A philosopher explores the many dimensions of a beguilingly simple question.
Why did triceratops have horns? Why did World War I occur? Why does Romeo love Juliet? And, most importantly, why ask why? Through an analysis of these questions and others, philosopher Philippe Huneman describes the different meanings of "why," and how those meanings can, and should (or should not), be conflated.
As Huneman outlines, there are three basic meanings of why: the cause of an event, the reason of a belief, and the reason why I do what I do (the purpose). Each of these meanings, in turn, impacts how we approach knowledge in a wide array of disciplines: science, history, psychology, and metaphysics. Exhibiting a rare combination of conversational ease and intellectual rigor, Huneman teases out the hidden dimensions of questions as seemingly simple as "Why did Mickey Mouse open the refrigerator?," or as seemingly unanswerable as "Why am I me?" In doing so, he provides an extraordinary tour of canonical and contemporary philosophical thought, from Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes and Spinoza, to Elizabeth Anscombe and Ruth Millikan, and beyond.
Of course, no proper reckoning with the question "why?" can afford not to acknowledge its limits, which are the limits, and the ends, of reason itself. Huneman thus concludes with a provocative elaboration of what Kant called the "natural need for metaphysics," the unallayed instinct we have to ask the question even when we know there can be no unequivocal answer.
About the author
Philippe Huneman is Research Director at the Institut d'Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques, CNRS/ Université Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne and the author of several books in French and English, including Philosophical Sketches of Death in Biology: An Historical and Analytic Investigation (2022).
"This is an engaging, creative, and masterful exploration of human experience, stemming from the seemingly innocent question 'why?' Huneman expertly draws upon an exceptionally rich array of sources—from the philosophical to the everyday—brought to life through illuminating examples. Even if we never reach an ultimate answer to life's most pressing query, this lucidly written book not only evokes its necessity, but transforms the way we will forever approach the question."
—Anthony J. Steinbock, author of Knowing by Heart
"Ranging with ease and erudition across both contemporary Anglo-American analytic and so-called Continental philosophies of science and the history of Western philosophy, Huneman argues that the plurality of questions expressed by 'why?' nevertheless share an underlying unity. A stimulating text addressed to professional philosophers as well as readers seeking to deepen their understanding of philosophy's relevance to common concerns."
—Helen Longino, author of Studying Human Behavior
"With wry humor, engaging examples, and indefatigable curiosity, Huneman takes the primeval question 'why?' as a launchpad to explore topics throughout the philosophy of science and beyond—evidence, cause, chance, natural selection, contingency and necessity, and in the end, love and the self."
—Michael Strevens, author of The Knowledge Machine