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I sometimes hear claims about philosophical questions and debates that claim to render such questions as "non-question" (a related example, while not exactly a question, will be Steven Novella calling the "hard problem" of consciousness - "the hard non-problem").

My question is, is it possible to posit a philosophical question (or, for that matter, a philosophical opinion) as *completely "non-question", or are philosophical questions always revivable (not sure of my English here, I mean "able to be revived")?

[*And when I say completely I mean to the point where it's effectively unable to be recovered (something that philosophers always did in the history of philosophy, taking a subject that seemed lost and revive it with a new interpretation of it), and is rendered practically unusable. Meaning, such non-question will either have no actually "good" philosophical use ("good" is very debatable, but consider it in its narrow sense, something worth discussing), or that an interpretation of the original question will create an entirely different question, because the original sense of it has lost all interest (not because it wasn't interesting/isn't interesting anymore, but because the refution of the original question left no more life to that original question.]

  • I'm not sure I follow. First you say 'is it possible to posit a philosophical question ... as completely non-question' and then as evidence you point to philosophers 'taking a subject that seemed lost and reviving it'; these two statements seem at variance - how can a question become completely non-question but then be revived? – Mozibur Ullah Mar 7 '18 at 14:11
  • @MoziburUllah that's exactly the point - can a philosophical question really be rendered completely non-question, or is it always possible to revive those questions? – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 14:16
  • ok, that 'or' wasn't clear in your question. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 7 '18 at 14:18
  • @MoziburUllah hope my edit fixed that. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 14:24
  • It makes much more sense now. Thanks. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 7 '18 at 14:31
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I'm going to chance my arm and say that any philosophical question is permanently revivable. But what usually happens is that the question, or the assumptions behind it, nearly always change.

Examples may help. John Locke put forward a psychological theory of personal identity with continuity of memory at its centre. That's a gloss on his statement that : 'in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person' ('Essay concerning Hunan Understanding', II.27.11).

This account of personal identity was rebuffed by Thomas Reid and Joseph Butler in the 18th century and it cannot stand in the form in which Locke left it. But there are now philosophers who would, with different assumptions and different arguments, answer 'yes' to the question whether continuity of memory is central to personal identity or at least our sense of personal identity. I cite Stanley B. Klein & Shaun Nichols, 'Memory and the Sense of Personal Identity', Mind, Vol. 121, No. 483 (July 2012), pp. 677-702.

Or, to jump about a bit, the Presocratics asked whether there is some single element out of which all things are composed and which determines their coming to be and passing away. Their various answers - water, air, fire, earth - now seem merely quaint but we more sophisticatedly put the same question and give our various answers. 'Matter' some reply; 'All that exists is physical' others say though whether the complete nature of physical reality is knowable is another question. Such answers are replies to what is still basically the Presocratic question.

Or does any account of coherent experience require reference to 'substances' to which properties are attributed ? Few now believe in the existence of substances in the senses in which Aristotle or Aquinas accepted them. But the question, 'Does any account of coherent experience require reference to continuants ?' is just a reworking, hence revival, of the old question about substances. David Wiggins argues for the indispensability of (what are at least taken to be) continuants if we are to make sense of the world to ourselves and others in everyday experience. (D. Wiggins, 'Sameness and Substance Renewed', Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2001.)

I could go on; and clearly I cannot show that every question is revivable but these examples show how very diverse questions can and resurface in new forms.

  • Thanks for the answer. I have a couple of notes: a) that last paragraph is the most important one - "clearly I cannot show that every question is revivable". This is where my question comes in really - is it clear that we cannot show that every question is revivable, or, that we cannot show that a single question is unrevivable? (maybe my very own question is a non-question, because it can't really have a definitive answer, but that's actually a different sense of non-question.) – Yechiam Weiss Mar 8 '18 at 12:22
  • b) [note- this is directly related to the question, but rather derived from it:] I think we could go on from here to ask (or conclude, by your answer) if actually all philosophical questions are eternal, in the sense that we can never have a finite, definitive answer to them (related to my "metaphysical controversies" question). We could also go ahead and ask if there's actually any "new" questions in philosophy, as we can see that maybe they're all just reformations and reinterpretations of the old questions. But that's maybe a topic for a different post. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 8 '18 at 12:22
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    On your first point, we agree that I cannot enumerate and specify all philosophical questions and show that 'dropped' questions are revivable. But perhaps we could apply a dose of Popper here : if we could indicate one question that was not revivable in any form, that would refute the idea that all philosophical questions are revivable. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 8 '18 at 13:31
  • yeah I would definitely accept that sort of reasoning (and I sense it in your answer, although I think it'd be nice to include the Popper comparison). I would still like to search for more options, so I won't accept your answer, just upvote it because it's a definitely acceptable one :) – Yechiam Weiss Mar 8 '18 at 17:02
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That someone asserts something as meaningless or as a non-question does not stop someone else later on from asserting the opposite and hence reviving the question.

If one could “ultimately render” a philosophical question into a non-question, one would need a secure frame of reference from which to remove all contrary assertions going forward. One might hope rationality is such a frame of reference, but given Jonathan Haidt’s argument (see “The Righteous Mind” or his lecture, “The Rationalist Delusion in Moral Psychology”) that our reasoning is rationalization of gut convictions this may not be reliable. Someone with different gut convictions, not in accord with the current orthodoxy, may appear at any time and upset things. One might be able to politically arrange that such opponents do not appear, but one should not expect it to be a permanent solution. Political frames of reference, given the history of social change, are also not reliable.

So it is unlikely there will be a way to "ultimately render" a philosophical question into a non-question. To get even more confidence that this is not likely possible, consider how non-question arguments are formed.

There are at least two ways one can try to reduce a question to a non-question. One could claim the concepts in the original question can be reduced to something else suggesting that one stops focusing on the original question and concentrates rather on those other things. Or, one could try to eliminate the concepts in the original question by saying they do not exist and don’t even need to be reduced to something else.

Even if one tries doing one of these two things, someone so inclined can always assert that the concepts in the original question are primitively real regardless of the reductionist or eliminativist arguments. That is, they can argue that those concepts cannot actually be reduced to something else and they need to be taken seriously. When that happens the philosophical question becomes valuable once again.

For an example of failed attempts to turn questions containing the concept of causation into "ultimately rendered" non-questions, see Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum’s “Causation”. Hume attempted to reduce the idea of causation to sense experience. Russell attempted to eliminate causation. Regardless, some dispositionalists bring back causation through real causal powers taking the concept of causation as a primitive.

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If I understand your question, then I think so. It would entail showing that the question is nonsensical and cannot be asked until some premise is first cleared up.

One example is 'Does God exist?'

It is contended by some people that this question is nonsensical. These people would argue that 'God' does not express a coherent idea. There are semantic arguments that these philosophers contend show that 'God' is an incoherent concept.

Here is an example

  • But it could be easily stated that "does God exist" assumes a God that has a connection to the world, hence can be empirically tested to be "exist", hence the question can still stand. It can also stand in non-ontological perspectives. I don't think it's a good example. Thanks for the answer though. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 17:56
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    Unless you mean that God is a concept that can't have related questions, because of its (presumably) incohorentiality. But it can be easily refuted by claiming that we can come up with a coherent concept of God. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 17:57
  • I mean your second one - that it is incoherent and as such can't have related questions. It could be refuted, yes - that's not my point. A similar style argument has been leveled at morality in the past. Really, I could have chosen a number of different things, but God was the first that popped into mind. – Phlegon_of_Tralles Mar 7 '18 at 19:47
  • but that fact that it can be refuted renders it as non-complete, in the way I presented "completeness" in the question. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 19:50
  • Okay, then there is no completeness as most (all?) philosophical ideas can be refuted. Even "I think therefore I am" has potential refutations. – Phlegon_of_Tralles Mar 7 '18 at 20:17

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