WWU philosophy professor writes second-shortest article

What's in a question?
March 23, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Updated March 23, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.
Dennis Whitcomb is a philosophy professor at Western Washington University and co-wrote one of the shortest philosophy articles ever published.
Dennis Whitcomb is a philosophy professor at Western Washington University and co-wrote one of the shortest philosophy articles ever published. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

For months, Western Washington University philosophy Professor Dennis Whitcomb worked with co-authors Joshua Habgood-Coote and Lani Watson to develop their latest article: "Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?"

So what followed the title? Nothing ... but a blank empty page. 

The rest of the article lives within the minds of readers as they think and mentally respond to the question presented.

"We think of this paper as a kind of conceptual artwork, and we spent quite a bit of effort getting its (few!) details just how we wanted them," Whitcomb said in an email.

So, how does a professor successfully write and publish an article only containing 12 words — the second-shortest philosophy paper ever written? (The shortest philosophy paper ever was titled "A Demonstration of the Causal Power of Absences." It, too, was blank.)

The three philosophers — who belong to an international research group of philosophy professors who specialize in issues relating to questions — sat down over Zoom, wrote the article and accompanying much-longer commentary, or a "Letter to the Editors," for their submission to Metaphilosophy, Volume 54, Issue 1.

Within the letter, they hold fast to their stance "that it is possible to make good philosophical contributions just by asking questions."

As they wrote, they break down the 12 words and explore the meanings and implications of each word, phrase and their various combinations. They explore ideas surrounding: "Is a question ever just a question?" and "Do any of these acts constitute good philosophical contributions?" and "What are the final philosophical goods?"

In order to test the case, they argued, the paper had to consist of a simple question on its own.

"The semantic content, in turn, is embodied by the paper itself, a (good?) philosophical contribution that (just?) asks the question of whether a good philosophical contribution can be made just by asking a question," they wrote.

What did Whitcomb and his co-authors really aim to get out of something that took so many months of labor to prepare for such minimal, physical fruits? He said he hopes the article encourages people to think how questions can make progress in philosophical thought, science or their daily lives. Additionally, he said he likes how the piece can make people think by making them laugh.

"The connection between humor and serious thought here is not accidental. Lots of great comedy makes important commentary. The humor is a vehicle for the substance," Whitcomb said. 

The article definitely received a laugh on Twitter, where Habgood-Coote amassed more than 831,000 views and 1,200 retweets, making it one of the philosophers' more well-read articles. 

Whitcomb has published numerous other articles relating to inquiry and mental states like curiosity, which, he said, connect closely to questions. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Rutgers-New Brunswick and has taught at Western for more than a decade.

A previous version of this story misstated Lani Watson's last name. The story was updated to reflect this change at 2:02 p.m. on March 23. Cascadia Daily News regrets this error. 

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