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Popular Bogus Questions

Stephen Doty says we should rephrase certain questions so as not to be bamboozled by language.

What is truth? What is beauty? These and similar questions are still revered and often asked by philosophers despite being bogus.

A book catalog from a leading university recently printed this: “‘What is truth?’ has long been the philosophical question par excellence.” Not according to the sharpest philosophers, though. The catalog neglects to mention this; perhaps, because so many still pose the question. The Internet has over 50,000 instances of “What is truth?” And some leading professors still abuse the what is x? form, as do practically all the novices at the Socrates Cafés, who seem to rely on it exclusively. At these cafés, questions such as, “What is love?”, “What is violence?” and “What is insanity?” are trotted out as if philosophy has not progressed a day since Plato. It’s high time we asked why such questions have not yielded satisfactory answers for over two thousand years.

Like the form who is x?, the form what is x? is only grammatically appropriate for some x. We simply do not ask, “Who is titanium?” nor “What is Horace?” So, for which x do we properly ask what is x?

The most common use of what is x? occurs in cases such as, “What is calamari?” “What is curling?” and “What is fermentation?” – that is, when x is a noun that refers to a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary object, activity, or process. Questions such as “What is nylon?” or “What is plastic?” make up the second most common type of what is x? question, wherein x is an ordinary noun with a physical referent whose constituent parts are inquired into. For adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and greetings, on the contrary, we do not usually use what is x? but rather, what does x mean? – as in, “What does arcane mean?” not “What is arcane?”

When Plato asked “What is virtue?” and “What is knowledge?”, he was not asking a question such as, “What is calamari?”, because his x’s were not of the first type.; viz, they do not refer to out-of-the-ordinary objects. Nor were Plato’s questions of the second type, because virtue and knowledge are not physical objects with constituent parts, as nylon and plastic are.

In the Theaetetus, however, Plato tellingly compared knowledge to a physical object, clay, saying clay was “earth mixed with moisture” and – regarding knowledge – asked for the “thing itself.” Thus, he borrowed the grammatical form of what is x? from the second type of case, in which we ask for the constituent parts of an ordinary object. But once the surface grammar is penetrated and the level of facts is reached, the analogy fails, since one is an object with constituent parts and the other is not. Plato used a grammatical form that suggested a false conception of the facts and sent others on a futile search for the imaginary constituents of a non-entity. The questions “What is knowledge?” and “What is truth?” merely have the look of “What is nylon?” – as a cardboard cut-out of a person has the look of a person. Plato gave us the name of such a cardboard cut-out, in effect, and asked for his vital statistics. No wonder the searches have proved futile.

Plato should have used the what does x mean? form and asked “What does knowledge mean?” The philosopher has no privileged position over the lexicographer here: the uses of the word show its meaning. Similarly, those who currently ask “What is truth?” are guilty of the same insidious solecism as Plato and should ask instead, “What does truth mean?”

Yet the question “What does truth mean?” seems to lack philosophical profundity, which crumbles just when the grammar error is removed – as Wittgenstein asked, “why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep?”

Since we were young schoolchildren, we have quoted the poets: “For truth has such a face and such a mien / So to be loved needs only to be seen” (Dryden) and “Beauty lives though lilies die” (James Flecker). The reification of truth, beauty and other abstractions is so commonplace that we no longer notice it. Wittgenstein said that we tend to think of beauty as an “ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine,” such that we could isolate the beauty as we do the alcohol. A fortiori, we tend to do philosophy grammatically drunk, not factually sober.

As a student of engineering, Wittgenstein learned the dangers of what is x? questions from the scientist Heinrich Hertz, who rejected “What is force?” as misleading, saying the facts can be described without the word ‘force’, and, once they have, “our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions.”

Philosophers can also profit from the early scientists who investigated heat. The question “What is heat?” suggests an object, and physicists actually sought a sort of invisible ether that passed into substances when heated. They would have been better off asking, “What happens when matter becomes hot?” No object need be posited. Indeed, the best thinkers reject and rephrase bogus questions, as Alan Turing did when he rejected “Can Machines Think?” in his landmark essay of that title.

Moreover, it is a sort of fraud for a learned man to ask “What is truth?”, because ‘truth’ is used every day without misunderstanding. He jolly well knows what it means already! Compare the question “What is negation?” The early Wittgenstein strained in vain for a hidden logical essence – the later Wittgenstein would say, “Don’t you understand it already?”

Perhaps bogus questions are like skinned knees, a phase philosophers must pass through. As George Orwell once noted, when we think, “ready-made phrases” come easily to mind, and the tendency to be influenced by them is strong and persistent. Yet to write or do philosophy well, we should be critical of phrases that may be inapt and focus instead on the facts, so as to avoid expressions that mislead insidiously in certain contexts.


Stephen Doty has degrees in philosophy, psychology and law and runs a private foundation in Salem, Massachusetts.

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