What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)