In many traditions (eg Stoicism) philosophy is not a field of knowledge but of endeavour and spiritual exercise, or in other terms a way of life and seeing life. In that light, what value has any single answer to a given question? Should we close this website and remain silent (à la Zen)? Would it depend on the nature of the question or its field?


You may want to know why I'm asking this question. As a linguist, I'm studying occupational jargons. In many technical fields learning a specialized vocabulary gives you a good start to be able to learn about activities, ask about them, verify them and apply this knowledge.

But in Philosophy it is not always case : a random question on this website (eg "Could the cogito possibly be false") will be essentially different from a question found for instance on serverfault (eg "How to determine if a bash variable is empty?"), even though the vocabulary is as specialized in Philosophy as it is in linux server administration. You simply can't answer it so easily.

I'm wondering whether this is caused by limitations of language as a tool for shaping a meaningful answer in difficult abstract matters or by the nature of the questions involved (often open-ended). You could say I'm curious to distinguish the 'very difficult' from the plain impossible.

The discussion here showed in how many ways this problem could be seen. The very definition of the expression "philosophical question" and "answer" are problematic. Perhaps it may help if I list a few types of "answers" that were mentioned.

Something being an answer could be:

  1. "shoulder-of-giants" answers: somebody important in philosophy gave us his answer and we can look into it to see if it's helpful
  2. "there's-something-to-it" answers: they give us an insight on a deep question, without pretending to solve everything
  3. "way-of-life" answers: they advise us on the appropriate action in some circumstances (or in general, but it's more risky)
  4. "definitive" answers: they're the ones we've all been waiting for but they're somewhat elusive. They probably rely on some sort of demonstration.
  5. there are probably other types of answers we didn't think of yet.

Classifying questions is actually a lot more difficult. Again, I acknowledge that the expression "philosophical question" is vague and I'm sorry for that. Most of all I'm curious whether languages (both 'natural' and formal ones) can be relied on to deal with what I'd call "deep abstract questions" for lack of a better expression.

  • 1
    For a silent field, there is an awful lot written about Zen.
    – mwengler
    Jun 27 '12 at 17:11
  • This is a little too chatty/open-ended as currently formulated; I'd encourage you to try to specify a bit more clearly the particular challenge you're encountering in your study of philosophy, what you might be reading/studying to have made this problem urgent, what sort of explanation you might be looking for, what you have found out so far, etc.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 2 '12 at 14:31
  • :( I'll try to address that in the near future, although I fear such a question must be open-ended. The "challenge" I encounter is in fact the open-endedness (of some forms of knowledge) itself. Still I thought there were some constructive things in the answers below.
    – rloth
    Jul 2 '12 at 16:13
  • Agreed, the answers are definitely pretty interesting. Keep in mind the closure doesn't have to be permanent; I'd be delighted to reconsider reopening pending some revision/cleanup of the question
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 2 '12 at 17:31

I agree with you that philosophy is not a field of knowledge. This, however, does not mean that one should not attempt to seek answers to its questions - it means that, most of the time, one cannot find any one definitive answer. Typically, a philosophical question will be answered differently depending on whose philosophical ideas you find valuable and from which you are then deducing an answer.

Therefore, even after receiving an "answer", one has not attained knowledge, but rather gained new insight and perspective into different ways of attempting to answer the question which assists your "endeavour and spiritual exercise".

  • Thank you for your answer. So AFAIU there would be two senses to the word 'answer' : the 'definitive answer' (once I have it I solved my problem) and the 'there's-something-to-it answer' We cannot hope to find the former but striving for the latter is still worthwhile?
    – rloth
    Jun 25 '12 at 22:42
  • 1
    nice answer. Maybe "...depending on whose philosophical ideas you are assuming to be correct..." could sound better as "...ideas you find more valuable...", as assuming that one idea is more correct than the other gives the impression of an ontological weight to it.
    – Tames
    Jun 26 '12 at 14:27
  • @rloth Exactly - someone should come up with two different terms here to make this distinction easier.
    – eWolf
    Jun 27 '12 at 8:21
  • @Tames True, changed that.
    – eWolf
    Jun 27 '12 at 8:22
  • From Tames' remark we can see we're also using a third sense: the 'someone important said so answer'... In Europe philosophy is often presented through history of philosophy. I for one like it but it's not the same.
    – rloth
    Jun 27 '12 at 16:41

Will a proof by example do? A venerable position in epistemology, since Plato and until mid XXth century, was that knowledge should be analyzed as justified true belief. This was the mainstream philosophical position up until Gettier's 1963 paper Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?. This paper, two pages long, demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction that knowledge is not justified true belief.

This is a clear example in which philosophical progress leads to the answer of a substantial philosophical question -- the question in Gettier's title.

  • 1
    The crazy thing is, that paper is basically the only thing Gettier ever published.
    – Seamus
    Jun 27 '12 at 11:49
  • Yeah, it's a remarkable story. Apparently Edmund Gettier was almost kicked out of his job for his poor publishing record, and he came up with this paper :)
    – Schiphol
    Jun 27 '12 at 15:00
  • Thank you it's a very interesting point but to me it's not an example of an answer: rather, it's an example of the refutation of an answer. Before Gettier's paper some people thought they had an answer to the 'what is knowledge' question and then Gettier showed the answer to be inconsistent... which still left the question hanging :/
    – rloth
    Jun 27 '12 at 17:37
  • 1
    I don't know, @rloth, Is justified true belief knowledge? looks like a pretty kosher question to me, and a philosophical one at that. What is knowledge? is another example of a philosophical question, to be sure, but that doesn't invalidate the status qua question of the former.
    – Schiphol
    Jun 27 '12 at 17:46
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    I don't think making it more precise, in a direction that makes the Gettier question not a philosophical question, will be of much help. Your main concern, I take it, is whether there can be philosophical progress, and the Gettier question shows that there can be.
    – Schiphol
    Jun 28 '12 at 15:40

Your question is based on a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as a "philosophy question" except insofar as the question deals with a topic that is typically defined as falling under the academic discipline of philosophy.

In truth, your skepticism regarding whether a philosophy question can be answered applies to all questions of all disciplines; they all at some point regress into one of the categories you mentioned, as all "definite answers" are merely based on presuppositions, which rest on prior presuppositions, and so on and so forth, until you eventually come back to a hazy point in—what you would call "philosophy"—where someone just had to draw a line and say, "Ok, let's just assume that we actually exist and are not locked in the Matrix" (or something like that for any number of unresolved philosophical issues).

So, can a philosophical question be answered?

If you think any question can be answered, then yes. Otherwise, no — but then that means your question can't be answered and this response is in fact not an answer... >_>

  • Thanks for your answer. I agree that "a philosophical question" is not easily definable but I disagree that there's "no such thing". You can probably acknowledge that a question found on this website (eg "Could the cogito possibly be false") is essentially quite different from a question found for instance on serverfault (eg "How to determine if a bash variable is empty?"). In concrete fields, prior presuppositions are grounded in a specialized technical lexicon. This prevents confusion and allows for answers.
    – rloth
    Jul 2 '12 at 16:07
  • That's the thing, sir @rloth, I don't acknowledge that. All questions ultimately fall under the same skeptical umbrella; there is no magical point where questions automatically become free from skepticism; it's just that the skepticism in the other disciplines is tacitly accepted and ignored for the purposes of further discovery, whereas philosophy is the place where we continually evaluate such notions.
    – stoicfury
    Jul 2 '12 at 22:33

When philosophy is taken away from life and reality, it begins it fail at answering questions rationally. When philosophy is rational, it can answer our questions and has.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer but I still feel hungry... You implicitly equate 'rational' with 'real and life-like'... but intuitively, since the irrational is an important ingredient of life (through beliefs, emotions, conformism, etc.), one could expect rationality to fail at explaining certain things. Or do you posit two separate levels, one of life (possibly irrational) and one of answers (necessarily rational)? Then why isn't the second included in the first?
    – rloth
    Jun 25 '12 at 22:30

Philosophical question has never been answered until there is an answer to it that can be implemented within reality. So we can consider it as knowledge and use it for our purpose, then we believe it as a wisdom for ourselves. Further we can share our knowledge to others and may be our answer will be a wisdom for someone else.

Answering a philosophical question as an understanding (theoretical) to further it gives us awareness about our limitation and for us to be implemented by answering a philosophical question through an appropriate action.

It's tangible philosophy. Without it, philosophy is far away from its essence! Something that may be forgotten.

  • Thanks! I agree about the importance of a tangible part in the answer to a philosophical question. Even most abstract thought is settled in the realm of real life. Unfortunately your second paragraph is still unclear for me. But I'm definitely adding 'way of life answers' to my list of possible answers.
    – rloth
    Jun 28 '12 at 1:19
  • An assertion already added, please refresh. And about tangible ..., i am working on it (philosophy is a way of life to widen our awareness)
    – Seremonia
    Jun 28 '12 at 2:07

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