I'm thinking particularly about Hume's and Moore's assertions that you can't get an "ought" from an "is". The trouble is if you can't get an ought from an is, why write that down at all, if your intention is not to persuade someone of what they "ought" to do, or think, then what would you be publishing the information for?

I just wondered if any writings, particularly Hume and Moore, addressed this issue.

  • 1
    The issue is about the "normative" role of philosophy vs its "descriptive" role. We may agree that it is not agreed at all what is "the right" one... Jun 12, 2017 at 10:04
  • See is–ought problem withe references. Jun 12, 2017 at 10:07
  • See Gerhard Schurz, The Is-Ought Problem: An Investigation in Philosophical Logic, Springer (1997). Jun 12, 2017 at 10:13
  • Thanks for the links. I think I understand the normative vs descriptive and I guess I'm asking what the purpose is of the descriptive for those that consider their work to be in that category. Why simply describe something that is the case without the expectation that anyone would do anything about that fact?
    – Pseudonym
    Jun 12, 2017 at 11:59
  • "description" is a "limited" word... Maybe we can consider "analyze" whose aim is (through description) to reach understanding. In this direction, we can categorize many philosophical endeavours as aimed at understand: nature, law, life, human mind, etc. It makes sense to consider a "normative" perspective on these subjects ? Jun 12, 2017 at 12:13

3 Answers 3


Hume claims he feels a natural compulsion to do philosophy, and that doing it brings him pleasure. He admits that he feels the practice of philosophy improves human affairs, but is careful to insist that he does philosophy because he wants to, and enjoys it, and not because he "ought to."

One might well accuse him of being disingenuous with this answer, but he's clearly aware of the issue you mention, and trying to address it.

A Treatise of Human Nature 14.7.12

At the time, therefore, that I am tir’d with amusement and company, and have indulg’d a reverie in my chamber, or in a solitary walk by a river-side, I feel my mind all collected within itself, and am naturally inclin’d to carry my view into all those subjects, about which I have met with so many disputes in the course of my reading and conversation. I cannot forbear having a curiosity to be acquainted with the principles of moral good and evil, the nature and foundation of government, and the cause of those several passions and inclinations, which actuate and govern me. I am uneasy to think I approve of one object, and disapprove of another; call one thing beautiful, and another deform’d; decide concerning truth and falshood, reason and folly, without knowing upon what principles I proceed. I am concern’d for the condition of the learned world, which lies under such a deplorable ignorance in all these particulars. I feel an ambition to arise in me of contributing to the instruction of mankind, and of acquiring a name by my inventions and discoveries. These sentiments spring up naturally in my present disposition; and shou’d I endeavour to banish them, by attaching myself to any other business or diversion, I feel I shou’d be a loser in point of pleasure; and this is the origin of my philosophy.

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding 1.9

And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Were there no advantage to be reaped from these studies, beyond the gratification of an innocent curiosity, yet ought not even this to be despised; as being one accession to those few safe and harmless pleasures, which are bestowed on human race.

This article may be of interest, I relied heavily on it in crafting this answer.

  • Thanks very much, this is pretty much exactly what I was looking for, certainly with regards to Hume. I wonder if Moore and others felt the same?
    – Pseudonym
    Jun 14, 2017 at 9:22

Many living philosophers share why they've gone into philosophy in a post at Daily Nous: http://dailynous.com/2014/11/20/why-did-you-go-into-philosophy/

  • It's interesting how many of these cite reading philosophers as their main motivation. In the light of my confusion regarding the distinction between ought and is, it would seem a little contradictory. Almost as if they are saying that they chose to publish lots of information about philosophical questions because lots of information had been published about philosophical questions.That would seem to me to be a very good reason not to bother going into philosophy, rather than a reason to do so.
    – Pseudonym
    Jun 12, 2017 at 12:03
  • @Pseudonym Should mathematicians not pursue math because of how much they appreciated the work of their predecessors? How about scientists? Artists? Doctors? Unless you think every philosophical puzzle is definitively solved, every worthwhile endeavor pursued to completion, why should the fact that lots of great philosophy has been done dissuade an interested party from attempting to produce more? I frankly find the whole question, and your relation of the value of philosophy to the is-ought distinction, kind of baffling.
    – Dennis
    Jun 15, 2017 at 2:53
  • @Dennis I was really meaning that, faced with the wealth of writing on philosophy, one would have to either conclude that this was largely great stuff, in which case there's not much to add, or this is mostly wrong, which would advise publishing one's own thoughts, but not for the reasons given, or that this is all great stuff, but there's so much more to say, which after 2000 years would be quite some conclusion. My interest in the Is-Ought distinction and writing is pretty much as Hume himself seems to have seen it (see Chris's answer).
    – Pseudonym
    Jun 15, 2017 at 12:13
  • As to why it should dissuade potential philosophers more than artists and scientists. Artists do not attempt to answer anything, theirs is a world where the fact that innovation never ends is essential. The equivalent in philosophy would be working on a question which you know full well can never have and answer. As for science, the knowledge there keeps getting more accurate, you'd come into it hoping to improve that accuracy, not to get deeper into the works of older scientists, so both art and science seem like very different things to philosophy, and not comparable in this sense.
    – Pseudonym
    Jun 15, 2017 at 12:20

There is a school, following the later Wittgenstein in particular, but also arising from other sources going back to Epicurus and the Stoics, that sees philosophy as a therapeutic endeavor, by which individuals and therefore cultures rid themselves of erratic decision-making habits by talking about the things they do not understand.

Consider http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/05568641.2014.901692

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