What, Why and How

In a recent interview with Atlantic Monthly, the philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin gave an interesting response to the question of whether there can be a philosophy of dark energy:

There can be a philosophy of anything really, but it’s perhaps not as fancy as you’re making it out. The basic philosophical question, going back to Plato, is “What is x?” What is virtue? What is justice? What is matter? What is time? You can ask that about dark energy – what is it? And it’s a perfectly good question.

“What is it?” is a good philosophical question. But is it the basic philosophical question? Perhaps it depends on the interpretation. (I know, I know, this could devolve quickly into one of those annoying philososnob rants about “What is ‘is,’ really?” I’m going to try not to take it there.)

When I was an undergrad, I was taught that philosophy, broadly construed, falls into three categories, based on the kinds of questions that are answered in each category:

  1. Metaphysics asks and answers questions about what there is
  2. Epistemology asks and answers questions about what we know
  3. Ethics asks and answers questions about what to do

A fourth category of question came to the foreground in Western philosophy in the middle of the 20th century. Depending on who you talk to, this category might be called the inferential or the methodological category, and it asks and answers questions of how we know, rather than what we know. It’s debatable whether this category is wholly distinct from the epistemological category described above, and some people may even think the two are be collapsible into one another, if certain versions of constructivism are taken to (perhaps unflatteringly cartoonish) extremes.

In my dissertation, I’m interested in a less “basic” kind of how question: How do our theories and models help us make nanomaterials better? The emphasis here is on improving the method of making, not improving the material being made, although I will probably discuss both interpretations of the question. Answering the question, it seems, will require asking more “basic” questions in each of the categories identified above, and others that fall into multiple categories or none at all. The question “How do we make?” is not a typical question asked or answered by today’s philosophers, although perhaps it was, once upon a time (Heidegger, for instance, asserted that how something is made is just what the thing is, or at least what it appears to be: “Through bringing-forth the growing things of nature as well as whatever is completed through the crafts and the arts come at any given time to their appearance.”).

When I’m thinking about my dissertation, rather than actually writing it, though, I find myself confronted most often with another question entirely: Why should I care? I ask myself this question more often than any other (except, of course, Where did I leave my keys?). I am starting to come up with an answer I like for when I ask that question of my dissertation: Because nanoscience is revolutionizing the way we think about materials we use every day to compute, generate electricity, and cure disease, and there is a tangled and messy thicket of models and theories currently used to give us information about those materials. If we can untangle that thicket even a little bit, by clearing paths or putting up signposts along the way, we might get information faster or more reliably, which would allow us to use those materials more quickly, safely, and effectively.

There are many times when I ask myself “Why should I care, as a philosopher?” after reading a philosophical essay, and I don’t have a good answer. You’ve already heard plenty of my opinion on the negative consequences of purportedly philosophical essays failing to have answers to that question.

Questions have always been an important tool for philosophers (If you don’t believe me, just try picturing a Socratic dialogue without interrogatives). Maudlin’s “basic question” is, I believe, purposefully and cleverly vague: “What is it” seems to be an ontological question, at first glance, but to fully answer the question one must tell a story not only about what “it” is, but also what is known about it (for that will give information about the kind of “it” it is, which is needed to determine what it is), and how what-is-known is known, and what it does and what people should do with it.

Finally, I am convinced that a complete answer to the question “What is it” will have to say something about why we care what it is, an answer to why we would we bother to identify “it” as a thing (or process) distinct from other things in the first place. This is not to say we individually or socially construct the world out of thin air, but rather that we tend to divide up the world in ways that make it easier for us to work in it.

So for instance, it’s a common philosophical trope to point out that some Inuit tribes have 32 words for snow, but people who live in less snowy regions have only a few words for frozen precipitation. Why aren’t there more words for snow in Houston, for example? Because Houstonians don’t work with snow; they mostly stop traffic and shut down schools at the first sight of white stuff falling from the sky. They don’t need to know the difference between soft milik and crusty sillik because that difference won’t make a difference to what they do. While an Inuit looking outside for new igloo-building material will want an answer to “What is it” in terms demarcating milik from sillik, a Houstonian wanting to know whether there will be weather-related traffic delays only needs to answer “What is it” with “snow.” Answers to “What is it” will depend on why we care what it is.

This is not to say that our cares and concerns are independent of what there is out there–to deny that much is to deny that there is an external world influencing the way we work. I do not advocate extreme skepticism of this sort. Instead I want only to point out the clever vagueness, and some of the complicated intricacies, behind Maudlin’s identification of “What is it” as the basic philosophical question. I don’t see how the question can be extracted from another question I see as philosophically basic, namely why we care. And I think it is an interesting contrast in philosophical methodology to try asking “how” questions instead of “what” questions every now and then.

Thanks to Jeremy Dolan for bringing the Maudlin interview to my attention.


About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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5 Responses to What, Why and How

  1. Jason Dyer says:

    The Inuit snow word thing is a myth, I thought? It does appear the Sami (the European equivalent) do apparently have hundreds of words for snow.

  2. Pingback: What, Why and How | Reaction Crate - All about nano technology - NanoTechno.org

  3. Ponder Stibbons says:

    Poor aesthetics, always ignored

  4. Lewis Powell says:

    From what I remember about the issue of how many Inuit words there are for “snow”, the situation is complicated by the fact that English typically uses separate words (adjectives, for instance) to modify the base noun, while some other languages more typically use affixes to modify the base noun. So, “packing snow” and “drift snow” don’t wind up getting counted as two different words for snow in English, but this just looks like an accident of our morphology. (I could be misremembering this, but surveying the list of of words for snow that is linked in the article, there does seem to be a pretty distinctive root word for snow that reoccurs frequently in the different words on that list).

  5. Aarthy says:

    Very interesting. However, not being a student of philosophy, I don’t really understand why one question should be considered basic among – Who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means. And what ‘basic’ really means.

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