In philosophy there are always, and on almost everything, many "positions", many different possibilities to choose from, and there isn't mainly some decisive conclusion between positions as to what's "true" or what's "right" to choose between all those positions.

I have many questions regarding this fact, but mainly I'd like to ask, especially those of you here that are familiar with the academia, how do professional philosophers work that way? How can a discussion happen between two philosophers with conflicting positions, on a topic that relates to their different opinions?

And more than a discussion - how can a logical enquiry be made in a certain field where there are so many different positions to choose from to make the enquiry? Such enquiry will be relevant only to the philosophers who maintain the same position as the researcher - so how can a healthy (and I might say "scientific") discussion be made in the field?

And if I'm going to a more concrete direction, how can philosophy "progress" (loaded term, but I'm not sure how else to express this) with everyone coming with different premises to the topics it needs to attack? In so many discussions I had and have heard the endpoint of the arguments always reaches the most basic premise the debaters have about the subject where they disagree. And that's simply a common issue with day-to-day argumentation, in philosophy there are pillars of premises where the two debaters disagree. How can a discussion be made?

  • I can see where the question comes from. Courtesy of classical maximalism of the textbooks and pop-postmodernism of the blogs the idea of philosophical pluralism is alien to the public mind. Pace Feyerabend, pluralism means neither that anything goes, nor that what goes goes a la carte. One can choose between mental substance or none, but each comes with a host of baggage that does not mix and match. Figuring out what goes with what and fashioning defensible positions, which are few and far between plural though they are, is what philosophical "progress" is about.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 4:30
  • @Conifold so you're saying, similarly to the answers below, that the answer to this question is really a big part of what philosophy does? That makes sense. But I would like to ask then (as CriglCragl point to in the comments to his answer), how, practically, a "good productive discussion" is being made? And you've started to answer this in our discussion, but I'd love to hear more. And more precisely contextual to this question, how a good productive discussion of opposite background assumptions is being made. Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 8:13

3 Answers 3


In an ordinary debate, the goal is (theoretically) functional --to reach a single, objective, best conclusion, proceeding from shared premises, via the route of eliminating falsehoods, confusions, and logical errors.

A philosophical debate may appear superficially similar, but its actual goal is to illuminate and elaborate the shape and the implications of the incompatible premises of the debaters. (Philosophers being exactly the people who are not inclined to accept standard premises.) It may not be clear which type of argument is being engaged in until you observe whether the argument is called off or not after it becomes clear that the premises are incompatible.

This perhaps explains why philosophical debate is so frustrating for non-philosophers (and why it never concludes).

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    So basically, a philosophical debate only begins when the incompatible premises are found, while in an ordinary debate the opposite is true. And according to this view, philosophy can't have an end-goal, because it only thrives when a conflict is found. This seems like one point of view, but what about a sort of positivistic, or perhaps Hegelian point of view, that'd state that philosophy should "work like a science", i.e. a point of view that wouldn't like an endless discussion of illuminating implications but rather get concrete, "objective, best conclusion"? Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 17:14
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    @YechiamWeiss This is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes my experience of how philosophical debates actually work, not my opinions on how they should work. You are correct that it is not compatible with the viewpoint that philosophy is a science. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:26

Don't say 'scientific'. That is a terrible model, because objective verifiable experiences are the arbiter, rather than internal ones.

Philosophy clusters, around key problems. What is consciousness? How do we create a just and stable society? What is the relationship between minds and ideas, and the world? People pick their areas of interest and research, and read up.

It is a mistake to think philosophy is, or is aimed at, a set of truths - just the same as it would be to view science like that. What is important is the practice, the culture, the tools you yourself can take up and go to work with. Science never 'concludes' either. But you get really good models, that account for a lot of things, are powerful and flexible without being clunky and intractable - but tentative, based on caveats, subject always to review. That's just like philosophy.

The idea of philosophical practice as just unfolding premises, like imagining maths is like that, mistakes a pedagogical device and a systemising mode that generally comes late in an subjects development, for the creative practice. Wittgenstein started with premises. But the work he his really respected for and are lastingly influential, is the Philosophical Investigations where he employs a clearly ad hoc evolving method of direct enquiry, only later systemised by others into for instan e what we now call the Private Language argument. Nietzsche too used such an approach, frequently contradicting himself, seeming to go in circles, or go on tangents - and stumbling on his best ideas.

Yes define terms, yes find common ground. But, atheists didn't and are never going to win Christians over - they just got on with having more interesting discussions that more people wanted to hear, and now the theological debates once at the core of philosophy are almost forgotten. If someone says they won the argument because of their premises, but they have nothing interesting to say - who cares about them? It is the joint endeavour to collectively understand thaf creates great debates and philosophy, not some ridiculous notion of 'winning'. We all win, in so far as we become better able to understand our lives and the world.

  • Edit : 'would' replaces 'woukd' : 'k' and 'l' - letters next to each other on the keyboard. Btw : +1 for answer.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:42
  • I might be able to emphasis where I'm coming from, using your example of the theological debate. Sure, one may state that the theological debate is endless without any hope (nor should it have, according to this view) to reach a final answer to one of the most famous questions throughout history "is there a God?". But contra to this view, many will and does ask for a definite answer, and (some) philosophers do try to answer it, and bring a conclusion that they consider to be the truth. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:04
  • And this creates a situation where one philosopher takes stand in one side of the debate, and another in a different side. From here, these two philosophers can't actually talk, and continue this debate in a healthy way, because they've taken a stance that they won't really budge from, bringing forth a situation Buber called the "I-it" relationship. This is the kind of discussions I see being made by a lot of philosophers that I object to, and I present in this answer. I ask - how can we continue from reaching such standpoint? Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:05
  • In conclusion, I'd be happy to see philosophy (or more precisely, philosophers) work the way you present, but I just fail to see it way many times, and much more in the way I present. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:06
  • We can try using things like rationalwiki.org/wiki/Rapoport%27s_Rules And try to remain open and curious ourselves, and value win-win debates rather than valueing 'victory' in conflicts of ideas.. How to have good productive discussions is an interesting topic
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 6, 2018 at 13:09

The question is fair but it may be confused about the purpose of arguing about theories and the premises on which they are founded.

It is important that we knock-down our premises at every opportunity. Over time we discover that certain premises cannot be knocked-down and then we know we are making progress. Lack of progress is usually the result of a reluctance to abandon premises that can be knocked-down and a preference for a form of philosophy that is tolerant of bad ideas and non-threatening to our belief system, whatever it happens to be.

The first purpose of our theories is to test the plausibility of our premises. We need to know the theory does not reduce the premises to absurdity. In philosophy our theories nearly always render our premises absurd since most premises are wrong, but every time we reduce a premise to absurdity this is progress.

Regrettably progress usually ends where our favourite premises come under threat. Thus whole traditions of philosophy can be seen to make no progress.

  • I think that my question really starts in your last paragraph. Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 15:28

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