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Facts & Questions

Joseph Sen on the uniqueness of philosophy.

One way to understand the uniqueness of philosophy might be through looking at the way facts differ from questions. These differ not only in form but in the impact they have upon the mind. Take a fact from history we may happen to hear.

“Hegel was born in Stuttgart.”

This fact comes upon us from without, almost forcefully, and demands to be taken in. It has a weight which comes from a past which is settled and uncompromising. Ultimately, we must assume a rather passive relation to it.

Consider now a question which preoccupied Hegel:

“What is freedom?”

Here the psychological effect is different. The question presents itself as a sort of invitation, an opportunity which awaits but does not compel us. We must go to it. The question suggests work to be done, it appeals to our agency and opens towards the future. For this reason when something is no longer ‘open to question’, we may feel disappointment at the closing of possibility, at the thought that there is less to look forward to. The question in short leaves a space for us, room for a response which is more than submission.

The quiet child in the class becomes anonymous and indifferent before facts given uniformly to one and all. But then a question breaks the information.

“What nationality was Christopher Columbus?”

Though shy, temptation overcomes him. He finds his hand then his voice in the air:


He’s right; even the most bloody-minded teacher could not oppose him. The question invited him to come forward to take up its challenge, to go ahead of it into the future. He needn’t have but chose to do so; and in answering he became conscious of his freedom. The question called him out of himself. Somehow he gains a satisfaction from bringing knowledge from the inside to the out, rather than taking it from outside-in.

Yes, but his ability to respond to the question depended on a passivity by which he took the fact in at an earlier time. The question after all would not have been possible without the fact. It is different with philosophical questions. On an everyday level, the answer always matches the question, there is a fit between them such that a question without an answer seems odd, if not pointless. By contrast, philosophical questions are ‘vaster’. What this means is that they are more spacious than any answers they elicit. In philosophy it is not answers which set the scope for questions but questions which set the scope for answers.

So how do these questions look? In the Theaetetus Plato offers one of the clearest accounts of the philosopher’s mentality. We might compare the philosopher with the gossip. While the gossip is interested in the question of who is wronging whom, the philosopher asks what right and wrong are in themselves, the point being not to brand but to understand. He is not interested in what passes for right and wrong on the level of received opinion. Again, while the gossip is fascinated to hear who is happy and who miserable, the philosopher takes a step back to ask: what exactly is the nature of happiness and misery? The difference is that the gossip assumes he knows the nature of the concepts he applies in particular cases while the philosopher investigates the concepts themselves before applying them. His questions then are not “Was Columbus good?” but “What is goodness?”; not “Was the Queen of Spain beautiful?” but “What is beauty?”

It might be thought better to just admit that philosophical questions like these have no answers. This approach leads to kamikaze questioning, asking just for the hell of it, without hope of answers. But the point is we don’t know enough to deny this hope. Indeed, some of the impetus for discussion would go if we excluded the possibility of answers in advance. It should never be forgotten that there are answers in philosophy, perhaps more than for ordinary questions. It is truer to say that philosophical questions have no settled, commonly agreed answers. The past can provide leads but these are seldom definitive or final. It is the questions which come first here, the thinking of them being as important as any thoughts arrived at. But generally, they do not impose. A mind that doesn’t take in facts soon gains a reputation for being thick or slow. By contrast, a mind that doesn’t take up philosophical questions may be thought practical or realistic, and not at a disadvantage. This leaves more to our initiative. Whoever comes to philosophise takes up the questions and thinks them through anew. This is an activity as individual and temporal as each human life.

The philosopher on this picture may look like the fisherman who gets a catch which no sooner jumps out of his hand back into the water. He’s alright with this, since he fishes more to be near water than to eat fish.

Why? Sometimes we are moved by what eludes us, we prefer the horizon which stretches out of view to the thing in our hands. For perhaps we get the sensation that something of ourselves stretches along with its openness.

© Dr J. Sen 1998

Joseph Sen teaches philosophy at The City University

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