The central questions of philosophy

Donald asked:

Do you agree with Professor Roger Scruton that “there are no ‘central questions’ of philosophy”? (Modern Philosophy, p. ix).

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I completely see where this is coming from. Just compare Roger Scruton’s book with, e.g. Ayer The Central Questions of Philosophy. (Both books can be found in the Pathways Introductory book list.)

As it happens, Scruton taught me when I was an undergraduate at Birkbeck during 1972-6. He was highly respected as a teacher, and fondly regarded even by those whose political views were very much more to the left of Scruton’s brand of conservative philosophy.

I credit Scruton in particular with exciting my interest in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and F.H. Bradley.

The first point to make is that if you are going to write a book on philosophy with lots of chapters (lots of topics!) you need to make a statement explaining why you didn’t narrow down your choice. This is what authors do in a Preface. Scruton’s philosophical interests are broad, if not encyclopaedic. However, it is fair to say that the emphasis is more on the practical and social significance of philosophy.

Philosophy can be many different things, the one uniting thread according to Scruton is the analytic method. That’s something Scruton and I agree on. What he taught us was respect for philosophers who are underappreciated by the analytic tradition.

How do we differ? I see metaphysics as being the core of philosophy, so its problems are for me the ‘central problems of philosophy’. For Scruton, aesthetics, moral psychology, social and political philosophy are equally if not more ‘central’.

So what use is there in trying to identify the central questions of philosophy? Is there a point in doing so? If you look at the pages of Ask a Philosopher going back to 1999 (when I was the only person answering the questions) you will see an incredibly broad range of questions, covering every aspect of human life and endeavour.

And yet, there do seem to be a just a few, constant threads that connect many of these. One thread is the question of human knowledge and how views about about every kind of belief can be justified. What counts as knowledge? when is an argument for a knowledge claim valid? Another thread concerns the questions of metaphysics, such as the nature of causality or time (which is also, as it happens, a question in the philosophy of physics). Another thread connects metaphysics with problems of logic and language, looking at the concepts of truth, existence, meaning.

Which of these threads you identify as being of particular importance says something about you as a philosopher. As does the refusal to make such a judgement.

So I am with Ayer, in his quest for the central or ultimate questions of philosophy, but also with Scruton with his emphasis on the amazingly broad sweep of philosophical questions.


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