Self-Defeating Questions

The other day I used calculus to try and solve a financial problem. This isn’t me bragging, since I got it wrong–I needed to use a differential equation form that I can no longer recall. For a moment I was struck by how I could add this to the list of cases where calculus was good to know. The list is infinite, especially if it ranges over math, broadly construed. Any good nerd will constantly find uses for math in daily life (and logic, and programming).†

Philosophers often claim that they can make no sense of an idea as a way of objecting to it. David Lewis described the situation as follows: “I attempt to explain it to others….But I have no great hopes, since any competent philosopher who does not understand something will take care not to understand anything else whereby it might be explained.”

The question “why should I care about math?” fits this pattern, and is thereby an interesting sort of question–one with a good answer that is inapplicable once the question is asked. No one who really doubted whether math is good would find my explanations compelling. Without the spontaneous curiousity and will to know, the explanations would be at best a reason for someone else to learn math–someone who would conveniently answer your questions. This is perhaps the time to note that I could make no use of the number that I was calculating.

Our category of question is the question which in itself blinds a person to its answer. So far as I know, there’s no name for the category. The metaphor of blinding suggests the term ‘Oedipal question,’ but you can’t make that word mean what you want it to anymore. Of course Oedipus wanted to know, so we have a further problem. Perhaps Job could appear, since his question was itself a form of sin, but Job eventually got his answer. Self-defeating question is accurate and less-pretentious, but is too broad.

McDowell’s claim in Virtue and Reason might, after being suitably warped, become the claim that the question “why be moral” is a self-defeating question.

Contemplating the dependence should not induce vertigo at all. We cannot be whole-heartedly engaged in the relevant parts of the “whirl of organism”, and at the same time achieve the detachment necessary in order to query whether our unreflective view of what we are doing is illusory. The cure for the vertigo, then, is to give up the idea that philosophical thought, about the sorts of practice in question, should be undertaken at some external standpoint, outside our immersion in our familiar forms of life.

†Unless they are the sort of nerd who’s scared of math, which is a damn shame when it happens. Doesn’t have to be math–it’s just the example that’s near and dear to my heart.


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