The point of writing philosophy is to be a catalyst to other people’s thought, not to set down the truth for all time.Nigel Warburton, Philosophy Bites podcast host
One thing I love about philosophy and science is that they are, in their own ways, never-ending. There will never be a point at which either science or philosophy will be able to say “And there you have it! We figured it all out. We have answered all possible questions fully, in a way satisfying to everyone, and there is nothing more to be done.”
Even writing that out makes me laugh. The world and people are far too complex for us even to consider the possibility than human knowledge has an end point.
I think this is so exciting! Daunting, but exciting. It means there are always new things to discover, new facts to uncover, new truths to articulate, new connections to be made between the world and our rich experience of it.
This also gives me a small boost of confidence in my frequent struggles about feeling like I have anything significant to say in my philosophy classes. There are a near infinite number of things to say! Some of them will be more revelatory or useful than others, of course, but there is plenty of room for each individual brain to assert its place and its unique experience with ideas and experimentation.
I think it also confers an interesting reframing of the responsibility of intellectual pursuit. While I don’t think the above quote by Nigel Warburton (host of a fabulous philosophy podcast, for those interested!) fully characterizes the role of philosophy, it’s an aspect that I hadn’t considered before. Part of what we do when talking or writing about ideas is to spark the creativity of others, to create a space for their own ideas to flourish, to open a dialogue where a large part of our responsibility is to listen.
From what I’ve seen, philosophy can be a brutal field. Many people are all-too-willing to point out the (fatal) flaws in others’ ideas in order to help themselves feel more confident (superior?) in their own abilities and place in the field. I love the idea of being someone who is interested more in the robust dialogue, someone who has a love for the explication of new ideas, even those that directly contradict my own. I’m sure there are many people like this in philosophy, already! But graduate school tends to make everyone feel a little comparative or competitive, feeling the need to assert their own prowess with ideas rather than being part of a system that supports robust, diverse, mutually-beneficial conversation. I feel this impulse towards comparison, and have to fight against it in myself every day. Thankfully, I am surrounded by some wonderful graduate students who are self-aware and concerned for the well-being and flourishing of their fellow sufferers. (Yep, graduate school is a special type of suffering. I stand by it.)
Finally, the idea that truth never has an end point means something a little exhausting even while being exciting. There is never a time to rest on our laurels. If we feel we have it all figured out, that our worldview or set of beliefs captures all truth, then we’re being intellectually lazy and dishonest. There is never a point where we should stop being curious and open to new truths (and new ways of framing truths we already accept). If we feel we have reached or neared an end point, then we have simply stopped asking good questions, stopped acknowledging our biases, stopped listening to others, stopped participating in the larger conversation of human experience and ideas. Ironically, if we have reached this point, we should stop opining. Unfortunately, that’s just the point when we feel are most likely to assert our opinions with force and confidence. Humans are indeed funny creatures.