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On Stupid Questions

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to the 5th issue of Philosophy Now. For those of you who are new to the magazine, the aim of this publication is to provide an enjoyable and pain-free way into philosophy for the many people who are interested in philosophical problems but who have had no previous exposure to philosophical writings. Its other aim is to provide some relatively light reading for people already involved in the subject. Reflecting this second aim, the balance of this issue is tilted slightly further than usual in favour of philosophical humour, and articles on relatively unconventional areas of philosophy. We also have a quiz, a reader survey and for the first time ever we are selling Philosophy Now T-shirts (see page 12).

Philosophy doesn’t seem to have much of an image, at the moment, in Britain at least. A wellinformed, intelligent person in the magazine business told me a few weeks ago that we should change the name of this publication because nothing with the word ‘philosophy’ in the title is ever going to sell. Apparently it sounds too dry and academic. Nonetheless, the magazine continues to sell very well in those shops that stock it.

A different kind of image problem was revealed by a recent piece in the Sunday Telegraph written by the well-known intellectual bovver-boy Auberon Waugh, who was reviewing Blackwell’s new dictionary of philosophical quotations. He criticized the obscurity and jargon of modern philosophical writing but also made more general attacks on philosophy, calling it “a trivial occupation for idle minds” and “an idle occupation …. dressing up truths which are fatuously obvious to make them seem difficult or profound, or in the name of paradox advancing statements which are obviously untrue, in such a way as to give the impression that the cleverest can perceive a hidden truth.” Consequently, he calls university-based philosophy “a major racket, scarcely to be distinguished from the old labour rackets of Fleet Street.”

Philosophy is jargon-ridden sometimes. Out of touch with contemporary concerns? Well, it has been, though organisations like the Society for Applied Philosophy and Philosophy in Britain are strenuously tackling that problem. But is it trivial, fatuous? Surely not. I wonder whether his low opinion of the subject comes from philosophers’ habit, through the ages, of asking seemingly stupid questions. He himself gives the example of Zeno declaring that an arrow in flight is motionless – a stupid thing to say. And yet as Waugh admits, it took 2,400 years before someone could definitively show the flaw in Zeno’s argument. The point is that Zeno knew perfectly well that arrows don’t stand still. What his paradox, and the various failed attempts to solve it, tell us is not anything about arrows but about our reasoning processes and our ideas of time and of motion.

There has always been a tradition in philosophy of asking questions which to the nonphilosopher sound pretty dumb : “Is murder wrong?” would in many quarters get the response “Don’t ask stupid questions – of course it is.” Yet if you do ask that question you rapidly find yourself thinking about the difference between right and wrong, and about what circumstances (if any) would justify murder. Other classics include : “Does a tree in a forest make a sound when it falls over, if there is nobody there to hear it?” and “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

“Is there a God?” would have been regarded as a stupid question once, because it was so obvious that there was. Hardly anyone, of any religion or none, would regard it as a stupid question now.

Even the question “Is Auberon Waugh a turnip?” has a bit of mileage in it if approached in the right spirit, as it makes us think about different categories and about what makes us put things into those categories.

Stupid questions, because they are stupid, rarely get asked. When you do ask them, they lead you, sometimes, to look at the world in a new way, and just occasionally to find out things that aren’t stupid at all. In this way philosophy has something in common both with science (going back to check your most basic assumptions, the things so obvious that you might have overlooked them) and with art (which can make you look at everyday things in a new and fresh way).

So the next time someone tells you not to ask stupid questions, reply “Why not?”. Firstly, this is itself a good philosophical question. Secondly, it’ll really annoy them!

* Unfortunately circumstances have compelled us to raise the cover price to £2.20. The good news is that the price of subscriptions will remain unaltered, at least for the time being.

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