Improvement in Philosophy over Time

“If Aristotle lived today, there is no way that he would be an Aristotelian.” That winning line is from a recent critique of the history of philosophy by Michael Huemer (Colorado).

Paintings on the wall of Chauvet Cave, France, believed to have been made roughly 30,000 years ago.

You can read Professor Huemer’s post, “Against History,” at his blog, Fake Nous.

There are some parts of his characterization of the history of philosophy I disagree with—and I bet those who work in the history of philosophy do, too. And I think the post surprisingly, perhaps in pursuit of being provocative, fails to express an appreciation for intellectual diversity (or to put it another way, a kind of intellectual division of labor), the benefits of which may be hard to specifically identify.

But Professor Huemer makes a point worth appreciating towards the end of his post. He begins by noting that “almost all philosophers are mostly wrong.” He continues:

If your philosophy basically corresponds to that of some philosopher who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, then you’re basically saying that none of the vast expansion in human knowledge that has occurred since then, nor any of the work done by philosophers themselves in the past couple of centuries, is philosophically important. None of that has taken us significantly farther, when it comes to philosophical questions, than some guy who lived in prescientific times. I think that’s super-unlikely.

To give one important example, there are people today who are followers of Aristotle. I think that’s crazy. If Aristotle lived today, there is no way that he would be an Aristotelian. If we brought him through time to the present day, he would swiftly start learning modern science, whereupon he would throw out his outdated worldview, and he’d probably laugh at the modern Aristotelians.

This leads to the point I think is worth appreciating:

Aristotle might have been the greatest thinker of all time. But being a great thinker, even the greatest, is not as important as having access to the accumulated human knowledge of the last 2,000 years. This is why the work of much less-great thinkers who are born today is more likely to be correct than the work of Aristotle.

Relatedly, I sometimes hear the question, “where are today’s great philosophers?” posed as a critique of contemporary philosophy. Yet of the explanations for the belief that “compared to the past, philosophy today lacks great thinkers,” the most plausible possibilities are compatible with philosophy being in better shape than ever. These include:

  1. Time. The filter of history has yet to distinguish which of today’s philosophers will be remembered as the era’s greats.
  2. Naiveté. What the filter of history has selected for is not greatness, but some combination of quality and luck (accidents, biases, etc.),  so the lack of identifiable greats today isn’t an indication of a relative lack of great philosophers compared to the past.
  3. Ignorance. Significant philosophical achievements of today may take place in much more specialized and advanced areas of inquiry compared to significant philosophical achievements of the past, areas about which those who are issuing grand critiques of philosophy or philosophers today are likely to be largely ignorant.
  4. Improvement. Philosophers in general are more informed (philosophically and otherwise) and better trained than those in past eras, making it more difficult for individual philosophers to stand out as noticeably from their peers.

In 2020 there are more philosophers, and more kinds of philosophers, taking up more kinds of questions in more kinds of ways than in any previous era in human history, and doing so with more knowledge of various kinds to make use of.

To criticize philosophy today by comparing it with a supposedly glorious past is to think that philosophy was somehow better when fewer people, and fewer types of people, were taking up fewer kinds of questions with fewer kinds of methods, on the basis of less knowledge about the world. That seems highly implausible.

We have lots of reasons to think that philosophy is doing better than ever. Returning to Professor Huemer’s post, I think this goes for the history of philosophy, too, which has increasingly brought attention and scrutiny to the ideas of a wider array of thinkers. This repopulation of our discipline’s history, and the study of the various nonphilosophical factors (institutional influences, social biases, etc.) that have shaped our understanding of what good philosophy has been and what good philosophers have looked like, counteract some of the tendencies of philosophical hero worship that Huemer decries in his caricature of the history of philosophy.

That is, the continued improvement of the history of philosophy is one reason to have a more favorable attitude towards the history of philosophy.

UPDATE 1: Kevin Vallier (Bowling Green) posted a very good response to Huemer at his blog, Reconciled.

UDPATE 2: Landon D.C. Elkind (Iowa) replies at his blog to Huemer, whose post, he thinks, reveals an “unfamiliarity with modern history of philosophy.”

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