The philosophical process of working through one question

Apr 18th, 2019

The purpose of the website WikiHow is to provide an easy guide to practically anything. It even has a page on “How to become a philosopher” – complete with cartoons. The article includes such handy tips as: develop an approach to investigation; have a philosophy of life; get a degree and even get a job as a philosophy professor.

If only it were that simple. But, the profession of philosophy is as ambiguous and nuanced as philosophy itself.

Philosophical approaches to asking questions often invite answers whose conditions produce a whole new branch of thought. For example, asking “what is so amazing about this world?” attracts a conditional response along the lines of “we can only answer this within the confines of what we know. So, we can define what is amazing about this world if we know if other worlds exist, and their comparative qualities”. From there, one can then consider the boundaries of what’s possible on Earth and how to realise the qualities within them.

Conversely, an unconditional response would allow us to think about both the “amazing” aspects of Earth, as well as the possibilities of what might be amazing in the future. In this context, “what is so amazing” could be the possibility of curing cancer or AIDS, or the target of eradicating poverty – albeit one could take the other side of that, and ask what is human about people making decisions that put others into poverty anyway.

Both conditional and unconditional ways of thinking about the world can also influence our relationship with actions. Think about the question “can one person change the world?”. From a macro point of view, it’s unlikely that any of us will lead a country or an organisation large enough to foster change. From a macro point of view, every action that we make has a knock-on effect to ourselves and perhaps other people. If you spill your coffee on the floor, then mopping it up is a change to the state of the world, leading to an action where someone can walk without slipping. In fact, we all change the world all the time – change is in fact central to how the world works. Change in itself has a massive bearing on philosophy, as it invites context and meaning to thought.

It was the Grecian philosopher Zeno who really addressed constraint and change head-on. In a series of Paradoxes, he asserted observations such as change is a series of micro-actions which are so small in themselves, that they cannot realistically exist. To walk one Kilometre, you have to walk half a kilometre, one quarter, one eighth… and so on, until you get to the possibility of walking a step so small that it could not in fact ever exist physically or numerically. A modern response comes from Bertrand Russell, who stated that a person must be in one place at one time, and another place another time, so there is always a constant “function”.

So, whichever philosophical position you take, even the smallest actions effect change. Even the smallest changes come from curiosity.

And where does curiosity come from?