Advanced Search

Why do philosophers think they know everything?

Socrates famously said (roughly) that philosophy begins with knowledge of one's own ignorance. And I think any careful reading of this site would find most of us being extremely careful to add all kinds of qualifications and expressions of uncertainty to much of what we have to say. Of course, in some cases, we might claim to know something, but that falls rather a long way short of claiming to know everything.

Can you give any instances of any philosophical problems that have been 'nailed' so to speak by philosophy - that is, solved?

There are other examples, too, though some of them are more complex. Philosophers used to spend a lot of time trying to understand the difference between "Every student read some book" and "Some book was read by every student" and, more generally, why sentences like the latter logically imply sentences like the former, but not vice versa . (The former means only that no student failed to read a book, whereas the latter says that all students read the same book.) The broad outlines of a solution to that problem were presented by Gottlob Frege in 1879 with the introduction of modern logic. There remain different ways to sort out the details.

How does the panel explain the fact that philosophy seems to have become less and less about "truth" and more and more about the constructs of "language" - such that the discipline now appears to have a closer relationship with lawyers rather than scientists. When did it all go wrong?

Am I to explain why philosophy has become less concerned with "truth"? Or am I to explain why it seems to have become less concerned wtih "truth"? I think I can only try to explain the latter, as I don't think philosophy has become any less concerned with "truth". It's true that philosophy (or at least certain parts of it) over the last hundred years or so have been greatly concerned with language. There are many different reasons for that focus. For a time, the idea that some philosophical puzzles are really the results of misunderstandings was popular, and so the attempt to resolves such misunderstandings by close attention to language was popular. There are still some people with such views, but not many. Some philosophers still put great stake in "conceptual analysis", the thought being that a better understanding of our concept of knowledge, causation, or what have you would throw light on philosophical problems, anyway, and careful attention to language is important in any such...

Why was theology removed from the study of philosophy? Since it was, why is Medieval Philosophy still included in introductory texts?

Philosophy is a subject with very porous borders, and, as has beenpointed out by others here, disciplinary distinctions don't alwayscorrespond to anything important. There are plenty of questionstheologians discuss that philosophers also discuss, such as the problemof evil, which has been much discussed elsewhere on this site .There are, however, different ways one can approach such a question,and it's there that the difference, such as it is, between philosophyand theology lies. A theologian might draw upon certain religioustraditions or certain religious texts in crafting an approach to theproblem of evil. A philosopher would not do so, or at least would nottreat those traditions and texts in the same way. One does not get to appeal to the "revealed truth" in philosophy—that's not how the game is played—any more than one does in physics. Of course, the sameperson might be both a theologian and a philosopher, and write about the problem of evil from each stance, even mixing the two perspectives in a...

If philosophy is engaged in a hunt for eternal verities, why does it so often seem as faddish as a clique-obsessed 13 year-old? For instance, in the 1920s logical positivism ruled and their answers seemed on the mark -- until, of course, everybody realized the Vienna Circle was engaged in narrow-minded bilge. Then it was Ordinary Language philosophy -- good on J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle -- until of course folks realized that close study of ordinary language revealed little of interest and certainly no grand metaphysical truths. Then it was the Gang of Quine (to be is to be the value of a bound variable) which seemed to have the handle on reality in the 1960s and 1970s -- but does anyone today still recall why anyone thought Quine's work mattered? Where are the eternal truths? Does no one in today's philosophy pursue work designed to last?

My own view is that there is something of value in all of that work, more so in Quine's than in Austin's or Carnap's, but that's just my own view. I believe, in fact, that Quine's work will continue to be taken seriously for a longtime, in part because of its intensely naturalistic focus and in part because of its historical significance within the evolution of philosophical thought in the US. But even if we waive these points, the last question seems to presuppose something about the people mentioned earlier that isn't in evidence, namely: That the positivists, the ordinary language philosophers, and Quine and his accomplices weren't pursuing work that would last. They plainly were. If they failed, well, pretty much everyone has. It's easy to look back at the history of philosophy and think, man, there sure were some great philosophers then. Where are they all now? But the so-called modern period, from Descartes through Kant, spans a couple hundred years, and the canon picks out but six or...

It seems ever since Wittgenstein there has not been much of a stir in the philosophical world (not to undermine the work of any contemporary philosophers). Some say that his work marked the "end of philosophy." In what sense did he put an end to the discourse? Do you expect there to be a future philosopher who will have an impact quite like that of Wittgenstein, or say, Nietzsche, Kant, or even Aristotle? Moreover, are there any contemporary philosophers who are on this path? In which field(s) do you think a paradigm shift of this sort will occur?

It's certainly true that people have said this kind of thing about Wittgenstein. But if his work did mark the "end of philosophy", not very many people seem to have paid that fact much attention. I suppose someone might say that, if only we understood Wittgenstein's work properly and appreciated it sufficiently well, then we would be inclined not to continue doing this stuff. But I don't myself see any plausibility in that claim. Perhaps that is because my conception of what philosophy is is so distant from Wittgenstein's. Wittgenstein repeatedly expresses the view that there is a sharp divide between "scientific" questions, on the one hand, and "philosophical" questions, on the other hand. But I see no reason to believe there is any such principled division. The idea that there is such a division appears to be a very recent one, born (it would seem) some time in the 19th century. And much of the best philosophy done since the end of World War II has hewn very close to scientific questions. Perhaps one...

How do you know that philosophers have the answer?

I don't think many philosophers would claim to have the answer to very many questions. A philosopher doesn't have to reflect very long on the history of the subject to convince h'erself that a healthy does of modesty would probaby be a good idea. Any philosopher who does claim to have the answer ought therefore to be met with great skepticism. That's not to say philosophers don't have views. They do. But the reasons offered for the view matter more than the view itself does. That's not to say philosophers wouldn't like to have answers. But the questions with which philosophers deal are very, very hard, and, well, after a while you get used to the idea that you're just not going to get to know the answer. That doesn't mean one has to remain wholly ignorant. A lot of the time, what philosophy can offer is a better understanding of a question, a better sense of what the possible answers look like, and some warnings about known dead ends. With all of that in one's mental toolbox, further...

Psychology is advancing at a rapid rate and it's providing us with answers that were previously unthought of. Who we are and why we act the way we do is all being deciphered in a scientific and irrefutable way. In light of this change in the human attempt to understand itself, why should people continue to waste their energies in the non-empirical and unscientific approach known as philosophy?

If you want to know what love is, you'll learn more at this point from Pablo Neruda and the Song of Solomon than you will from all the psychologists in the world. And I venture that there will always be something you can learn from Neruda that the psychologists will not be able to teach you. That's not to argue for some kind of dualism (though there's a way of taking these reflections that would bring them quite close to Jackson's knowledge argument ). It's simply to say that "understanding oneself" can mean many things. I'm sure psychology has something to teach us here. But so does literature. And what philosophy has to contribute to this particular enterprise may be more along the latter lines than along the former.

What's the difference between a philosophy and a religion?

Philosophers tend not to speak of "a philosophy" the way that phrase is used in ordinary language. You will see people talk, for example, about Russell's philosophy of mind, but that just means Russell's theory about the mind. In so far as people speak of Russell's philosophy, they just mean Russell's work or, again, theories. There's no significant relation between "philosophies" of this kind and religious belief. In the ordinary sense, I suppose "a philosophy" is a set of values or principles. A particular religion might then have a "philosophy" associated with it, but particular "philosophies" will not necessarily have religious elements.

Do philosophers really think that the problems they discuss are important in themselves, or does thinking about the problems merely serve as practice in analytical thinking? How does philosophy differ from puzzle solving (besides the fact that puzzles actually tend to get solved)?

I think most philosophers think the problems are important. But there are lots of different views about why they are. One possible view is that worrying about such problems helps us to get clear about certain things we need to be clear about if we're to do science. See my response to a different question for elaboration: 30 .