The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

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  • Richard Stack  On April 19, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    I read you thing…. Nice work…. How many times did I see, read, or know that you pondered love…. ???? Ahhh. Love … God loving you, therefore.. You loving someone…. That’s it… That’s all of it…love dosent come from… An eternal mass of nothing… Someday evolving into me looking into my granddaughters eyes… And feeling her love for me…..stop searching for the explanation… Love is the answer

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