Are There Eternal Problems in
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
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.
answer to the question is closely bound up with our notion of
modern philosophers scout the idea of an eternal truth, as much
as that of eternal problem, though they do not deny that
(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
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
“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
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
“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.
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.