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Are There Eternal Problems in Philosophy?

  

Errol E. Harris

 

“Questions concerning the ultimate nature of the real, the existence of God and His relation to the world, the nature of truth, of goodness and beauty, and the spirit and destiny of man—all such questions, in fact as have traditionally been called the eternal problems of philosophy—have in recent years, been repudiated as pseudo-problems.  So loudly and triumphantly proclaimed have been the doctrines which assign these eternal problems to the dustbin, that no writer can seriously contemplate discussing anything even apparently related to them before he has examined the arguments which claim finally to sweep  them out of existence.  Accordingly, as the central theme of the present work is to be a philosophical problem, of the persistence of which the very form and character of the work give evidence, before even a beginning can be made, the question must be raised whether there are eternal problems, and the reasons which have been given for denying their existence must be examined.

 

“The answer to the question is closely bound up with our notion of truth.  Many modern philosophers scout the idea of an eternal truth, as much as that of eternal problem, though they do not deny that certain propositions (notably those of mathematics) are tenseless.  And if truth is not eternal, we need not expect the questions to which the truth is the answer to be eternal either.  But if there is a body of eternal truth, the problems which beset the philosopher in his search for it will always be relevant to the same objective and there will be a sense in which they may be called eternal also.  But in calling them so we may mean one of two things: (1) a problem may be eternally insoluble and so, like the poor, “always with us”; or (2) it may be logically related to an eternal truth (its solution), so that even when solved it would still be characteristic of a necessary phase in the process of thought required for the attainment of that truth.  In the second meaning, even a mathematical problem, like that of the Pythagoreans about the incommensurability of the diagonal, would be eternal in so far as it must always be faced and surrounded by the student of mathematics at some stage in his progress.  But if philosophical problems are relative to ultimate truths, they will be eternal in both these senses, for knowledge must remain unsolved; yet an ideal solution may be presumed and some progress may be made towards it even by finite minds.

 

“There are two schools of thought voicing opinions that bear upon this matter.  First there are those who reject eternal problems primarily for epistemological reasons.  They might admit that certain questions have been persistently raised but would contend that they give expression to no genuine problem.  The answers which from time to time have been offered, they maintain, are meaningless and the problems themselves do not permit of solution .  But this does not give us the right to call them eternal in the sense that they remain eternally unsolved for they are not considered to be problems, properly speaking, at all, but are said to arise only as the result of the misuse of language.  This view I propose for convenience to call ‘positivist,’ although some of its adherents would reject the designation, except in a very restricted sense, as committing them to too much.  It will not, however, mislead the reader or misrepresent the doctrine it is intended to indicate so long as it is used only provisionally as a label to distinguish this kind of objection to eternal problems from the other kind, which I intend to call ‘historical.

 

“Those who deny the eternity of philosophical problems on historical grounds, hold that what appears in the same verbal form and is discussed in comparable terms in different periods is not always—in fact is never—exactly the same question, but in each period is a new one which has arisen under new conditions.  The view is that philosophical problems and the theories which profess to give their solutions are always relative to the times and can be fairly judged only in their historical contexts.  ‘It may be well to inquire,’ writes Basil Willey, ‘not with Pilate, “What is truth?,” but what was felt to be “truth” and “explanation” [in the period under review].’  Explanation, he says, cannot be defined absolutely, ‘one can only say that it is a statement which satisfies the demands of a particular time and place.’  Similarly, T. D. Weldon writes that ‘to suppose that there is a “problem of causality” or “problem of the interrelation of mind and body” which presents itself unaltered to succeeding generations of human beings is mere moonshine.  The verbal form of the question may be identical but that is all.’  But the most formidable and important proponent of this view is R. G. Collingwood, who writes in his autobiography, ‘Was it really true, I asked myself, that the problems of philosophy were, even in the loosest sense of that word, eternal?  Was it really true that different philosophies were different attempts to answer the same questions?  I soon discovered that it was not true; it was merely a vulgar error, consequent on a kind of historical myopia which, deceived by superficial resemblances, failed to detect profound differences.’

 

“It should follow from all this that the historical treatment of a philosophical problem is valueless.  For if the problem is not the same, except in verbal form, in the various periods when it is discussed, and if a problem of contemporary interest which is or may be similarly stated is nevertheless a different question, the answers proposed in the past can give no guidance and can throw no light upon the solution demanded in the present.  Yet, oddly enough, the writers who are most emphatic about the impermanence of problems are usually those who insist most strongly upon historical treatment.  Those I have quoted are examples of this curiously contradictory attitude, and in the philosophy of Collingwood it is so important that I shall discuss it at some length.  For, though he is emphatic about the non-existence of eternal problems, he is at the same time tirelessly insistent that philosophy is an historical study and maintains that this very discovery of perpetual change in philosophical problems makes the history of philosophy philosophically important.

 

“The question whether there are eternal problems is philosophy is, therefore, an epistemological question even when it arises from historical considerations; for if succeeding generations of philosophers are called upon to meet the same problems, or problems, which have persisted in some recognizable and identifiable form from the past, the study of the work of their predecessors will be of primary importance in their attempts both to understand and to answer the questions with which they are faced.  But if there are no such problems, the nature and the method of philosophy will be different.  It will be concerned with matters of only immediate interest and the philosopher will be like Professor Ayer’s journeyman, working at rather special questions in a field of more or less exact science, where a problem once solved is finally disposed of.  Or, alternatively, philosophy will be altogether impossible and one can but persuade the would-be philosopher that the questions he wishes to raise are not really questions at all.  The denial of eternal problems, therefore, raises the whole issue of philosophical method and the discussion of it may not be neglected.”

 

Errol E. Harris, “Are There Eternal Problems in Philosophy?  The Denial of Eternal Problems (Refuted),” in Nature, Mind, and Modern Science (1954), pages 3-6.  All italics and bolding are Ed’s.

 

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