Ten Great Philosophical Questions: Competing Disciplines, Methods & Styles of Discourse


My last blog dealt with what Sam Keen calls the Questing or Spirited Self that explores the perennial human experiences and perennial mythic questions. Since many of my blogs ask the basic philosophical questions, I’d like to introduce Ten Great  Philosophical Questions for consideration. After introducing these questons I’ll have some comments to make about the widely different ways in which our philosophers, scientists, novelists and artists go about approaching these great questions of life. They may ask some of the same basic questions, but their approaches toward them are worlds apart. You may want to skip the ten questions and move on to the epistemological, disciplinary and methodological debate, which is a “meta-level” discussion beyond the ten great philosophical questions.

1. METAPHYSICS: What is the nature of prime reality and the physical world in which we live?

Secondary Questions: Are prime reality and the physical world one and the same thing, or is the prime reality deeper than the physical world? Is there a distinction between appearance and reality, or is it rather a matter of “what you see is what you get?” What is the relationship between spirit and nature, mind and matter? Are these two separate realities? Does Spirit create or emanate matter-energy or does matter-energy evolve life, sentience, intelligence and reflexive consciousness? Are mind and matter actually one integral reality that has both mental and physical characteristics? Are there metaphysical beings, entities, agencies or principles behind the physical world, or does the natural world encompass all of reality?

2. EPISTEMOLOGY: What can we know and how can we know it?

Secondary Questions: Our our ways of knowing limited to our five senses and reason, to empiricism and rationalism, or are there also other ways of knowing? What is the value and status of emotions, relationships, imagination, dreams, symbols, metaphors, volition, conscience, intuition, revelation and illumination as ways of knowing? How is knowledge related to the paradigms in which we contain our knowledge? How it knowledge related to being? How is it related to love?

3. IDENTITY: What is a human being? Who am I?

Secondary Questions: What does it mean to be a person? To what extent is our sense of identity shaped by nature vs. nurture? Do human being have free-will or are we essentially determined by natural and environmental forces? It is meaningful to distinguish between the false self and the true self? To what extent do we remain the same persons throughout our lives and to what extent do we many protean selves that adapt and change throughout our lives? Is the idea of the individual self an illusion? Can one develop a sense in isolation from other selves? To what extent is the self the product of a network of relationships?

4. COMMUNITY: Who are my people? Who do they include and exclude?

Secondary Questions: What does it mean to find one’s own tribe? What factors influence our natural attractions and cultural affinities? What happens when persons never find a community of belonging with whom they feel any mutual attraction and common affinity? What happens when persons live their whole lives within a single community of belonging and are frightened by, indifferent to or hostile toward those who live outside their community with its distinct “hermeneutical circle” of assumptions, values, beliefs, customs, traditions and commitments? How can one negotiate the post-modern challenge of living in and between multiple community of discourse?

5. AESTHETICS: What is the nature and meaning of beauty?

Secondary Questions: Why does beauty matter to us as human beings? Where do we find beauty? How do we create and celebrate beauty? What is the relationship between beauty and the sublime? Why do music and the arts matter to us? How is beauty related to truth and love? What happens when people become indifferent to or even contemptuous of beauty?

6. ETHICS: What is the basis for ethical values, decisions and choices? What are the cornerstones of an ethically responsible life? Are there ethical absolutes like Kant’s “categorical imperative” or are ethics utilitarian tools and socially constructed fictions? Does the ends ever justify the means? When, if ever, are lying, cheating, and killing ever morally justified? What qualities constitute ethical character and integrity? How are love and justice related to ethics?

7. SOCIETY: What is the ideal of the good society?

Secondary Questions: Is there one universal ideal of the good society or are there multiple competing, incompatible and incommensurable ideals of the good society? How do we live in a pluralistic society where different individuals and collectives have radically different ideas about what constitutes the good society? How can liberals, conservatives, communitarian and libertarians live together in a free democratic society? How can religious, spiritual (but not religious), humanistic (but not spiritual) and secular (but not humanistic) people , that is, egoistic hedonists, live together with their conflicting visions and values in a democratic society?

8. HISTORY: What is the meaning, purpose and direction of history, if it has any?

Secondary Questions: Does history have an overarching meaning, purpose and direction, or is it just “one damn thing after another?” To what extent is there moral and social as well as scientific and technological progress within history? To what extent does history repeat itself and to what extent is it composed of novelty, change and development? What, if anything, can we learn from history? Why does a knowledge of the historical past matter, if it does? What are the consequences of historical amnesia?

9. HAPPINESS: What is the meaning of and way to happiness and human flourishing?

Secondary Questions: To what extent is the “pursuit of happiness” a goal that can be actually achieved and to what extent is it an illusive target? What does it mean that some people claim to find happiness in contemplation while others claim to find it in activism? What does it mean that some people claim to find happiness in serving others while others claim to find it in pleasing themselves? What does it mean that some people prefer the way of asceticism while others prefer the way of hedonism? What is the middle way between excess and deficiency? How does one cultivate the middle way?

10. IMMORTALITY: What are we to make of the perennial human longing for immortality?

Secondary Questions: Is the perennial human longing for immortality a childish and romantic form of wishful-thinking, or it is a spiritual intuition of our true condition? What are the ways that different religious traditions have envisioned immortality or eternal life? Why do Hinduism and Buddhism envision ultimate human fulfillment respectively as (1) absorption of the self (Atman) into the Transpersonal Absolute (Brahman) or as the extinction of the illusion of the self in Emptiness or Nirvana?  In the modern secular age, what are some of our “immortality projects?” In what ways do people seek apotheosis, to immortalize themselves symbolically if not literally? What are some different ways that people want to be remembered and immortalized by posterity? Why are some people OK with being quickly forgotten after they are dead, while other people find that idea intolerable? Why do we idolize and immortalize our media celebrities, movie stars and sports figures? How do you wish to be remembered? If you are able to leave any legacy, what might that be?


What are we to make of the Philosophical Life beyond the asking of questions? For some people finding the answers to these questions is of paramount importance. For others it will be enough to “live the questions” in the hope that someday when there are not particularly thinking about it a few new insights will come their way. For some people the philosophical life leads to a Grand Metaphysical or Anti-Metaphysical Theory of Everything, whether that Grand Theory happens to be dualist, non-dualist, idealist, naturalist, panpsychist, panentheist, or what have you. For others, typically the literary, lyrical,  metaphorical, mythical and poetic types rather than the philosophical, prosaic, metaphysical, literal and scientific types, it is enough to live in the “imaginative and conceptual multiverse” of Mystery, Ambiguity, Narrative, Irony, Plurality and Paradox. Richard Rorty is the poster child for a philosopher who ditched philosophy for literary and cultural critical. He calls himself an ironist, which means that he is suspicious toward all Grand Narratives, including his own…if he has one.

While I don’t buy everything Rorty has to say, he may be onto something. Novelists , Poets, Musicians and Artists approach the Great Questions of Life in a way that is fundamentally different from both our rationalistic philosophers and our positivistic scientists. Each of these disciplines assumes that it has found the Royal Road to the Rational-Empirical Truth about Objective Reality. Literary Ironists have given up on the idea that the human mind is equipped to discover the authoritative answers to the Great Philosophical Questions. Ironists prefer to tell stories and use metaphors, never forgetting that these are simply evocative and suggestive, but that other stories and metaphors may also be useful in different ways.

The Perennial Philosophical Questions remain, but philosophy, science, literature and the arts employ their own assumptions and methods in an attempt to get others to adopt its “language game” as its “final vocabulary.” Philosophy wants abstract what does it mean questions.” Science wants concrete answers to “how does it work” questions. Literature and the arts are asking “what it feels like” in the depth of our subjectivity and inter-subjectivity to be a unique, differentiated human being in our multiplex culture and diverse relationships. The meta-question is this: “What questions are truly worth asking and why do they matter deeply to us?” It is one thing to “live the questions” and another to realize that we do not all “live the same questions.” That realization is the beginning of a new kind of dialogue.

Integral philosophers will go on slicing and dicing reality into an endless taxonomy of levels, holons, stages, paradigm shifts, quadrants, centers, spheres and fulcrums that they assemble into a non-dualist whole. Material scientists will go on reducing reality to its mathematical, algorithmic, physical, chemical, geological, biological and neurological parts. These two types will go on talking past each other and firing shots over each other’s bow or trying a broad-side from time to time. Meanwhile, the novelists and artists are attempting “to tell all the truth but tell it slant.” You gotta love it!


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