Friday, April 08, 2005

Progress in Philosophy

Q. What progress has been made in philosophy over the past 3000 years?
A. ...?

Popular opinion has it that philosophical questions are unanswerable, that every argument has a counter-argument, and that we never make any progress in philosophy. If true, that would be kinda depressing. (Not entirely so, as we might find value in the philosophical 'journey' even if it has no 'destination'. But it would be nice if the endeavour actually led somewhere.)

But is this pessimistic view true? My general impression is that it is not, though I'm having trouble pinning down any philosophical issues that have been conclusively settled. If there are any, it would be really handy to have a list of them ready for the next time someone makes that stock complaint against philosophy. So, if you can think of any good examples of progress in philosophy, please let me know!

There are a few different ways 'progress' might be understood. Most obviously, we make progress by conclusively answering a fundamental question. I guess this type of progress is fairly rare in philosophy, but it's also the most satisfying so I'd love to hear any examples of it. Perhaps Gettier conclusively refuted the JTB analysis of knowledge. Did Quine destroy the analytic-synthetic distinction? (I'm not so sure about that one, but that might just be ignorance on my part.) I guess we could fall back on logic, with Godel's theorems and the like, though mathematicians might dispute our claim to the field.

Perhaps a more common sort of progress in philosophy involves exploring the consequences of adopting particular principles. This yields conditional rather than categorical answers: "if theory X is true, then Y and Z follow" - that sort of thing. That's certainly progress of a sort that philosophy is well capable of, and I think it quite valuable too.

Then we have the progress of philosophical 'fashions' or fads, e.g. when we lose interest in a particular set of questions and so move on to other topics instead. A related, but more substantive, form of progress would be the rejection of an old framework. For example, Rorty claims (I think) that many traditional problems in philosophy can be eliminated (rather than solved) by adopting new vocabularies and methods of discourse. Or something like that.

Lastly, we have the introduction of new problems or ways of thinking. This might be the most important form of philosophical progress. Examples are endless: 4-dimensionalism about time, coherentism and contextualism about knowledge, utilitarianism, the revival of virtue ethics, possible worlds metaphysics and modal logic, etc.

So, if someone asked you the question at the top of this post, how would you reply?


  1. I should add that the Frozen Texan has an interesting post wherein he blames the principle of charity for concealing the progress philosophy has made over time.

  2. I lectured my classes rather pessimistically, but I always hit hard the chord you struck on conditional progress by analysis of the various implications of principles. I applied Susan Haack's crossword-puzzle bit. We haven't filled in many entries, but we know the candidate entries and which of them make it impossible to fill in which others, which of them fit their clues better than their competitors, etc., all in a very detailed way. That is progress.

    [Bibliographical aside: Perhaps Gettier conclusively refuted the JTB analysis of knowledge. Rick Kirkham's "Does the Gettier Problem Rest on a Mistake?" in 1984 Mind is a must-read. It proves that the Gettier problem cannot be solved.]

  3. Showing that a particular answer doesn't work is a kind of progress, and there are plenty of examples of that.

    In fact Popperians would say this is the only kind of progress that can be made.

  4. I think that philosophy has spawned a fair number of intellectual discourse that is no longer considered philosophy proper. For instance, physics began as a sort of philosophy, and it is likely that psychology, sociology, political science, etc., did as well. To quote a cliche: "The philosophy of one age is the common sense of the next." If philosophy accomplishes nothing else, it has a heavy influence on the way everyday people think, whether they are aware of it or not.

  5. Yeah, I've heard it suggested that as soon as a philosophical problem is solved we stop calling it 'philosophy' and start calling it 'science'!

  6. Clark has an interesting response which questions whether we can strictly demarcate science from philosophy.

  7. In my opinion much of philosophical progress has less to do with figuring out an answer than in learning how to ask the question in the first place. This might just be the inner Wittgensteinian in me, of course, but at the very least it makes more sense of how the sciences tend to split off from philosophy. In that case we can see some progress in philosophy just in as much as we can see how we've come to understand what we're trying to figure out the more we try to figure it out. (Of course, this answer is less than satisfying to non philosophers as it takes a substantial amount of philosophy work to see that we've figured something out about a particular question - and it's not the sort of thing one can give an example of very easily to someone who just asks the question off hand. But that strikes me as something that, given how philosophy works, would have to be true for any answer to the question.)

  8. There has been real, measurable, significant, productive improvement in logic.

  9. In Language thought and falsehood in ancient greek philosophy, Nicholas Denyer argues that Plato’s response to the problem of falsehood is a definitive solution to a philosophical problem (and that this issue is not found troubling today is a mark of just how definitive the solution is). I’m inclinded to think this is an example of genuine philosophical progress (or, at least, as close to one as we’ll get). Interestingly, I don't think that the issue can be said to have ceased to be a philosophical one.

  10. i'n inclined to believe that philosophy never did anything positive, never anwered any particular question, and only ever led to more questions than are necessary. What is progress anyway? If the answer is solving a problem, and the problem is one thought of within philosophy itself, then it seems it could never per se solve a problem, but rather diffuse a question it had created. consider: the question of whether or not i cross the road is a problem. i don't know when to do it, but i know i must soon, say because the bank is going to close. the problem here is how to get across the road, progress would be to cross it successfully, going from not kn owing when to having done it. to bring philosophy into this equation, to consider the nature of space and time, and the substantial existence of the external world et cetera, wil only hinder the problem in question.
    consider an area of philosophical relevance, say whether you really know something. do i know whether there is a computer in front of me? well, here's two simple common sense answers; of course i do, else just what am i doing right now, and yes, because i reached out and touched it. Both of these answers satisfy my worries regarding my knowledge of the copmputer.
    Now, were i to bring philosophy into this.. well, i've carved out some kind of position with regard to beliefs about the external world, and the reliability of physical evidence, in the latter case, and something like a counterfactual logical or soipsistic answer in the former. Now neither of these positions are givens; herein i find myself faced with 'problems', of a philosophical kind; in my common sense on the face of it answers there were none.
    philosophy has hence created unnecesary problems in a situation, answers that only philosophy will claim it can answer. how long will it take, well, 3000 years? will i care then? will it matter? doubtful. most likely i'll have got hungry and tired by then, probably many times over.
    the main reason for this, so far as i can see, is that philosophy stretches the horizons of a situation far greater than it need be, to the extent that those horizons become much too far to reach. It seems hard to see why we should ever march to that horizon just to affirm a position we already held.
    indeed, in the cause of ethics, i dare say that such a march is detrimental to the very things being spoken about; if one wanrs to be ethical, then do ethical things. speaking and philosophy is so much air when unethical real things are happening. philosophy is a mental disease;it actually takes one away from the very topic one is talking about in the act. for example, talking about the poverty of the third world; well, the talking about the poverty is actually taking time up that could be used to travel over to the third world and help them build irrigation, wells, legal codes and such forth. philosophy: causes problems, offers no solutions. in short, for people and their projects, philosophy is terribly bad for business.

    (hi by the way, i'm stuart and i'm currently sitting my finals of a ba in philosophy at the university of sheffield in england. in the interest of offering up transparent dialogue, i should say that i fundamentally believe that all facts are defined by action, that philosophy is a skill to be used to help actions and activity, and that professional philosophy, and philosophy that takes place within a philosophical sphere, is by its very nature no longer philosophy in any essential or meaningful sense, but the indulgence of a priviledged and wasteful few.regards.)

  11. For an instance of progress in philosophy I would recommend the logical decomposition of numerous concepts such as "consciousness", "soul", "mind" the quantification of uncertainty, and a massive reduction in the vagueness of the highest caliber of philosophical inquiry.

  12. Hi Michael, can you spell those out a bit more? I assume "the quantification of uncertainty" is a reference to Bayesian epistemology with its 'degrees of belief'. That seems a good example. But what's the logical decomposition of "consciousness"? (Do you mean the distinctions between 'access' vs. 'phenomenal' consciousness, etc.? That would be another good example, actually: philosophers are very good at making distinctions!)

  13. You pretty much nailed it. In general this ability to make distinctions is nothing to sneeze at.


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