Does life have a meaning? How should we live? Is human nature permanent or changing? Are our actions determined? Is there an absolute ideal of The Good? Does a supernatural realm exist beyond the natural world? These are some philosophical problems. Over the centuries many answers have been proposed and many reasons have been given for and against them, but all of them have been disputed. Knowledge grows, conditions change, new facts emerge, but the problems remain. Although philosophers think that their subject is in fine condition, outsiders are understandably skeptical about a subject that fails to solve its problems. Their skepticism is based on a misunderstanding of philosophical problems.
Many philosophical problems occur when moral, personal, political, religious, and scientific modes of understanding (there are others of course) provide conflicting accounts of the significance of the same facts. Defenders of these accounts generally assume that the deepest significance of facts emerges from their own mode of understanding. They may accept the legitimacy of other modes, but claim that when their accounts conflict, the mode they favor should have priority over the others. This is not just a turf war between specialists. How we should resolve conflicts between modes of understanding leads to philosophical problems that have serious implications for how we should live. Any reasonable approach to resolving such conflicts depends on understanding the assumptions on which they rest and evaluating the reasons that have been given for and against them.
Take for instance the question of whether human actions are determined. According to the scientific mode of understanding, the answer is yes: whatever we do is the effect of causes and if the causes are present the effects will follow regardless of what choices we make. According to the personal mode of understanding, the answer is no: we often choose what we do or refrain from doing. Whether we accept the answer that follows from the scientific or the personal modes of understanding has fundamental implications for legal liability, personal responsibility, and political institutions.
Or consider the question of how we should live. According to the religious mode of understanding, if we conform to the divinely ordained ideal of The Good, we flourish; if we do not, we suffer. According to the personal mode of understanding, how we should live depends on our character, circumstances, experiences, and preferences. The religious assumption is that everyone should aim to approximate the ideal of The Good. The personal assumption is that ideals vary with individuals and contexts. The implications are far-reaching for the evaluation of what makes human lives good or bad, what should and should not be tolerated, and which experiments in living are likely to succeed or fail.
Another example is the dispute between moral and political modes of understanding. There are occasions when politicians can discharge their responsibilities only by breaking their promise, lying, or compromising their principles. According to political understanding, their morally reprehensible actions are then justified. According to moral understanding, they are unjustified. The assumption on which political understanding rests is that only in a secure political order is morality possible. The moral assumption is that a political order can be secure only if basic moral requirements are met. Their dispute is whether moral or political modes of understanding should have priority when they conflict, which, as we all know, they often do.
One central aim of philosophy is to understand conflicts of this kind and the assumptions from which they follow. This is an endless task because modes of understanding continually change in response to changing conditions. But since this is true of all of them, conflicts between them recur in different forms in different contexts and have to be faced again and again. That is why philosophical problems are perennial and why faulting the lack of philosophical progress is to fail to understand that conflicts between modes of understanding are here to stay as long as there are changing modes of understanding. Part of philosophy is to understand what we should do about them.
This kind of philosophical understanding has a critical and a constructive component. The critical one guards against the mistaken assumption shared by all too many defenders of their favored mode of understanding that in case of conflicts, their mode should always in all contexts have priority over all other modes of understanding. The constructive component is that priority depends on the context, on the particular facts, and on the judgment of whether the moral, personal, political, religious, or scientific mode of evaluation is more important in that context for protecting the conditions in which our modes of understanding can continue to progress and yield knowledge.
Such judgments are difficult and fallible, but can nevertheless be reasonable. Since contexts, conditions, facts, and modes of understanding change, even the most reasonable judgments must change with them. The critical and constructive components of philosophy enable us to make such judgments as reasonably as possible. In The Nature of Philosophical Problems (Oxford, 2014) I discuss these issues in greater depth and detail