The Distant Future of Philosophy

The Distant Future of Philosophy


Philosophy, like any human activity, is influenced by the circumstances in which it takes place. Technological, scientific, economic, political, cultural, social, etc., factors influence how philosophy is conducted and at least some of which questions philosophers take up. Philosophy is also the product of its history, with the philosophical agenda of each era strongly influenced by the choices, ideas, arguments, and questions of earlier philosophers.

Since the circumstances and history of philosophy will be different in the future, it is reasonable to ask whether philosophy will be different in the future, and if so, how. Will there be philosophy in 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years? If so, what will its methods be? What questions (or kinds of questions) will philosophers take up? What will philosophy’s institutions be?  And should our thoughts about the distant future of philosophy influence how we do and think of philosophy today? What do you think?

Here’s a different, more abstract, and possibly less helpful way to think about philosophy’s future. Call it the Pessimistic Dilemma of philosophy’s future:

Assume there is a finite number of fundamental philosophical questions. In the distant future, such questions either will or will not be satisfactorily answered or dismissed (perhaps to other disciplines or domains of inquiry). If such questions have been satisfactorily answered or dismissed, then philosophy as a fundamental problem-solving enterprise will have no further future. If such questions have not been satisfactorily answered or dismissed, then we will have (even more) very strong inductive evidence that they cannot be answered or dismissed, in which case we should give up on trying to answer them, and so philosophy as a fundamental problem-solving enterprise will have no further future.

In short, if philosophy makes progress or if it doesn’t, its future doesn’t look so good.

(The dilemma rests on a couple of assumptions that may be false. One of those assumptions, stated at the start, is that there is a finite number of fundamental philosophical questions. Another is that philosophy is a “problem-solving enterprise.” That may sound like a weird assumption, given how little consensus there is on which, if any, philosophical problems have been solved. But nonetheless, I do believe it is the understanding of philosophy that a lot of “analytic” philosophers have. We take ourselves to be providing answers to questions about what really is the case, and not merely engaging in an activity of self-expression.)

Of course, the first horn of the dilemma needn’t be understood as bad for philosophy. If philosophers do answer fundamental philosophical questions successfully, such that we needn’t investigate them anymore, then that could count as a triumph—but a triumphant end, nonetheless.

Does the end of philosophy strike you as bad? I think philosophers tend to have a view that philosophy is something that we—that cultures—should always have. But such a view, in conjunction with there being a finite number of fundamental philosophical questions, puts pressure on the conception of philosophy as an enterprise the aim of which is to answer such questions.

Another possibility is that, even after the fundamental questions have been answered, there would remain plenty of interesting and fertile non-fundamental philosophical questions for philosophers to take up, and so philosophy would not be over. It would just be very different.

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