Sunday, February 3, 2013

[PHI 1000] Do philosophical questions have definite answers?

In the last chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, Russell writes:
Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.
Do you think that philosophical questions have no definite answers? If so, consider the following dilemma:
  1. The answer to the question "Do philosophical questions have definite answers?" is either "yes" or "no."
  2. If "yes," then philosophical questions do have definite answers, since "Do philosophical questions have definite answers?" is itself a philosophical question and "yes" is a definite answer.
  3. If "no," then philosophical questions do have definite answers, since "Do philosophical questions have definite answers?" is itself a philosophical question and "no" is a definite answer.
  4. Therefore, either way, philosophical questions have definite answers.
What do you make of this argument? 


  1. Bertrand Russell writes in his "The Value of Philosophy" that when it becomes possible to have definitive knowledge regarding a topic, the subject being analyzed is no longer called philosophy but rather another form of science. This is because philosophy is more uncertain than it is real, meaning that philosophy cannot reasonably have any definitive answers. Philosophy in itself is a study of questions, rather than it is answers. Each student of philosophy will answer any question differently with no one correct answer. The answers given cannot be demonstrated to be true (or false), as would be possible with a scientific experiment.

    In the above argument, it is assumed that the question "Do philosophical questions have definitive answers?" is itself a philosophical question. However, the determination of what type of question it is may be made different from person to person. Thus, we can only philosophically analyze the question in itself rather than any answers that may result of it.

  2. While the argument above seems to disprove the fact that philosophical questions do not have definite answers, it in fact supports this claim. In saying this, although both “Yes” and “No” are definitive answers, using either of these responses to answer the question, “Do philosophical questions have definite answers?” shows a variation in answer and therefore a difference in response and ultimately an indefinite answer. Indeed, because I perceive a definite answer to mean an answer that will always be applicable and valid, the answers both yes and no reveal inconsistencies and are therefore indefinite. Indeed this is the nature of answers to philosophical questions—they are indefinite. For Russell says, “those [questions] only to which no definite answer can be given remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.” He goes on to claim that “it is the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions…[and] to examine all the approaches to them” whether they be yes or no or some less concise answer. Russell illustrates that the value of philosophy is not in having the most perfect and definite answer, but in focusing on the exploration of the questions themselves.

  3. Yes, I believe philosophical questions have no definite answers. This was a very fun argument to think about that really made me think. What I make of the argument is that is that although the question above was a philosophical question and “yes” is a definite answer, which does not apply to all philosophical questions. It is simply one question itself and one question cannot define philosophical questions as a whole. Also this is my only my opinion, this being said I myself could be right or wrong, making my answer not definite.


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