On the Pragmatics of Unanswerable Questions

Peter Kügler


Unanswerability claims – statements to the effect that some questions are unanswerable – come in various forms. After a review of some historic and contemporary examples, Wittgenstein´s conception of unanswerability in the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics is discussed more deeply. There, the leading theme is similarity (analogy) between natural science and ordinary language on the one side, and metaphysical discourse on the other. To assess unanswerability claims, we need a general account of the logic of questions and answers; we need to know what makes a statement a complete (direct) answer to a question. It turns out that this is mainly a matter of the pragmatics of language. In particular, it depends on psychological and sociological factors, which often have been acknowledged but underrated in erotetic logic. The most important part of context that determines whether a statement is admitted as a possible answer to a question seems to be the paradigm to which questioners and respondents belong. Wittgenstein´s unanswerability claims reflect the naturalistic paradigm he shared with Russell. Whereas Wittgenstein rejected analogies that cannot be replaced by non-analogical statements, metaphysical paradigms typically promote explanations in terms of irreducible analogies. Whereas Wittgenstein located values in the area of the mystical, i.e., of that which cannot be said, teleological paradigms assume them to exist in the world, at the disposal of science. An answer rated as deficient by some philosophers is accepted by members of other traditions. Unanswerability claims contribute to create paradigms; there is no context-independent notion of unanswerability.


20th century philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; analogy; complete answer; direct answer; metaphysics; natural kinds; paradigm; pragmatics; question; unanswerability

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