Problems of Philosophy


Problems of Philosophy



Russell called his “shilling shocker” The Problems of Philosophy, and there is a reason for that title: philosophy consists of a set of problems. The same is not true of other subjects: physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, history, economics, English literature, etc. In these subjects a certain sector of reality is selected and investigated, discovering the entities, processes, and laws of that sector. It is true that problems arise during these investigations, which might impede the progress of investigation, but none of these subjects consists of problems—and the problems that do arise are not like philosophical problems (see below). Philosophy is not concerned with any specific sector of reality, ranging over all of reality, but only with the philosophical problems that arise in anydomain (hence philosophy of physics, philosophy of psychology, etc.). It goes from ethics to metaphysics, language to space and time, art to science, politics to logic. Philosophy is concerned with a certain type of problem not a specific aspect of reality. And no other subject is like that: it is what distinguishes philosophy from every other area of human inquiry. We might indeed use it to define philosophy: philosophy is that subject which deals with a certain set of problems, no matter what those problems may concern—problems of a certain distinctive character. It is not defined by subject matter, as other disciplines are, but by the kind of intellectual activity it invites—problem-solving activity. This is why an introductory textbook in physics or psychology or geology will not have a title of the form The Problems of X but rather something along the lines of The Discoveries of X. It is also why so many topics in philosophy are described as “the problem of such and such”: the problem of free will, the problem of knowledge, the problem of consciousness, the problem of the self, the problem of induction, the mind-body problem, the problem of perception, and so on. Each of these areas poses problems—questions we find it hard to answer, questions that trouble us, questions that won’t go away. They pose problems for us: we ourselves have a problem because of the existence of these problems. For the problems challenge rational thought: they put pressure on rational thought, and so they put pressure on us as rational beings. The problems of philosophy are ourproblems not just problems attaching to a certain subject matter—problems of the self, we might say. So the philosopher is in a peculiar position: he or she has no specific domain of expertise to investigate, no proprietary subject matter, but rather a roster of disparate problems that tax and trouble him or her. The philosopher is more of a trouble-shooter than a fact-collector: when queried about what she does for a living the philosopher will reply, “I solve problems” (inwardly adding, “or try to”). This is what makes philosophers different from other inquirers: we are in the problem business while they are in the discovery business. Even when our topic of interest isn’t conventionally called “the problem of X” (e.g. “the problem of meaning”) we recognize that problems constitute our daily diet—they are what we feed on. Philosophy is made of problems.

What kind of problems? Here the hand waving is apt to commence; the otherwise articulate philosopher begins to mumble. He may say airily that he is concerned with “deep problems” or problems about “ultimate reality”; or state peremptorily that he is interested in “conceptual problems”. For it is difficult to give a precise and uncontroversial characterization of the kind of problem that comprises the subject of philosophy. These problems are not like problems stemming from remoteness in space and time, as in astronomy and evolutionary biology; nor do they concern infinity or the interior of black holes. The problems have to do with thought itself: we find that we can’t think straight about something—we can’t make sense of it. It baffles us. Thus problems about space and time, the nature of the mind, the status of ethical value, what meaning is, what necessity is, how knowledge is possible, whether we can perceive material objects, and so on. I would call these logical problems, in a wide sense of “logic”: they concern the possibility of making rational sense of something.[1] I won’t go into the details of this, merely observing that the philosopher is in the business of rendering things coherent, intelligible, and clear, not confounding, confusing, and obscure. In the case of the problem of knowledge, for example, the philosopher wishes to reconcile the demands imposed by the concept of knowledge with the mind-independence of the world. So we can say that the set of problems that define philosophy are logical problems, not empirical or “factual” problems. How is free will compatible with determinism? This is a logical problem of showing that one thing is logically consistent with another (or accepting the inconsistency). Not surprisingly, then, philosophy and logic are close cousins—the philosopher is always a logician of sorts. Again, no other subject is like this—a battle against logical problems. This is perhaps why philosophy is regarded with suspicion by other academic types: it really is a different kind of enterprise from every other subject. Instead of trying to discover truths about a certain part of reality, which may or may not be actively problematic, it tries to solve the logical problems raised by any part of reality. In so doing it attempts to solve our problems in thinking about reality (so it has a therapeutic purpose). Philosophy is self-medicating in a way that physics (etc.) is not. It tries to soothe a personal unease.

How do these logical problems arise? Are they unavoidable? Could there be a type of philosophy that didn’t take this form? Two possibilities suggest themselves: either they arise from our modes of thinking about reality, or they arise from reality itself. If they arise from our modes of thinking, they should be in principle correctable; or if not correctable for us, then other intelligent beings need not be subject to them to start with. But this seems hard to accept, given their obstinacy and longevity. Then they must be objectively based: but how can the world contain such problems? Is free will itself not sure whether it is possible or not? Is there simply no fact of the matter about the nature of space and time, or consciousness, or ethical value? One feels that reality cannot itself be problematic: the universe is not a set of problems! It simply is. The problems must stem from us, from our inadequate ways of thinking, from our concepts, not from the ways things objectively are. Yet that suggests that we could escape the problems by adjusting our minds—which seems implausible. The problems seem unavoidable for any mind, but they can’t be inherent in reality qua problems, as atoms and forces are inherent in reality: for how can reality be made of problems? Here we have a philosophical problem about the basis of philosophical problems (a meta-philosophical problem). As to the question of whether philosophy could transform itself into something more like a regular discipline, abandoning its obsession with logical problems, the answer seems fairly clear: it could not. It is necessarily problem-centered. We could certainly decide to investigate concepts as such without concerning ourselves with solving the traditional problems, but that would not be philosophy—it would be a branch of psychology. The idea of philosophy without its problems is not the idea of philosophy. The essence of philosophy is the set of problems that define it. This is not to say that these problems could not be solved (we live in hope!) but if they were that would be the end of philosophy. Some successor discipline may emerge in that happy dawn but it wouldn’t be philosophy as we know and love it (or hate it). Philosophy without its problems is no philosophy at all. Indeed, we can think of the concept of philosophy as simply a generalization of the existence of separate logical problems: people found themselves perplexed by certain problems in disparate areas of human thought and decided to lump them all together under the heading “philosophy”. The problems came first, the discipline second. Again, this is not true of other disciplines: they are not compilations of disparate problems but unified fields of investigation (rather like fields in fact). A philosopher has no “field” in the sense of a unified area of study; a philosopher is rather a problem-wrangler roaming widely. So it is quite wrong to describe a philosopher as someone whose field of study is concepts: that misses the problem-oriented nature of the subject. Philosophy could certainly be abandoned as an area of study—simply no longer taught and thought about—but that isn’t for it to cease to have its problem-centered character. The problems of philosophy are philosophy. Even if all the problems are solved one day and the solutions tabulated in a definitive textbook, philosophy will still be about problems: how the problems that define the subject were eventually answered. The student will still need to understand the problems, feel their force, and not merely absorb the facts uncovered by the area of investigation called “philosophy”. The perplexities are part of the nature of the subject not something extrinsic to it.

Perhaps we can imagine a race of beings for which physics and chemistry consist of problems. They can’t understand how material objects are possible, or how chemical reactions are logically consistent, or what a law of nature is, or how motion can occur; they find the whole subject conceptually confusing. They make little progress with it, despite strenuous efforts. Disputes are endemic among people calling themselves “physicists” or “chemists”. Their attitude towards the physical and chemical world is like our attitude towards consciousness, free will, knowledge, etc. What subject are they engaged in? I would say philosophy, or one form of it: they have logical problems about a certain sector of reality. Their discipline tries to solve these problems, which are philosophical in character so far as they are concerned. If they finally sort these problems out and begin accumulating positive knowledge in the manner of human physicists and chemists, then philosophy for them will have come to an end. Maybe philosophy will one day come to an end for human beings (though I doubt it) once its logical problems are straightened out, perhaps by means unheard of today. Meanwhile it will continue to be defined by its problems.[2]


[1] In calling the problems “logical” I intend no narrowing of ambition on the part of the philosopher. I mean merely that they concern rational thought as opposed to empirical discovery—that they have an a priori character, to use the traditional terminology. No simple philosophical label is entirely suitable, though I think “logical” is perfectly justified once freed from limited conceptions of the logical (such as those found in standard logic textbooks). The OED’s “the quality of being justifiable by reason” strikes me as pretty much on target. It would not be wrong to say that philosophical problems characteristically put reason in question. The same is not true of other disciplines (except in so far as they raise philosophical questions).

[2] In teaching introduction to philosophy it is good to start with a problem chestnut such as the problem of our knowledge of the external world. This gets the student accustomed to the idea that philosophy is concerned with a certain kind of question of the form “How would you solve that?” This is not like teaching statistics, say, in which you might start by explaining the concept of the mean, or the concept of a normal distribution, and then proceed from there. You might also simply announce at the beginning that philosophy is concerned with problems—difficulties, conundrums, obstacles to rational thought. It attempts to overcome these problems, once they have been detected. It is not a recitation of discoveries, like botany or archeology.

2 replies
  1. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    Who would propose anything in particular for or against so discursive and indefinite an analysis? I dare say this Post is a trap, set for the foolish and intrepid both.’Tis a hoax, I declare. That said, on my first reading my cat sat atop my right shoulder as I scribbled furiously objection after objection to your piece. He finally head-butted me, looked me in the eye, and rather scornfully intimated that I give it up (if this is yet another of my misreadings, I’m blaming it on him, and on the pandemic ofcourse as well).


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