(bowing to audience)
In the course of the argument I may have expressed myself a bit too strongly (I’m apt to do that, I know, bad habit and all…). I see I’ll have to do better than that to defend my favorite pastime (well, one of my favorite ones at least).
I do think philosophy has found some answers, in the sense that we have come to the conclusion that certain questions are simply incorrectly posed. (I’m thinking about the ‘no selfless acts are possible’ thing which was here a couple of weeks ago). For other questions we have managed to chart out a lot of the terrain (free will is one of those; I haven’t posted in the current thread for sheer laziness, also I haven’t read up to it in a while). A lot of other things however are shrouded in mystery. Those things, when further investigated, turn out to have to do with deep-seated but finally unprovable assumptions that we humans (or reasonable beings, depending on your kind of philosophy) have about the world. Thinking about them may as often lead you to a basic axiom, a petitio principii (assuming that what you wanted to prove) or paradox. Questions about “what was there before the creation of the universe” or “has time ever started, and what happened before that” are in that area. Augustine already pondered these questions.
The problem with philosophy is that you are necessarily working with the existing language, which has developed in the hands of non-philosophers and therefore contains all sorts of unphilosophical assumptions. I do not bemoan this: literature and poetry, as well as puns, thrive on ambiguity. I wouldn’t want a philosophical upper class ‘moderating’ natural language. But the consequence is that people who state problems in natural language may make mistakes because of specifics of the language.
Since language evolves and people forget, the thing is that philosophers find they have to combat the errors in thinking of their present age. Most major philosophers who do this succesfully end up in positions that get close to what was already said in the past. Hence Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy can be found already in the writings of Plato.
Another thing is that each era has its own unwritten assumptions that bias the form in which questions are posed. Plato and Aristotle thought about how to create the perfect city state, but thereby had to disregard people who didn’t fit into their state, and relatively unquestioningly accepted slavery. Modern philosophers rightly abhor slavery, but have to deal with the problem of combining respect for individual autonomy with the power of the state to enforce its laws on disobeying citizens (hence contract-theory). The political problem is not the same for every generation.
So you see that very generally speaking we do not get answers and we do not make progress: that is however not due to the stupidity of philosophers but mainly to the fact that every age starts afresh, with new problems and new language, that are only nominally concerned with the same subjects. The classical greek conception of democracy was not at all like ours, nor was their concept of god alike.
This is not to say that we have not seen developments in philosophy. Significant epoch-making contributions have been made by Kant and Hegel, by Plato and Aristotle. One thing a student of philosophy may learn is more flexibility in handling alternative conceptions of basic things like ‘state’, ‘ethics’, ‘being’. Another thing is that he has seen various philosophical techniques for disabling certain common arguments. An example would be the difference between an idea as something that can be realised, or a regulative idea as something that can only be strived for, hence does not actually exist but must be posited in order to make sense of certain phenomena (such as the ideal of eventual mutual understanding is assumed in a discussion, even if it may not be reached in actuality).
After studying philosophy you may find that definitions are ten a penny (or however the expression goes). Hence my somewhat flippant remark on the arbitrariness of definitions. In fact, a carefully crafted definition is worth its while. But you should know (and this is one of the golden truths of philosophy) a definition is like a tool, it is tailored to its intended purpose. If you want to know what space is, you have to ask yourself why you want to know that. If someone comes up with a definition that purportedly is universally valid, I’m quite sure that he is forgetting of one or another assumption that is common of this age.
Of course all the above is only my opinion. You should be able to find philosophers who hold a more ‘scientific’ opinion of what philosophy is. They tend to flock in analytic philosophy; the problem with their viewpoint is that they have to discard the majority of writings of past philosophers as well as subjects traditionally part of philosophy since they find those to be unscientific.
Oops, there I go again with my overgeneralisations. Seriously, analytical philosophy has worthwhile things to say. Unfortunately I find that those things are few in number and do not cover my own interests.
Any questions left, class?