What are we asking when we ask why?

"Why? WHY?" If, like me, you have small children, you spend all day trying to answer this question. It's not easy: sometimes there is no answer (a recent exchange: “Sharing is when you let someone
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“Why? WHY?” If, like me, you have small children, you spend all day trying to answer this question. It’s not easy: sometimes there is no answer (a recent exchange: “Sharing is when you let someone else use your things.” “Why?”); sometimes you don’t know the answer; even when you do, your child isn’t satisfied, he just goes on to ask “why?” about the answer. This follow-up why-question is worth pausing over. Suppose you were asked why the lights came on and you answered that the lights came on because you flipped the switch. When your child immediately follows-up with a “why?” his question is ambiguous. Is he asking: why did you flip the switch? Or is he asking: why is it that the lights went on because you flipped the switch? The second interpretation is a meta-question, equivalent to: why is what you said the answer to the original question? Now we’re in philosophical territory. Philosophy is concerned, not just with answering. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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