A-problematizing the world

I have been investigating what I have called ‘the problematization of the world,’ which is one key fixture of our modern metaphysic. To ‘problematize the world,’ I have claimed, is to transform any concrete something or other into a problem demanding to be solved. It is commonly said that ‘crime is a problem’ or that ‘diabetes is a problem,’ and I have tried, first of all, to understand what such statements mean.

Since then, I have begun to examine what supreme value certain people attribute to the view that the ‘world, being full of problems, demands creative solutions,’ and I have argued that this ‘style’ of problem-solving is identified with a conception of the good life. Spending one’s life solving problems is a good, if not indeed the best, way to live. I think this is untrue, though I do not make this case today.

Now I begin the process of showing what is deficient about problem-solving as a social or collective endeavor. This is a subtle operation, in a manner of speaking, since I don’t want to say that ‘the problem with problem-solving is that…’ Saying that is to fail to exit the concept of the problem; it is to undertake something foolish. What I want to do instead is to ‘a-problematize the world’: that is, to withdraw from the very terms of problematizing. Yet to do that, I must introduce a clearer, more accurate vocabulary, the sort of words that do justice to a certain kind of social phenomenon. The boon of such an operation is this: when one withdraws from ‘problematizing,’ then what may be disclosed in time is much more interesting world.


Let us remind ourselves first of the characteristic features of the concept of the problem:

1.) Some agent (person, organization, institution, etc.) does not have what is good or desirable at the same time that it has what is bad or undesirable.

2.) The domain of the problem is specified or local in the sense of being circumscribed or isolated from the whole (i.e., it is ripped free of the whole).

3.) It is postulated that there is an efficient cause that led to its existence. (E.g., overeating is the cause of obesity.)

4.) It is urgent.

5.) To act (solve it) is to get rid of what is bad or undesirable, thereby clearing the way for what is good or desirable.

6.) The solution is presumed to be final and definitive. (E.g., solving the problem of climate change puts an end to the problem. One could not both solve it and have more work to do.)

Let’s consider two descriptions of the arrival of some other:

Description 1: We have an immigrant problem. How shall we assimilate them, integrate them, or deport them?

Description 2:  We do not know what is going on. Strangers whom we do not know have recently arrived. Something has changed, something seemingly incomprehensible to us. How do we understand those who have arrived and, by implication, how do we come to understand ourselves better?

To begin with, notice how problematization already begs a number of questions: that we know who these people are; that we know who we are; that there is a legal matter first and foremost; and that we had better do something with them fairly soon (i.e., before things get out of hand). In so doing, it forecloses the most basic philosophical questions, which are disclosed in the second description.

Secondly, observe how a pronouncement (or set of pronouncements, really) has already been made; indeed, a problem always begins with ‘such and such is bad.’ In this case, the figure of the immigrant is either good or bad, either good for us (e.g., great Indian economists hired at MIT) or bad for us (e.g., those who take our jobs). Yet it is more accurate to say that something surprising is occurring, something that as of yet is neither good nor bad. (I write more about the structure of surprise here.) Admitting this may also mean going along with the thought that the existence of this something or other is either perplexing or fascinating. Doing away with something, however, is nothing like being in the presence of what perplexes or fascinates.

Thirdly, consider how the problem ‘rips’ itself out of the whole. Speaking about ‘the problem of John’s not having an erection’ fails to understand (a) what sex is, (b) whether the good life is hedonic, (c) what sexual rituals there are, (d) what human beings are (could they be more than pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding animals?), (e) what conceptions of a good life are affirmable, (f) how a materialist modern metaphysic has eradicated seeking for what goes beyond the everyday, etc. These questions become synoptic in nature, inviting those taking part in the conversation to broaden the range of their considerations, to move from concrete particulars to universals and back.

Fourthly, problem talk, which implies urgency, stokes and intensifies this sense of urgency. And that urgency means acting quickly, decisively, finally. However, it is more accurate to hold that the arrival of someone whom we do not know is an invitation to think properly about what is going on, why it is going on, and what sense is to be made of it. How remarkable that the arrival of someone else gives us a reason to think about the kinds of persons presently approaching us, the kinds of persons we are, the kind of community that surrounds us, and the range of responses that would and would not be appropriate.

Lastly, problematization encourages a false sense of definitiveness. When I say, ‘I have a problem with my boss,’ I assume that doing something will ‘get rid of’ this problem for good. But this is untrue: just as there will continue to be strangers traveling about and arriving in different places at different times, so there will continue to be puzzlements concerning the conduct of those whom we do not know very well (e.g., your boss at work). A richer, clearer, more accurate vocabulary would allow us to grant that thinking gets underway when it is called for (how intriguing that the other has arrived–from whence? With what reason or reasons?) and continues until something has been better understood. And when something else arises, something surprising in its own fashion, then thinking gets underway again. And so it goes, and so it continues to go.


The redescription above is only a first step on the path to the a-problematization of the world. What has been withdrawn from is the claim that problem-solving is actually of social benefit. It is not.

What remains to be examined is how to prise apart problem-solving from a good and defensible conception of the good life (eudaimonia). Spending one’s time solving problems may turn out not to be a good way of spending one’s life.