Philosophical Questions 1

I’ve been thinking lately about questions, philosophical questions.  It seems to me–although I admit to being unable to take this thought very far yet–that one useful way of gaining insight into a philosopher’s work is by working delicately to typify the relationship between the philosopher’s questions and her answers to them.  Perhaps, so stated, that seems obvious.  But what I mean is typifying the relationship as such (if that can be done), independent of the particular erototetic content or declarative content of the question and answer, respectively.  There are, I submit, a vast number of different typifying relationships to be discovered.  Part of the reason I began to think about this was re-reading a comment of mine on G. E. Moore:

Moore insists that we often ask a philosophical question without knowing quite what question our interrogatory words express.  But Moore does not ever seriously doubt that there is a philosophical question that the words express.  We can rightly say that Moore doubted the clarity of the questions that philosophers asked, and we can rightly say that he often doubted whether philosophers really believed the answers they gave to the questions; but we cannot rightly say that he doubted whether there were philosophical questions to be asked and answers to be given to them.  That Moore took this view of philosophical questions is shown by his deep unease with his own answers to them.  Moore, I think, believed his answers; but he also did not believe his answers.  (“I believe; help thou my unbelief.”)  His deep unease was the result of the mismatch between his understanding of the questions and the believability of his answers to them:  given his view of the questions, the very believability of his answers to them made the answers hard to believe.

Socrates’ questions and answers bear one sort of relationship to each other.   Augustine’s another.  Aquinas’ another.  Kant’s another–and so on.  Consider Heidegger, at least late:  he so absolutizes the question over the answer that it is no longer clear that there is, that there could be, even that there should be any answer to the question or even an attempt at an answer.  Such an attempt would violate the absoluteness of the question, allow us at least the hope of being able to end, at least for a moment, enduring the interrogative rack,  to stop bearing the question mark, to finish the forever-rising inflection–to scramble off the heath and into shelter, no longer exposed as mad Lear.  But Heidegger would have us stay.

(Ok, so I got a little carried away there.  Apologies.  But I plan to return–soberly–to this line of thought in coming days.)

5 responses

  1. This seems very important.

    I wonder if these complicated relations between philosophers’ questions and their answers reveal something general about the nature of philosophical questions. And if so, what is it? I mean, there seem to be something about the nature of philosophical questions that invites an unsettled attitude towards them. The questions, as it were, put you ‘on the edge,’ and sometimes seem to make it impossible to orient yourselves towards them for longer than a second before they force you to find another orientation. Do you think we could say that the different kinds of relations between philosophers’ questions and their answers reveal different attempts at such orientation? (I also wonder if this problem we have with grasping, asking, philosophical questions–if it is indeed real–can be described less metaphorically.)

    I also wonder about the difference between Moore and Heidegger–the way you describe them: If I understand, according to your description, although both let themselves feel the difficulty with philosophical questions, expose themselves to it (and I take it to be an achievement), Moore, in your description, is still looking for answers, where Heidegger has already given up. However, it wasn’t clear to me from your description of Heidegger if you thought that he is still looking for a way to orient himself on the questions steadily and firmly–even if not answer them. That is, I wonder if even in his absolutization of the question over the answer, there is yet a part of him that hopes, wishes, that he could finally, once and for all, get the question.

  2. Would the following schema help with your proposed typology?

    [1] high confidence in questions/
    high confidence in answers

    [2] high confidence in questions/
    low confidence in answers

    [3] low confidence in questions/
    high confidence in answers

    [4] low confidence in questions/
    low confidence in answers

    I say that you’re proposing a “typology” because of your repeated use of “typify.” Maybe I’m being misled by a word?

    Another consideration might be this: if there really is “a vast number of different typifying relationships,” as you remark, then wouldn’t that make a typology pretty much beside the point? Wouldn’t we want instead to focus on the idiosyncratic cases in all their exotic variety and not worry about types?

    I hope I’m not way off track.

    • For a more nuanced typology, we’d of course have to include high/moderate, low/moderate, moderate/high, moderate/low, and moderate/moderate.

      This is beginning to sound like a sociology major’s first questionnaire! Sorry. But what is the alternative except a biographical approach that gets us so deeply into the details of a given philosopher’s mind that we’re no longer able to usefully generalize? Not that generalizing itself is always so useful!

      History, R.G. Collingwood says somewhere, is the science of the individual, meaning that it does not aim for generalizations but seeks (ideally) to imaginatively work its way inside the particular “mind” of the subject and see her world and act in it from her point of view. He described history’s (biography’s) aim as that of “rethinking the mind of the past.” This ambition might well be helped by comparing and contrasting “subjects”, whether historical ages or individual persons, but the end is ultimately insight into the singular and idiosyncratic. An rough illustration:

      Is there anyone who related to philosophical questions and answers in just the way Wittgenstein did, with his peculiar compulsion to endless inquiry and his passionate desire to altogether stop inquiring, all mixed up with something like a mystic’s passion to escape the self? And is it possible that Heidegger’s compulsion to endless inquiry, in contrast to Wittgenstein’s, had a mystagogic element that Wittgenstein’s did not? When Wittgenstein counseled would-be young philosophers to forgo philosophy and become engineers instead, he was giving what he considered to be good practical advice based on his personal experience. Heidegger, one sometimes gets the impression, was initiating acolytes into the cult of himself. Etc., etc.

      (Calm down fans of Wittgenstein and Heidegger; I’m merely conjuring vague impressions of these men in order to illustrate an approach, nothing more.)

      Again, Kelly, I may be completely misunderstanding the aim of your inquiry. It might help, though, if you would indicate how these two general approaches (the sociological vs. the biographical) are or are not relevant to your approach.

      • Bill, no, you don’t misunderstand. But I am not really pursuing the sociological, as you call it; rather, the biographical, again, as you call it. My use of ‘typify’ (which, I admit, I hear in my head as functioning much like Heidegger’s “Proximally and for the most part…”) applies only the individual philosopher’s way of relating question to answer. So, for example, I’d like to be able to typify the relationship in Heidegger, and in Wittgenstein, and in others. But I am not all that interested in constructing any general schema. You might say that the generalizing that interests me is that done over the complete/major work of an individual philosopher, not so much that done over groups of or the group of philosophers. No doubt, if we could get the typifications that do interest me, comparisons between or among philosophers would be useful (often, I anticipate, since they might help us to see how rarely philosophers agree with one another, even when they ask apparently the same question and give apparently the same answer, because they understand the relationship between the two differently).

  3. some aspect of thinking in terms of construction vs deconstruction/destruktion at play?
    I still think some take on philo as auto-bio-graphy is the way to go, philo as part of a wider aesthetic/character-type (tho in a loose family of resemblance kind of way).

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