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Finding the right questions March 10, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Philosophy.

How does philosophy help us in our efforts to better understand the physical world (if indeed it does)? In an interview with Robert Kuhn at Closer To Truth, Daniel Dennett suggests that philosophers deal with questions rather than answers: “Philosophy is what you have to do until you know what the right questions are.” Once you’re clear that you have a good question, then you go off and try to answer it — and that’s not philosophy, it’s physics, or psychology, or history, etc. Back in Aristotle’s day, everything was philosophy: the boundaries between various domains of knowledge had yet to be drawn. As different questions eventually became clear and distinct, new fields branched off and came to stand on their own.

Philosophy can help you see why certain questions, which are very tempting, are going to mislead you more than help you. Dennett points out that the history of philosophy is in many regards a history of mistakes — “very tempting mistakes, mistakes that very smart people are apt to be tempted by.” Only by studying and understanding those mistakes can we avoid repeating them. Philosophy helps to clarify issues, to raise questions, to articulate underlying reasons. Philosophy can help you see the forest for the trees.

Of course, philosophers can sometimes get carried away…


1. david resnick - March 20, 2011

Interesting that the assumption is that philosophy would formulate only empirical questions — at least those are the examples given (psychology, history, etc.). Philosophy might help sort out the empirical from other kinds of questions, but formulating significant empirical questions doesn’t seem to me to be much worth philosophy’s (i.e. philosophers’) time.

Ezra Resnick - March 20, 2011

Dennett didn’t use the word “empirical,” and I think your formulation is unnecessarily restrictive. There are fields we wouldn’t call empirical, such as jurisprudence, which philosophy is certainly relevant to. I do think, however, that philosophy has much to contribute to our understanding of the physical world, and that the line between philosophy and science is often blurry. Why do you think that “formulating significant empirical questions” is a waste of time? And what are those “other kinds of questions” that you think Dennett is ignoring?

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