A Short Piece

Are There No Answers In Philosophy?

More thoughts on the possibility of abstract progress.

We already talked about the possibility of progress in philosophy, but a few more things can be said. Is it true that there are “no answers” in philosophy, only questions? Again, if our standard is certainty, that might follow, but even if “absolute answers” are impossible, it doesn’t follow that “answers in general” or “better answers” cannot be obtained. This might sound problematic, but it’s not that different from most questions we live with just fine. If I’m asked, “How was your day?” I can only answer about this day: it is not actually possible for me to discover a general answer to this question that I could apply to every day of my life (though, that’s not to say we don’t try with answers like “fine”).

When we answer a question, say “How was your day” or “What did you do in college?” we probably never give a complete answer (arguably, that’s impossible): we say “good” and “study English.” “Good” doesn’t provide an explanation for how our day came into existence, what we did during our day, and countless other inquiries that would need to be addressed for us to adequately answer “How was your day?” The same goes with “What did you do in college?”: answering “English” hardly scratches the surface.

We live with “incomplete answers” constantly, but we are often are so habituated to these answers that we forget they’re unfinished and genuinely believe they are complete. When we come to philosophical questions though, in lacking a social script or habit to “hide us” from reality, we more readily recognize that we don’t answer these questions completely, and so can be tempted to think “these questions cannot be answered” (and that they are radically unique). Sure, but the question “What did you do today?” can’t be answered completely either: just try to recount everything you did today. We are surrounded by questions we can only answer incompletely, questions that in this sense “have no answer” and are “part of an endless conversation” — it’s just that philosophy, theology, and the like tend to be concentrated collections of many such questions (it’s the nature of the categories), questions of which their incompleteness is not “hidden” by habits and social scripts.

“What is justice?” “What is freedom?” “How should we live?” — all of these are questions we will probably answer inconclusively and incompletely, but once we recognize that we go through life answering most questions inconclusively and incompletely, this ceases to be a unique problem. Problems we can have with philosophical questions can be the same problems we have with most questions: it’s just that philosophical questions lack “social scripts” to help hide their incompleteness.

It is critical to not conflate “incompleteness” with “no progress”: if I am running a marathon and on mile ten, I certainly haven’t “completed” the race, but it would be crazy to say I have therefore made no progress. Perhaps we can look at philosophical questions as incredibly long “mental marathons” that take centuries to complete. Sure, after centuries of running, we’re perhaps only on mile ten thousand of who-knows-how-many, but we are running — we are moving forward. Is it the right direction? Well, maybe we should talk about it.

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