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The 3 Big Questions of Philosophy

We need to return to the big questions of philosophy.

In an excellent course on the great questions of philosophy, the philosophical psychologist Dan Robinson frames the enterprise of philosophy in terms of the “long debate” about three central questions that he suggests can never be really answered, but instead should be thought of as the foundational elements by which humans frame their systems of justification.

These great questions are as follows:

1. What is knowledge?

This refers to the following kinds of issues and questions: How can we know anything (i.e., the starting position of the radical skeptic)? Is there absolute, transcendent, universally true knowledge (e.g., mathematical truths or Platonic ideals) or is all knowledge practical, local, and contingent on the particular knower and context? What is the relationship between the internal mental world (either experiential/perceptual or rational) and the actual state of the external world, and how can we know about that relationship? (For a somewhat more detailed summary of how to approach the question of knowledge, see this post).

2. How should we conduct ourselves?

This question gets at the issue of the nature of the human condition as it pertains to morality and questions of what constitutes "the good." Related questions are: What is a valued life and valued way of being? How should we approach these questions? Are there moral absolutes that can be used to judge virtue or is it all a social construction, relative to history and context? What should be the metrics by which we determine how we want to be? (For core differences in worldviews about our nature and morality, see here and here).

3. How should we govern ourselves?

This merges questions one and two into a practical and social angle. That is, given our state of knowledge and given our values for what constitutes the good, what should our social and political organizations look like? What are the principles around which we should organize our social structure? Who should have power and why? What are the most important social values (e.g., equality, freedom, justice, security) and how should we structure society to maximize them? (For ideas about our moral compass and the values that should guide us, see here).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Unfortunately, the golden age of philosophy has passed. The academy has instead moved into the age of empirical science (what do the data say?) and shallow economic utilitarianism (i.e., How can we maximize our wallets and our pleasures without harming others?). If there is any question about whether the waning of philosophy has taken a toll on our society, consider that in last night’s debate for the Republican nomination for the most powerful position in the world, the frontrunner took the time to assure us that he is well-endowed.

There is much emerging evidence that our shallow, unreflective systems of justification are threatening our very existence. As such, I hope there is a quick and profound return to reflecting on these questions with depth and sophistication.

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