On real problems

I came across a confrontational moment in one of my interview transcripts. We had been talking about philosophers’ metanarratives about “truth.” But my interlocutor found my questions a bit too oblique.

Philosopher: But I don’t know — you aren’t interested in the solutions to problems?

Ethnographer: The solutions to philosophical problems for example?

Philosopher: Problems! Real ones! For example do you consider that the word “being” has several senses? Or not? Fundamental ontological question. Do you accept that there are several senses or one? It changes everything. And what are your arguments one way or the other?

Ethnographer: Well me personally I’m not an expert—

Philosopher: But it’s a really important question. Do you accept a category like for instance the possible?

Ethnographer: Yes OK—

Philosopher: Between non-being and being? Do you grant an ontological existence to the notion of the possible? Me, no. Others, yes. And one tries to say why and why not. If you grant something like human dispositions, do you grant a distinction between for instance what one calls the faculties— understanding, imagining, dreaming, are these the same things or not? Do you grant something like freedom? Do you not know how to answer these questions? And do you say yes or no or something else? The response to these questions isn’t of the order of metanarratives. It’s of the order of the truth, pure and simple.

Ethnographer: Sure, I can agree.

Philosopher: But it’s really important. This is what philosophy is!

Ethnographer: Well I’d say that what interests me as an ethnographer is that, being able to ask these sorts of questions, not everyone asks them in the same way, and what interests me as an ethnographer is the different ways of situating these questions, of raising them.

Philosopher: You’re not interested in the truth of the answer?

This was a relatively traditional philosopher who was invested, as you can see, in a fairly standard view of philosophy as “solving problems.” Here, he pressed me quite hard to express interest in that project. But I felt obliged to insist that adjudicating local truths is not what ethnographers are usually interested in!

It’s interesting to me that he found my refusal baffling. It’s as if at heart it was hard to imagine that other disciplines worked on profoundly different questions from those of the traditional philosophical canon.

But what goes unsaid in this interview is that I, the ethnographer, was not the only person who wasn’t trying to “solve problems.” In fact, many of the radical philosophers I studied in Saint-Denis were also quite uninterested in this problem-solving approach to philosophy. More often than not, they sought to produce new concepts, to re-reading classic texts, to reflect on the present, to “intervene” critically in debates — and all of this could happen without necessarily solving any of the classic philosophical questions.

I expect my interlocutor here would have dismissed some of his colleagues, as well, as not being interested in real philosophy.

But if I learned anything in my research on philosophers, it’s that there can be interesting disputes over what philosophy is. (Every orthodoxy involves heterodoxy, after all.) To claim that philosophy is a well-defined field would seem, in that light, somewhat fraught.

One thought on “On real problems

  1. this is a great moment. i work on later 19th century french philosophers, and this person sounds very much like they do.

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