Philosophy’s Progress, If You Don’t Care Whether It’s Called Philosophy


Over at Marginal RevolutionTyler Cowen (GMU) asks, “has there been progress in philosophy?” His answer: “there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.”

[Juan Fontanive, “Colorthing”]

Cowen’s emphasis is largely on forms of progress of a piece with what David Chalmers (NYU) calls “disciplinary speciation”:

many new disciplines have sprung forth from philosophy over the years: physics, psychology, logic, linguistics, economics, and so on. In each case, these fields have sprung forth as tools have been developed to address questions more precisely and more decisively. The key thesis is that when we develop methods for conclusively answering philosophical questions, those methods come to constitute a new field and the questions are no longer deemed philosophical. (“Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” p.21)

Some of the questions are no longer deemed philosophical, but I suspect Cowen, having a more expansive conception of the philosophical than some philosophers, would not agree with that deeming.

Here is Cowen’s list of philosophical breakthroughs:

  1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.
  2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.
  3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import.
  4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.
  5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.
  6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.
  7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.
  8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.
  9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.
  10.  Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.
  11.  Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.
  12.  Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.
  13.  Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.
  14.  Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.
  15.  Development of an “internet way of thinking.”
  16.  Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

Do you have others for Cowen’s list?


Related: “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions“, “Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered“, “Why Progress Is Slower in Philosophy than in Science“, “Interdisciplinarity and Progress in Philosophy“, “Progress in Philosophy,”, “Lack of Philosophical Progress Owed to Procrastination, Study Hopes to Find

Juan Fontanive, Colorthing, 2015 from Danese Corey on Vimeo.

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