
Deep Thought
6 years ago

“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”Report

Eric
Eric
6 years ago

If the goal is to restart the enterprise, I would wish for Kant’s interrogative summary of philosophy to survive: “What can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope? What is the human being?”Report

Martin
Martin
6 years ago

This sentence is false.Report

Darrin Snyder Belousek
Darrin Snyder Belousek
6 years ago

Now, how shall we live?Report

Matthias
Matthias
6 years ago

Whatever it is, it’s most likely to be a quote from a German philosopher, just because their sentences are longer.Report

Matt LaVine
Matt LaVine
6 years ago

Susan Stebbing
“There is an urgent need today for the citizens of a democracy to think well. It is not enough to have freedom of the Press and parliamentary institutions. Our difficulties are due partly to our own stupidity, partly to the exploitation of that stupidity, and partly to our own prejudices and personal desires.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

“Philosophy”, seen from a historical perspective, can’t be separated out from other activities (maths, physics, biology, logic, psychology…) which we distinguish from philosophy now only because so much philosophical progress was made on them that they acquired distinctive names. The questions that interested (e.g.), Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, or Leibniz were as much scientific as philosophical, by current definitions. So the only sense I can make of all philosophical knowledge being destroyed in some disaster is that it takes science with it.

That being the case, Feynman’s “matter is made of atoms” looks quite a good candidate for the rebuilding of philosophy. But I think a better choice would be

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.” (from Origin of Species)

Even setting that aside, and trying to stay within the modern-day boundaries of philosophy, I think most contributions above aren’t quite in the spirit of Feynman’s quote. Note that he’s not suggesting how the scientific *method* might be best distilled into one sentence, but rather, what one piece of hard-won scientific *knowledge* would best be preserved. In that vein, I’d suggest any of (a) Socrates’ Euthyphro argument about God and morality; (b) Descartes’ method of scepticism; (c) Hume’s riddle of induction. All of those could probably be distilled into one (longish) sentence in a way that would convey the argument, and provide a good prototype of philosophical thought into the bargain. (I am a poor historian of philosophy so there are probably better choices, but I think that *kind* of choice is the right analogue to Feynman’s sentence.)Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

What a fabulous question. My choice would be…

… All positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd.

This ought to save our descendants a lot of unnecessary work.Report

Art Grymes
Art Grymes
6 years ago

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

– Virginia WoolfReport

MA-Student
MA-Student
6 years ago

“Metaphysics is first philosophy.”Report

G A Forbes
6 years ago

“Here, as in all other cases, we must set down the appearances and, first working through the puzzles, in this way go on to show, if possible, the truth of all the beliefs we hold about these experiences; and if this is not possible, the truth of the greatest number and the most authoritative. For, if the difficulties are resolved and the beleifs are left in place, we will have done enough showing.” Aristotle NE 1145b1Report

Max
Max
6 years ago

“Know thyself.” -Delphi
“The truth is the whole.” -Hegel
“Philosophy is the science of the relation of all knowledge to the essential ends of human reason.” -KantReport

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Max
6 years ago

Another vote for “Know Thyself”Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

The proposed quote about desert, which is presumably Rawlsian though I can’t find that exact wording in my copy of A Theory of Justice, is terrible because it attacks a thesis no one has ever held. No one has held that people deserve to be born with high IQs or deserve to be born with rich parents — that would be crazy. And the intended conclusion — that no one deserves the benefits that can flow from those things in a free market economy — only follows if you can deserve A on the basis of B only if you also deserve B … which, as was pointed out a gazillion years ago, generates an infinite regress. So we have a straw man argument plus a self-undermining premise … and that’s supposed to restart ethics and political philosophy?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

Justin: “I think David Wallace’s suggestions are particularly good”.

What better statement could there be on which to rebuild philosophy?Report

Dani
Dani
6 years ago

“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”Report

Fc
Fc
6 years ago

“Supposing, however, that there were something whose existence has in itself an absolute worth, something which, being an end in itself, could be a source of definite laws; then in this and this alone would lie the source of a possible categorical imperative, i.e., a practical law. Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.”Report

Jeremy
Jeremy
6 years ago

“Get lost!” — Richard Rorty’s response to radical ( = Cartesian) sceptics.

(If you’re lost, you have to regain your bearings. The next time, you might be lucky enough to regain your bearings minus the assumption that knowledge is “based on” foundations.)Report

Evan
6 years ago

“Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.”-Plato, The RepublicReport

Simon
Simon
6 years ago

‘Aristotle’ is not synonymous with ‘the teacher of Alexander’, nor is it with any other definite description.

I think our future philosophers could work a lot out from the this. And they wouldn’t need to wait for their equivalent of Kripke to come along with the same insight.Report

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

“You could be wrong about that.”Report

Langdon
Langdon
6 years ago

“All men by nature desire to know” Aristotle, first line of the Metaphysics.Report

John
John
6 years ago

Why?Report

GC
GC
6 years ago

I am – You are – We are. Discuss the meanings and implications of this.Report

Andrew Sepielli
6 years ago

“In the charter establishing his Foundation, the late Sir John Templeton set out his philanthropic intentions under several broad headings. These Core Funding Areas continue to guide our grantmaking…”Report

Anon_Moose
Anon_Moose
6 years ago

I’d just take all the full-stops out of Frege’s Grundlagen and leave that.Report

Ronnie Hawkins
Ronnie Hawkins
6 years ago

I would place LIFE–not just human life, but all life on the planet, LIFE as an ongoing, evolving phenomenon that our human activities are now collectively jeopardizing–at the center of our metaphysics, and work a restarted philosophy out from there.Report

RP Forsberg
RP Forsberg
6 years ago

What is the true nature of the universe and what this means for our lives within it?Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

“Luck swallows everything and only regurgitates uncertainty.”

With apologies to Galen Strawson.Report

Anonymoose
Anonymoose
6 years ago

“Many problems are only solved by finding better questions and many solutions are only understood by finding the problems that they would best serve to answer”Report

Jasper Heaton
Jasper Heaton
6 years ago

Because it has *always* bugged me:

L1: “Well, that’s life.”
L2: “Yes; but life doesn’t have to be that.”Report

Anonymoose
Anonymoose
6 years ago

In response to Justin’s request for more philosophically substantive (rather than enigmatic or evocative) statements, as well as worries that some scientific knowledge might have also been lost in the cataclysm, I suggest:

“There is a distinction between what happens to be and what ought to be. This difference, as well as each of these sorts of states of affairs, is knowable but difficult to understand. The following principles are worth accepting as facts: moral responsibility is typically proportional to one’s capacity for reflective moral behaviour, a government’s authority is rooted in the consent of its people to be governed by that agency, and situations in which the rational behaviour of each individual member of a community is to the net detriment of the community are a common and pervasive problem that is best resolved through regulation of the community.”

And if I could include another line, just in case: ‘If you find any remaining work by either Sam Harris or L. Ron Hubbard don’t take them seriously — one is a dangerous cult leader and the other is a science fiction author’.Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
6 years ago

From the venerable philosopher Douglas Adams: “There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”Report

Edward Spence
6 years ago

I think the most significant question in philosophy, one that even science cannot answer ( as Quine also believed) is the question concerning the distinction between appearance and reality. It is the question posed so eloquently by both Plato in the Allegory of the Cave ( the Republic) and then by Renee Descartes’ Deceitful Demon argument ( Meditations). If we cannot know with any degree of certainly that the external world that we experience is real ( beyond all doubt) then that has vast implications about everything we claim to know. Including our own existence.Report

M
M
6 years ago

Cheating, by taking two nice short sentences from Williamson and semicolonizing them: “Philosophy can never be reduced to mathematics; but we can often produce mathematical models of fragments of philosophy and, when we can, we should.”Report

Alan Richardson
Alan Richardson
6 years ago

Don’t read blogs.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

Is ‘Hey now’ your ode to philosophy, or were you objecting to Alan Richardson’s comment? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUslXuCNRi0Report

Louie Generis
Louie Generis
Reply to  Alan Richardson
6 years ago

Hey nowReport

Hélio Nunes
Hélio Nunes
6 years ago

God, could you answer this question? Why not? So I should seek my answers where I can find it: in the /physis/… And the philosophy restarts. Easy… What came first? The /arque/ is Hiroshima!Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
6 years ago

Something more specific, like: how do you know the future will be like the past? So much thought, particularly in epistemology and metaphysics, can be generated out of contemplating the problem of induction. Posing one specific problem to delve into and then go from there seems much more practical than fairly broad but somewhat useless exhortations. Alternatively, something about perception or the appearance/reality distinction may be a good starting point.Report

njmatch3
njmatch3
6 years ago

“To do philosophy is to explore one’s own temperament, and at the same time to attempt to discover the truth” (Iris Murdoch).Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

“…poetry and philosophy should be made one.” Friedrich SchlegelReport

Lexington
Lexington
6 years ago

As others have suggested, I do think that Descartes’ most basic argument is an excellent choice. It is simple on the one hand, but expands into large domains of philosophy when unpacked. Here is a longish and compound sentence from Principles of Philosophy that gets the idea pretty clearly:

“While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks.”

Unpacking this requires an understanding of certainty; of the importance of building knowledge from fundamental truths; of the difference between appearance and reality; of the peculiar nature of consciousness; of a dualism between mind and matter. Much as it did historically, it provides a foundation for a great portion of modern philosophy, either in agreement or disagreement with the argument.Report

Michael Bench-Capon
6 years ago

Everything is made of water.Report

Mikkel Gerken
6 years ago

“What’s going on?” (HT: Marvin Gaye although neither the tune nor the album contain the ‘?’)Report

YetAnotherAnonGradStudent
YetAnotherAnonGradStudent
6 years ago

“Words, in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but the Ideas in the mind of him that uses them.” – John Locke. Often thought in contemporary times to be obviously false, I think it is in fact true and it is rather conventional Fregean style theories of reference that are false.Report

Sebastian
Sebastian
6 years ago

“God is dead!”Report

Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

‘philosophy is as philosophy does’Report

Jan Bransen
6 years ago

Surely, life could better be lived by a whole bunch of cooperating specialists, but to everyone’s regret and luck, your life – like everyone’s – has to be lived by you, with all your shortcomings, your fickleness, your obliviousness, your laziness and your ineradicable habits.Report

mark montgomery
mark montgomery
6 years ago

whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

(If P then Q) and P –> QReport

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

No need for a statement to be transmitted for the survival of philosophical thought as long as an internalist condition and an externalist condition hold: wonder and leisure.Report

Ken A.
Ken A.
6 years ago

Why?Report

Dan Dennis
Dan Dennis
6 years ago

Why carry on thinking and acting as you do: why not in some other way?Report

Aaron Sloman
4 years ago

The processes of evolution, using the construction kit provided by a lifeless physical universe, managed (without even trying) to produce minds of mathematicians like Euclid in a few billion years. How? Why is it so hard for AI researchers to produce robot mathematicians able to make similar discoveries in geometry and topology? Are their tools inadequate, or have they not understood the problems well enough. The Meta-Morphogenesis project is an attempt to state and clarify the problem.
http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/misc/meta-morphogenesis.htmlReport