Are philosophical problems practical?

Sometimes I hear people claiming that philosophical problems are not practical. I think that is a problematic view. Here is an aphorism by Wittgenstein, dealing with a practical problem, which I would like to take a closer look at…

“Someone has heard that the anchor of a ship is hauled up by a steam engine. He only thinks of the one that powers the ship (and because of which it is called a steamship) and cannot explain to himself what he has heard. (Perhaps the difficulty doesn’t occur to him until later.) Now we tell him: No, it is not that steam engine, but besides it a number of other ones are on board, and one of these hoists the anchor.
– Was his problem a philosophical one? Was it a philosophical one if he had already heard of the existence of other steam engines on the ship and only had to be reminded of it?
– I believe his confusion has two parts: what the explainer tells him as fact the questioner could easily have conceived as a possibility by himself, and he could have posed his question in a definite form instead of in the form of a mere admission of confusion. He could have removed this part of his doubt by himself; however, reflection could not have instructed him about the facts. Or: the uneasiness that comes from not having known the truth was not removable by any ordering of his concepts. The other uneasiness and confusion is characterized by the words “Something’s wrong here” and the solution is characterized by (the words): “Oh, you don’t mean that steam engine” or – in another case – ” . . . . By ‘steam engine’ you don’t mean just a piston engine.” – PBT

The common view, would be that this is not a philosophical problem. Something I read in philosophical articles for example, is that philosophical problems are not practical.

According to Wittgenstein’s view though, I interpret it as one could answer, yes his problem may be a philosophical one, but it all depends. If it was a problem of not knowing the facts, then it was not a philosophical problem. However, if he knew the facts but just didn’t see the possibilities, and his problem could be solved only by ordering of concepts, then it can be said to be a philosophical problem.

I like this aphorism, as it indicates that philosophical problems can indeed be ordinary, simple and practical.

PBT = Philosophy in Big Typescript


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
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