Solving philosophy

Jose asked:

How likely is it that someone will solve philosophy as a whole within our lifetime?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I have a distinct memory of being told by a fellow Oxford graduate student some time around the late 70s that no less a philosopher than David Wiggins — later to become Wykeham Professor of Logic and Fellow of New College, Oxford as well as Fellow of the British Academy — had expressed to him the view that most of the problems of philosophy had been solved through the application of analytic techniques. All that remained was mopping up a few details or side issues.

This is strongly reminiscent of the statement by a noted physicist Albert A. Michelson, famous for the Michelson-Morley experiment that led to Einstein’s discovery of the Theory of Relativity, that,

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

(Speech given in 1894 at the dedication of Ryerson Physics Lab, University of Chicago, quote taken from an answer on Quora)

How wrong he was! Ironic indeed that he was responsible for one of the experiments — the Michelson-Morley experiment disproving the existence of an ‘ether’ — that overthrew the classical understanding of physics and mechanics bequeathed by Isaac Newton.

The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in philosophy, but I fear that such a change will not come for a while yet. Academic philosophy, for all its seeming variety, has found itself entrenched in ever more well-worn paths and now seems incapable of even addressing the really fundamental questions.

As I’ve noted before, academic philosophers are ‘busy, busy, busy’. You’d never guess that they were in reality stumbling in the dark, blindfold. Their arrogance is truly astonishing.

No, Jose, it is not likely that philosophy will be ‘solved as a whole’, now, or indeed ever. Unless, of course, you mean that human beings will get over their impulse to ask philosophical questions, be ‘cured’ of the impulse to philosophize. That’s still an all-too present danger.

Why is there anything at all? And, given that something exists, why am I here, experiencing it (whatever ‘it’ is)? You’ll find those two questions on the first page of my book Naive Metaphysics. The first question is well known, the second — the one I call the ‘idiotic conundrum’ — is the controversial one. Someone ever-so like me would not be me. ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.’ (Not a lot of people have seen this — yet. I keep trying. And that was a quarter of a century ago!)

Sometimes I like to watch detective programs on TV or NetFlix. One I quite liked from over 20 years ago is ‘Jonathan Creek’. Locked door murder mysteries. The cupboard was carried up three flights of stairs and it was empty. Then how come five minutes later it had a dead body in it?! You drive yourself mad trying to think of a plausible explanation. And then, when the explanation comes, you say, ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?!’

Hard as I try, I cannot imagine what an answer to my conundrum would be. It’s just impossible. But I know myself, and my limitations (following the advice of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry). I could be wrong and probably am.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing to do but keep thinking, keep looking — keep hoping, maybe, that light will come.

What is Truth?

Derek asked:

I am 16 years old and teaching myself philosophy. I plan on becoming an cognitive experimental psychologist. I am currently developing my own philosophical thoughts and beliefs. I strongly believe that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important. I got overwhelmed by attempting to answer a question of mine a few weeks back. Are human beings capable of knowing objective truth through our subjective experiences and if so, how much and what objective truth are we able to know? Any insight that you may have would be very appreciated because I do not even know how to begin to answer the question. I do not even know if it can be answered. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let us suppose that in 10 years time you have become a cadet of cognitive experimental psychology. By that stage you will have read a great deal of the literature on the subject matter, including many opinions on the question of objective truth.

Now take note of the words I just used: “many opinions”. This should already tell you something of vital importance to your quest. First, that truth is the opposite of lies; second that truth doubles up for ‘fact’; and third that scientific and philosophical proofs (aka ‘truths’) depend on the presuppositions (i.e. unquestioned principles) from which a demonstration starts. Having outlined this much, however, you also need to deal with certain psychological aspects of truth — e.g. the ‘revealed truths’ of religion are firmly believed by millions of people, including many deep thinkers who would not take kindly to a criticism that they hold kindergarten beliefs. Further, in your designated field, there are opportunities for delving into the truth about oneself, which is often a question of how much truth a person can sustain in themselves about themselves.

Finally, the etymology of the word tells us something interesting as well — it comes from the old German ‘treu’, for which the Latin-derived synonym is ‘loyal’, as in a bond of trust. This, ultimately, reveals the wisdom of language which I would like to put into a neat capsule for you: All truth is subjective. Otherwise truth would be an objective condition that permits universal verification. Therefore, also: all truth is intersubjective, as the concept of truth is not solipsistic, but ultimately the expression of a judgement which concerns persons and their relations to each other. Hence “Pontius Pilatus said, ‘What is truth?’ and would not wait for answer.” Truth, like justice and beauty, is in the eye of the beholders.

This is why many thinkers who have wrestled with the concept of truth eventually come around to substituting ‘wisdom’ for it. This is not what a young person wants to hear, because wisdom is the result (if at all) of much experience and deep insight into the human condition. So it seems to me that I must preach patience to a 16-year-old bent on intellectual conquest! Nevertheless I hope that the above is a useful guide on the point of your departure into a huge and largely unknown terrain.

Idea of objective truth

Derek asked:

I am 16 years old and teaching myself philosophy. I plan on becoming an cognitive experimental psychologist. I am currently developing my own philosophical thoughts and beliefs. I strongly believe that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important. I got overwhelmed by attempting to answer a question of mine a few weeks back. Are human beings capable of knowing objective truth through our subjective experiences and if so, how much and what objective truth are we able to know? Any insight that you may have would be very appreciated because I do not even know how to begin to answer the question. I do not even know if it can be answered. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated.

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

I would begin with two separations: First the separation of “truth” from “facts”, and the the separation of “sciences” and “humanities”.

A simple fact, a stain of blood, say, will tell you not much. It can be from nosebleed or from a murder case. Thus you need some “theory of a situation” to make sense of the fact.

The facts that led Newton (“the apple”) and Einstein (“the speed of light”) to their pathbreaking theories were banalities in themselves, as much as a common fag that may be the clue for a Sherlock Holmes to solve a case. An oblong small object in the grass can be a little branch or a serpent. One has to find out.

But even if you have got a context that seems to give meaning to your facts, your theory may be wrong or contested and doubtful. Think of Marx: Was he right? Who decides and by what arguments? There may be no final answer. Marx is from the field of humanities. Einstein is from the field of “sciences”. But he too could be wrong.

So even if you have some theory and explanation, you may be wrong and perhaps unable for a long time or forever to decide what to call “true”.

What you do in fact is: Invent models of the situation that seems to make sense to available facts and then check those models against other models that may be as plausible.

The models of Marx and Freud (and many others) are just plausible (while stimulating) suggestions and always doubtful and thus “neither true nor false”.

Here Popper’s concept of “falsification” steps in which requires to find an experimentum crucis that would show your theory to be wrong.

Look up Popper on this, I will not dig into it here. Even this has its shortcomings.

Start reading the entry on “truth” in the IEP and in “SEP”, see and

My answer was just a start. I could write many pages now, it is difficult.

The idea of “objective truth” is overall a naive one. To understand that is a first step in the right direction.

Paradigm shift

Charles asked:

Please, can you briefly explain the paradigm shift of Thomas Kuhn.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Kuhn had come around to the view that our common notion of science as a means of accumulating knowledge is too simple-minded to be true. For example: We don’t know or understand X, so let us run experiments. Involved in this is the assumption of an objective factual state and an objective observer, who asks questions of nature and receives an answer. This result is added to an overarching current theory. The name for the latter is “the current paradigm” and the experimental result is assumed to comprise an enrichment of the paradigmatic coherence.

What if the result does not conform to expectations? Then the experiment was either a failure and must be repeated; or else it is absorbed in the current paradigm as a refractory instance. Now it may happen along with the improvement of experimental techniques, that increasing numbers of experiments contradict the paradigmatic theory, and add embarrassment instead of enrichment. The general belief is, that this is to be expected and that therefore the paradigm will gradually change in accordance with these divergent findings.

Too simple and historically untrue, says Kuhn. Paradigms don’t grow like trees nor change their fruits from cherries to apples in a gradual way. They grow as one or the other; and if the soil becomes uncongenial to cherries, you must stop and seed apple trees. In a like manner, science does not watch one paradigm slowly phasing out and a new one phasing in. There comes a point when the old must be dismembered and the new installed in toto.

The reasons for this are threefold:

(a) We cannot work with two contradictory paradigms side by side. That’s not science, but higgledy-piggledy.

(b) An experimenter is not a ‘neutral’ observer, but a participant, as he builds up the structure and process of experiments from known facts and with a specific target in mind.

(c) It follows from (b) that the current paradigm hovers above the experiment in terms of the expectations associated with it. For this state of affairs Kuhn coined the expression “all experiments are theory-laden”, meaning they are saturated beforehand with the terms of discourse dictated by the current paradigm.

From which, finally, his thesis emerged that paradigmata are never simply abandoned on the strength of mounting contradictions. They are tenaciously held beliefs and will resist even partial demolition for years and even generations. What tends to happen instead, is the emergence of idea that binds all the conflicting new ideas together in a new coherent structure, which will then displace the old by way of a revolution, in a relatively short time. Capital instances of such paradigm shifts were Newton’s synthesis and Einstein’s relativity theory.

Dialectics of Nature or not?

Mia asked:

Hello, I am a student in middle school, and due to my unfortunate intellectual immaturity, I’m have trouble understanding dialectical materialism. I have two questions on the subject:

If you ever to look at, for example, Darwin’s theory of evolution, through a dialectical materialism thought process, how would your opinion on the subject change?

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Hope to hear from you soon.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

The term ‘Dialectical Materialism’ was first coined by Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov in his essay For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death (1891). Developing upon the materialist inversion of GWF Hegel’s Idealist Dialectic, Dialectical Materialism (a term never used by Karl Marx) was proffered as providing an Ontology – an explanation of the processes of Nature. Applied to the history and movements of human society, Dialectical Materialism underpins Historical Materialism (or the ‘Materialist Conception of History as Marx called it).

Whereas for Hegel, the Dialectic was the movement of Reason/ God overcoming and incorporating its otherness in a cumulative, progressive teleology (see Encyclopedia Logic #79 for Hegel’s account of the Dialectic as the three moments of Understanding — Dialectic/ Negative Reason — Speculative/ Positive Reason), for Dialectical Materialism, nature actually and objectively changes Dialectically through contradictions and the overcoming of said contradictions. Marx himself never applied dialectics to nature but after his death, many Marxists did. To this day, such a move remains controversial.
Marx’s lifelong collaborator and friend Friedrich Engels composed an unfinished book Dialectics of Nature which was only published long after his death in the 1930’s. Here, he prescribed three ‘Laws’ of materialist dialectics which he extracted from Hegel.

1. Quantity into Quality. Where for example, an increase in temperature can cause a change in state (heated water boils and changes into steam)
2 Interpenetration of Opposites. Where the two sides of a contradiction mutually reinforce each other (e.g. the external and internal process of a plant seed both need and impede each other)
3. Negation of the Negation. Where what is impeding a process (the Negation) is itself negated (e.g. the seed is negated to become a root, the root is negated to become a flower, the flower is negated by the seeds it has produced. This is the site of Contradiction and it’s outcome although the above two ‘laws’ are involved in the dialectical process.

The so-called ‘three laws’ became sacrosanct and official philosophy in the Soviet Union, especially after Joseph Stalin published Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938). An official if extremely crude Philosophy which gave intellectual support and legitimacy to the state which described itself as Marxist.

The veracity of Dialectical Materialism remains contentious among thinking Marxists. Western or Hegelian Marxists tend be be sceptical of any dialectics of Nature. Problems arise when, for instance, Scientific Laws which apply to Nature, are applied to Human beings. Natural Scientific Laws claim to account for phenomena which are mechanistic, blind, deterministic whereas, human beings are conscious, thinking beings capable of so-called free will: so can the former be applied to the latter?

Mia, if you haven’t already, you might want to read The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man by Engels. Engels employs Darwinian evolution to account for human development.

Karl Kautsky wrote quite a bit about Marxism and Darwinism in, for example Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Ch3. The Ethic of Darwinism). Finally, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) who was a Paleontologist and Biologist, maintained that processes in Nature echoed the Laws of the Dialectic.

Heidegger on ‘What is a thing?’

Himangsu asked:

What is a “thing”? Can we call a conscious being a “thing”?

Answer by Georgios Tsagdis

In his 1950 essay ‘The Thing’, Heidegger examines a maximal and a minimal definition of what a thing is – both turn out to be unsatisfactory.

In the maximal definition, one starts by selecting entities that may be termed ‘things’ and realises that in the broadest sense, everything is a candidate: a colour, a state, an idea, a project, a tradition, etc. Even God doesn’t escape the orbit of the maximal definition and Heidegger has it on good authority: Meister Eckhart, for example, refers to God as a ‘great thing’ (‘groz dinc‘).

On the other hand, the minimal definition shows that hardly anything is a mere thing. A little child might be called a ‘poor thing’ for example, but one soon defends the humanity of the child against reification. The animal fares no differently. Even a stone, the favourite thing of philosophy, soon appears not to be a mere thing (after all, from Plotinus to Latour, rocks grow, store and exchange information, set processes into motion, etc.). Accordingly, to call anything a ‘thing’ is both too much and too little.

Heidegger begins thus on a ‘second sail’, attempting to define not the extension of the term, but its ‘intension’. That is, he embarks on an examination of the meaning of ‘thingness’, rather than an account of the members that might be included under its scope. Understanding what constitutes a thing, or what a thing constitutes, demands much more than a few lines. It is conducive however to keep reflecting on the differential of the ‘thing’, both to the ‘object’ and the ‘body’: each term opens a multiplicity of philosophical histories.

Simplified Marxist dialectics

Mia asked:

Why was dialectical materialism created? Did it support a certain political perspective?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Mia, may I say that if you are studying dialectical materialism in middle school then you are already intellectually advanced! Most people never study this subject, and I was only introduced to it at university.

However, I personally, would never apply dialectic materialism to understanding natural history and evolution: as it is designed to be applied to understanding the pressures working within and shaping societies. Different mechanisms work within nature and I do not feel qualified to pass comment here.

What follows is my own basic interpretation of the matter. Quite simply, a society would be structured on the assumption that the people in charge, group A, would wish to keep their privileged position and construct laws to maintain this arrangement. In doing so, they keep the people who are not in charge, group B, effectively oppressed.

While this situation continues, group B would gain knowledge or develop new material technologies or develop new material needs and desires. This force from below would eventually overturn group A’s superiority, possibly by revolution, and group B would then be in charge of society.

While group B are in charge, they repeat the behaviour of the previous rulers by maintaining their privileged position and constructing legislation to uphold this arrangement. In doing so, they keep a new group of people who are not in charge, group C, effectively oppressed.

Group C would be expected to gain knowledge and develop new material requirements and the process of new groups in society asserting their authority would continue with group C becoming dominant. On some accounts this process would continue forever, and on other accounts, a state of abundant material wealth would emerge negating the need for further changes of a ruling group.

This sort of approach is often credited to Marx and Engels although their ideas built upon Hegel’s previous theorising. Marxists, communists and socialists often favour this approach as it allows an understanding of the development of western societies. For instance, societies where the royalty acted as dictators gave way to feudalism when a wider aristocracy asserted its authority and demanded a share of power; liberal societies replaced feudalism as the bourgeois asserted their authority and again gained a share of power. However, this approach can also be used to anticipate what future societies may look like:  to explain, socialist societies may expect to replace liberal societies when the majority of workers assert their authority and relieve the bourgeois of their power.

For further reading, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry on Karl Marx ( ) and section 4.3 entitled ‘Functional Explanation’ is particularly useful here. Also, the Wikipedia entry on Dialectical materialism ( describes how persons following Marx and Engels have interpreted and used this theory. With regards to predicting the future and explaining why socialism has not yet overturned liberalism, you might like to read my previous article entitled, Why did Marxism Fail?