This is just a very random idea that came across my mind. I wish to have this unlearned opinion judged by a more academically rigorous community.

I was thinking the other day that, since very little philosophical consensus could be reached (It seems that all the once-philosophical problems that have been settled have been re-categorised as natural science or mathematical science), we study philosophy mainly to be able to distinguish the 'lesser of two evils', i.e. to be able to critically analyse arguments to spot their merits and deficiencies, or to be 'less wrong'.

But remember that philosophy, by definition, concerns itself with truth. Critiquing other's arguments does not sound like an ultimate goal of philosophy. At least this is unlikely what some great philosophers would have envisaged.

Therefore I hereafter propose this (very random, coming from an untrained mind) view on philosophy: that philosophy, albeit the ultimate truth is unknowable by philosophical methods, pursues truth by negating what, within the boundaries of reason, could be effectively negated. Thus it characterises truth negatively.

E.g. That mind and body are the same identical being is not sufficiently true as Descartes's arguments refuted it. Yet that mind and body are different might still be not sufficiently true.

I think this problem reduces to asking about why little philosophical consensus could be reached.

  • I don't think so. There's always the fact that once a major philosophical issue gets resolved it leaves philosophy and becomes its own standalone discipline. Jan 30, 2017 at 17:22
  • Philosophy presumably concerns itself with wisdom rather than truth, many philosophers deflate "truth" altogether. We had long discussions on "ultimate" goals/functions of philosophy before. You may also want to look at negative theology.
    – Conifold
    Jan 31, 2017 at 2:48
  • @Conifold How would you define a "wise" statement without requiring that it be more true than alternative statements? You're just moving the goal posts in order to deal with the fact that philosophy is judged no differently than art but to try and maintain the high-brow sense of objectivity with which philosophers were traditionally endowed.
    – user22791
    Jan 31, 2017 at 8:26
  • @Alexander Isn't that a problem of unjustified induction? Just because some older branches of philosophy have been resolved into science, that does not in any way show that the remaining branches are either un-resolvable, or will be resolved as soon as they can be. Society changes and it's attitudes to the value of truth change, I see no reason why the way philosophical investigation is dealt with would not also change.
    – user22791
    Jan 31, 2017 at 8:29
  • @Isaacson: Sometimes it is wiser to stick to agnosticism, which means rejecting the assignment of truth-value altogether by acknowledging the impossibility to reliably do so.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 31, 2017 at 9:36

3 Answers 3


Pythagoras was interested in the application of mathematics to problems of cosmology; this is a discipline now called cosmology.

Aristotle was interested in questions of space, time, place, matter and continuity; this discipline is now called physics.

Plato was interested in questions of what constituted good governance, this is the discipline that is called political philosophy and ethics.

As for the negative in philosophy, one might usefully think on the following remarks by Chantal Mouffe, the Belgian political theorist, in her book Agonistic Poltics:

To think politically is to recognise the ontological dimension of negativity...


Full objectivity cannot be reached


Society is permeated by contingency...and any order is hegemonic - an expression of power

We can rephrase and refit this to philosophy:

To think philosophically is to recognise the ontological dimension of negativity; hence full objectivity cannot be reached; thus philosophy is permeated by contingency; and any philosophical order is hegemonic - an expression of power

  • always dig your answers, -1
    – user6917
    Feb 1, 2017 at 16:38
  • @MATHEMETICIAN: not one of my best answers as you've picked up. Feb 2, 2017 at 8:14

One part of your argument seems to be: Premise 1: There has been little consensus among philosophers at any given time in the last few thousand years. (Implicit) premise 2: If there is little consensus at any given time, then the objective truth hasn’t yet been discovered. (Inductive) premise 3: If the objective truth, despite thousands of years, hasn’t yet been discovered by philosophy, then the objective truth can’t be discovered by means of philosophy. Conclusion: The objective truth can’t be discovered by means of philosophy. (Note: I doubt that Premise 1 is truer of philosophy than of many other disciplines (history, literary criticism, anthropology etc.); European and Near Eastern philosophers from c. 600 to c. 1600 AD had a consensus that God existed; contemporary analytic philosophers have a consensus that there are no such things as Platonic forms.)

To say some proposition P is true is to say (unless you're a paraconsistent logician or some other strange beast) that any set of propositions including a proposition equivalent to not-P is false. So any discipline that makes statements can be characterised as 'negative', as you say, in a sense. But you seem to mean (sometimes) the stronger thesis that philosophy is only ever negative – that the propositions with which philosophy is concerned are all members of exactly one of two sets, one non-empty set containing propositions whose truth-value we can't determine (if this set were empty then we'd be able to know the objective truth, contradicting your premise), and another set containing propositions whose truth-values we can determine, and which all happen to be false. But this isn’t possible. To say that a proposition P is false is to rule out certain possibilities. But it is also to affirm the truth of certain others (such as P’s negation). If we rule out restricted composition and mereological nihilism, then we'd have to go with mereological universalism.

But you also sometimes seem to mean neither thesis above, and instead that philosophy is just about finding better and worse arguments, where better and worse admit of degrees, rather than merely sound or unsound arguments, where soundness doesn’t admit of degrees. Whether this is true or not is empirical – depending on what philosophers actually do or have done. If it is true, we might explain it in two ways. We might, as you suggest, say that philosophy is a sort of holding basket discipline from which other fields emerge when the foundational questions are resolved – quite a popular view these days. We might also (and not in contradiction with the first way) say that philosophy is the discipline concerned with fundamental beliefs, emotions, intuitions, perceptions etc., which are often radically incoherent (I have a feeling this can also be turned into an argument against intelligent design). Like any rational discipline, philosophy is also concerned with achieving rational consistency. We might think, then, that it is a peculiar feature of philosophy (or maybe the humanities in general) that we do want to be more coherent but we don't want to be 'most' coherent, or more coherent or 'right' beyond a certain extent, because that would require us to abandon too much of what we care about. (As an example, moral nihilism is the most coherent meta-ethical theory; but we'd rather have the inconsistencies and complexities and consequently inevitable lack of rational consensus of non-nihilist ethics than the simple coherence of nihilism.)


Your question revolves, in essence, around hypothesis testing. In natural science, hypotheses are never affirmed as true "facts", only accepted or rejected. It is logically simple to prove that something is false, given any instance of falsehood, with greater levels and amounts providing greater evidence. Indeed, no matter how surmountable evidence supporting a theory may be, evidence against the theory may always be damning. On the flip-side, as there always may be evidence that has not yet been considered, a theory cannot be fully affirmed, only accepted and used until disproved.

Philosophy is no different - true proof cannot be obtained, as true fact cannot be affirmed, but disproof can be obtained quite easily. In this sense, philosophy and natural science are negative.

The reasons why philosophical consensus cannot be reached are thus: philosophical ideas are proposed and popularized without much evidence, and people have vastly different mindsets as a result of previous experience.

Many philosophical ideas are difficult to disprove, lying as they do outside the realm of natural science. An idea from pop culture, "we all are part of a computer program", is potentially falsifiable, yet currently cannot be disproven. Evidence for this theory may exist, such as the way universal expansion from a point (Big Bang Theory) parallels common procedural generation algorithms, but as it cannot be disproven yet (or possibly ever), it is not considered natural science.

Having addressed the diversity of philosophical rhetoric, I shall touch on the lack of consensus: given enough data, scientists often reach majority consensus. This typically follows the disproving of multiple hypotheses, and the refinement of the remaining. But given low levels of evidence with no current method of disproving a hypothesis, these hypotheses are only refined through disagreement and data/beliefs of individuals. Most of this disagreement arises from the experiences that shaped the minds of philosophers before their grasp of the subject. Example: put ten Democrat scientists in one room, and ten Republican scientists in another, and give them both all available data on climate change - they will likely reach no joint consensus.

The only ways to minimize the divergent impacts of previous experiences are to 1. accept all logic, hypotheses, etc. with an unbiased weight and consider them all equally (which most scientists/philosophers strive to do) or 2. share all previous events with every member debating the subject. (Example: in an ideal situation, everybody's experiences would be uploaded to a "cloud", all data in which would influence a person's thoughts)

I will try to answer any questions to the best of my ability.

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