21 Sep

What is a problem? What does it mean to think critically about a problem?

Posted By Politybooks

Cutrofello Livingston

One of the strangest philosophical books ever written is a collection of unsolved problems written either by Aristotle or one of his followers. It is called, simply, “Problems.” In it, Aristotle (or “pseudo-Aristotle”) discusses a wide variety of head-scratchers, ranging from “Why don’t birds belch?” to “Why does the edge of the shadow cast by the Sun appear to tremble?” (Not because the Sun is moving, since the Sun doesn’t move back and forth as a trembling leaf does.)

Literally, in Greek, a problem is something projected or “thrown forward” (προ- + βλ?μα). In philosophy, as in mathematics, problems are “set forth” or “put forward.” Many problems have solutions that we may or may not be able to discover. Others seem to be insoluble in principle. When philosophers sense that a problem is insoluble they generate a second-level problem about the first-level problem. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant’s critical problem was to explain why human reason generates insoluble metaphysical problems. In the twentieth century, the logical positivist Rudolf Carnap went one step further. In a book called Pseudo-Problems in Philosophy he argued that metaphysical problems weren’t genuine problems at all.

Today, most philosophers agree that there are genuine problems in philosophy. They may not be losing sleep over non-belching pigeons and trembling shadows (having bequeathed these particular problems to ornithologists and physicists), but they do scratch their heads over paradoxes about rule-following, reference, consciousness, self-consciousness, free will, and the nature of justice. These “first-level” problems are widely shared by “analytic” and “continental” philosophers. They also importantly connect with broader problems of contemporary social life and practice. Yet many contemporary philosophers sense that they may be insoluble, at least without first stepping back critically to look at their underlying form. Could a new critical approach to them – a new way of problematizing problems – provide assistance? A critical, or “paradoxico-critical,” approach that acknowledged its own problematicity?

Andrew Cutrofello (Professor at Loyola University of Chicago) and Paul Livingston (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico) are co-authors of The Problems of Contemporary Philosophy, which is published by Polity on the 25th of September 2015