Sunday, February 12, 2006

Good Questions

I was working on the idea that good questions are not necessarily easily answered questions and most of the time are more valuable then good answers to bad questions. Then I saw Adam Roberts's post A Question About Wrongness at The Valve which opens like this:

Here’s a question that bothers me. How valuable is a philosopher if she or he is wrong?

He uses Plato as one example.

Now, here’s some philosophy. Here’s Plato, the man of whom it’s said that the writing of footnotes to his work has been the whole occupation of subsequent Western philosophy. Plato says that when we point at a chair and say ‘that’s a chair’ what we’re doing is identifying something intrinsic to the chair, noting the resemblance that this particular chair has to a perfect, ideal chair that exists in some otherworld realm which he called the Forms. This resemblance, he says, is what all the chairs in the world have in common. They may have lots of points of difference (three legs or four, black or red, big or small) but they all nevertheless share one crucial thing: their resemblance to the form of Chair. How else, Plato asks, could we see a chair and recognise it as a chair? This doctrine of ideal forms is pretty-much central to almost everything that Plato’s thought is about.

Plato is wrong here. The resemblance between these chairs is a feature of the pattern-recognising nature of human consciousness, not an aspect of the external world. This business of grouping things together into sets goes on inside people’s crania, not in the real world, nor in some otherworld.

It’s not hyperadvanced thinking to point this out; it’s more like Philosophy 101. But if Plato is wrong, we might wonder why he is still studied as a live thinker—which is to say, not as a historical curiosity, or as a rudimentary sophist whose ideas have been largely superseded, but as a Philosopher in the fullest sense. How would we feel if, on Medicine 101, the relevant professor started his lecture course with: ‘Western Medicine is all footnotes to the miasma theory; until you’ve grasped it you won’t understand anything about modern clinical practice’?

I don't wish to argue what Plato may have been right about even though I am in sympathy with Roberts's remarks about ideal forms. I want to explore good questions.

I am reading Plato's Republic for the sixth time as part of my program of rereading the classics of political philosophy. My reading is going very slowly. The thing that engages me this time is that I feel I am on firmer ground in my thinking about the questions he tries to answer and why I disagree with Plato's answers. I find Republic to be a case of good questions with bad answers to them.

The good questions a philosopher asks seems to be a prime motivator for studying a philosopher whose work is part of the canon even if one disagrees with the philosopher's answers. I think of drawing a 2 x 2 matrix with columns labeled good and bad questions and rows labeled good and bad answers. One would dearly love to have good answers to good questions, but one often has to settle for a good question whether it comes with a good answer or not.

This leaves it open as to what is a good question in philosophy? Let us say the question poses a fundamentally difficult problem for philosophers, one that crosses boundaries to other disciplines and is important to a broad audience. For instance, I am in Book III of Republic where Plato discusses the education of the guardians. One is forced to think about the education of the young and to what extent that education will lead them to a life of virtue. Other questions abound.

The temptation I have while reading Republic this time is to throw up my hands and say this is bullshit, so I think I'll move on to Aristotle. However, I restrain myself from doing it by asking if it is bullshit, then what is the right answer? And what is the right question in the first place?


At 9:24 PM, Blogger -epm said...

Everyone knows the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. Duh.

Taking the contrapositive of "what is a good question?" perhaps getting a grasp on what are "bad" questions would help narrow the path. Just as the Holmsian proposition that when we eliminate all that is impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, will be the truth; so too if we eliminate all the bad questions, whatever is left, no matter how impossible to answer, are the good questions.

Good topic. I've had to take two Advil already just for thinking about it...

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Lynn said...


I agree with you about the Advil thing. The more philosophy I read, the more of a muddle I find myself in. I wonder if I am not just confirming my deeply held convictions rather than questioning them.


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