How likely is it that someone will solve philosophy as a whole within our lifetime?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
Good question, Jose. I offer you four answers to choose from.
Number 1 is “unlikely”, for the simple reason that no-one could even attempt to describe such a solution or what it takes to accomplish it. Consider the related question you could have posed: “How likely is it that some scientist will write a cosmic equation in our lifetime that will fit on a T-shirt?” I suppose you know who expressed this sentiment, but the same limitations apply.
Number 2 is “maybe”, based on our knowledge of history, in which this sort of thing has already occurred several times. One could plausibly argue that Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant and maybe one or two others (e.g Descartes and Schopenhauer, who believed themselves to have accomplished it) are candidates for such honours, although obviously each only for a certain era. It’s just that at present the climate for the appearance of such a towering philosophical figure is singularly unpropitious. Check out Geoffrey Klempner’s response for a good account of the conditions that prevail today which work against the likelihood of an all-encompassing philosophy coming our way any time soon.
Number 3 is “no”, and alludes to the possibility that philosophy is already a living corpse and simply kept going on a life-support system provided by the academic establishment, who for reasons of their own don’t want to let go of a pretty good-looking history of achievement that seems to demand their continued engagement. This was more or less the opinion of Theodor Adorno, whose book Negative Dialectics begins with the sentence, “It seemed at one time [in the past] that philosophy was already obsolete; it was kept alive because we missed the appropriate moment for its actualisation”, i.e. making its continuation relevant. If we take this at face value, then philosophy is indeed a fossil now, which may be lovingly exhibited in a vitrine, but scarcely brought back to life again.
Finally Number 4, “no” again. If we are to believe Spengler, human cultural history goes through cycles, and we are near the end of one. But although the great philosophical syntheses tended to make their appearance on the declining slope of their civilisations, Spengler would argue that we’ve already been there and done it (and you don’t get two bites at the cherry).
And so, scoring a generous quarter point for No. 2, the chance is an arithmetically slim expectancy of about 6% – not enough, I venture to say, to wager your life insurance on it!