November 23, 2017


I'm reading an academic piece by British philosopher Roger Scruton, who had his political awakening to conservatism when he watched French students protest and tear up cobblestones in the 1960s – "That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down." He also flew between Boston and England every weekend for a time to hunt foxes, got in trouble for writing about cigarettes while being paid off by a tobacco company, and considers homosexuality a perversion. So, you know... 

Anyway, in this academic piece, he is wondering aloud about "why".

Science explains how life may have been created and how the primordial soup led to beings who with reason and an interest in meaning, but why? Why the soup? Why reason? Why meaning? 

To aid this discussion, Scruton introduces Aristotle's four causes – four ways to answer a "why" question. Aristotle posits that you can answer with reference to the matter, form, agent, or end/purpose of a thing. "Why is a table upright?" "Because it has four legs of equal length." (Form). "Why do we make tables like this?" "To use them for having dinner." (End/purpose).

This makes me think about the Turkish ways of asking "why" – there are at least three. I use them more or less interchangeably, but I imagine more fluent speakers choose, to specify the kind of causal answer they want. All three are based on ne, or "what".

Neden ≈ from what; 'for what reason'

Ni├žin ≈ for what; 'what for'

Niye ≈ to what; 'to what end' 

I can't say how these line up with Aristotle's causes. It just leaves me curious about "why" in English. Do we always know what kind of answer we seek? How often do we understand the nature of another person's "why"?

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