Lack of Philosophical Progress Owed to Procrastination, Study Hopes to Find


Historians of philosophy and experimental philosophers have teamed up to determine why there has been so little progress in philosophy. “Socrates asked ‘what is the nature of the good life?’ a couple of thousand years ago,” says Jeffrey McDonough (Harvard), “and now, in 2015, my department is stuffed full of people still—supposedly—working on this question and others that have been around since forever.” Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke), adds, “We owe the public an explanation for the lack of results.”

“I overhead Peter Adamson (LMU) discussing the problem at a conference and saying that he was going to spend the rest of his life combing over historical texts for clues [to the lack of progress],” says Joshua Knobe (Yale). “It’s an empirical question, though, so I said, ‘Let’s do a study and find out.’”

The four of them—McDonough, Sinnott-Armstrong, Knobe, and Adamson—applied for a grant and met in 2010 to design the study. Last semester, on the cusp of their funding being withdrawn owing to the lack of any data, they conducted the study. What they found was that the philosophers to whom they sent the surveys took a comparatively short time to send them a Facebook friend request, but a rather long time to complete and return the survey. How long has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, the researchers have noticed an uptick in philosophical progress over the past 50 years or so, according to Jenny Saul (Sheffield), who was added to the team just before this blog post was published. They are looking into the causes of this improvement. “I have a hunch,” said Saul.

In related news, representatives of the Templeton Foundation were seen roaming around the hotel where the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association is taking place, carrying bats. “We’ve spent 100s of millions,” one was heard saying, “and it’s time we had some answers.”

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