When I was 15 years old, I thought I was going to be a philosophy professor. As a pimply-faced high school sophomore with a god-awful haircut, I cleaned out the philosophy sections of every library within a 20-mile radius of my house. On weekends, when other kids were doing the kinds of things high school kids do, I was in my room reading Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Sartre, and William James.
By the time I was 18, I hadn’t lost my love of philosophy, but my honeymoon period was well and truly over. So much of philosophy, I had discovered, was just people debating the answers to Poorly Worded Questions. In college, it seemed as if this was the only thing we were doing in our philosophy classes.
What is a Poorly Worded Question, you might ask? A Poorly Worded Question is any question that cannot be meaningfully answered, either because of its extreme vagueness or some other inherent flaw. Examples are numerous and diverse, and they creep into philosophical debates in many overlapping forms.
Here are just a few examples:
- Questions about the boundaries of definitions (example: what is art?)
- Questions that imply that the answer to a question is a single thing when it may not be (examples: What is intelligence? What is knowledge?)
- Questions that contain so much vagueness and ambiguity that they cannot be answered precisely (example: what is the meaning of life?)
- Questions that assume a highly questionable premise (example: if God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?)
- Questions that would be better answered with scientific inquiry (examples: How many teeth do women have? What is consciousness?)
- Plato’s Dialogues are stories of Socrates going to parties and asking people a series of Poorly Worded Questions.
I’m not the first person to make these observations. Daniel Dennett, in his book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, said, “Philosophy – in every field of inquiry – is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, wrote his most important book, the posthumously published, Philosophical Investigations, as a critique on philosophers’ traditional approach to language and questions. He considered most of the philosophical problems that I call Poorly Worded Questions, such as “What is truth?” to be examples of meaningless wordplay caused by philosophers’ misuse of language.
I could write a book about my crankiness on the subject of Poorly Worded Questions. And maybe someday I will. But for now, let’s just say it’s a problem. And we should point it out when we see it.