Progress in Philosophy


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is becoming the most well-known defender of the idea that philosophy makes progress. Last year, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, she wrote:

Philosophy was the first academic field; the founder of the Academy was Plato. Nevertheless, philosophy’s place in academe can stir up controversy. The ancient lineage itself provokes dissension. Philosophy’s lack of progress over the past 2,500 years is accepted as a truism, trumpeted not only by naysayers but even by some of its most enthusiastic yea-sayers. But the truism isn’t true. Both camps mistake the nature of philosophy and so are blind to its progress. 

She objects to the lumping together of philosophy with humanities disciplines like literature, and the dismissal of it by both the pious (in the past) and the scientistic (now). She then defends an account of progress in philosophy as increased coherence, based on her interpretation of Sellars:

Sellars is right that philosophy is best viewed neither as inward-expressing literature (in which case give me poetry over philosophy) nor as failed science (in which case give me physics over philosophy), but as the systematic attempt to increase our overall coherence. Still, his conception is too narrow. Philosophy does indeed always involve our manifest image, but it needn’t always involve the scientific image. In particular, some of philosophy’s most significant progress has proceeded independently of science, and here the work of increasing our moral coherence is particularly important.

Now, in “What Philosophers Really Know,” a review of Colin McGinn’s Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained in The New York Review of Books, she takes on a different problem for philosophy and the idea of progress:

Goldstein on McGinn NYRB excerpt 1

She then goes on to make the case for philosophical progress, and for the claim that McGinn’s book does an excellent job of showing this for philosophy of language.

Goldstein on McGinn NYRB excerpt 3

Ultimately, she paints a picture in which philosophers come to greater (not perfect) agreement on how grand philosophical questions need to be broken down into smaller questions, which in turn may take us to different questions. This leads to a kind of complexity, but not the kind that is pointlessly or inaccessibly technical. She says:

Clarity and complexity are not antagonists, but rather allies. The pursuit of clarity churns up unexpected complexity, but it can be tamed by the pursuit of further clarity.

Further:

Those who value clarity and do not cringe before complexity can help themselves to what has so far been achieved.

The review is currently behind a paywall, though I’ve made the first of its two and half pages available here.

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Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I agree that there is philosophical progress in the sense that we are better equipped to make our views coherent. I think that is important and I think it is something of great value that philosophers have to offer to the general public. Philosophy has indeed become too inaccessible. However, charging analytic philosophy in particular with being inaccessible seems rather unfair, not because analytic philosophy is accessible, but because continental philosophy is at least as inaccessible. There is nothing wrong per se with writing inaccessible work. Much important work in the sciences is not accessible to the general public. However, there is something wrong with the lack of effort to provide the public with work that is accessible.Report

MA-Student
MA-Student
5 years ago

It seems to me that part of the progress of philosophy lies in foreclosing on the possibility of certain methods and ways forward on certain problems. Sometimes, philosophers have been able to show that some manner of doing philosophy or some assumption for the truth of a proposition P leads to confusion at best and contradiction at worst. So, sometimes, given some question, it seems like philosophers have been able to show that there are some ways of answering that won’t work, or at least some assumptions that won’t lead you to where you want to be. That seems like progress to me.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

If philosophy was the first academic discipline, then it seems to me that all or almost all academic disciplines that exist today must have had their origins in philosophical problems. Indeed many of the important questions that Plato, say, asks seem to be questions that wouldn’t be considered properly philosophical today. If we concede that other academic fields have made progress, then perhaps progress in philosophy consists of giving rise to academic fields that are capable of making progress. Thus it seems that philosophy has made no progress because the questions with which philosophers concern themselves are necessarily the ones which are not yet formulated in such a way that they could be answered using a well defined methodology.Report

Andrew Moon
5 years ago

When people tell me that they think philosophy (or analytic philosophy) is too inaccessible (or confusing or whatever), I ask them, “Oh yeah? Which philosophers are you thinking about?”

Oftentimes, the person can’t name any philosopher, which is evidence that their complaint was baseless. Then I can say, “Oh, you should try reading so and so, who’s very clear. Actually, which topics are you interested in?”

If the person can name a philosopher, I’ll then often say, “I agree! That philosopher’s a HORRIBLE writer. Blah blah”, and then we can bond over not liking that philosopher’s writing. Then I can follow up, “But you know, I think you should try reading so and so, who is very clear and not overly technical, etc..” (I can give this follow up response even if I don’t know the works of the philosopher mentioned.)

Lastly, the person might name a philosopher who I think is very accessible and writes good philosophy. Then there’s room for real debate, and we can go into the details of the works of that philosopher. But I rarely get to this stage.Report

Just a Guy
Just a Guy
Reply to  Andrew Moon
5 years ago

And in either case, who do you point to as exceptionally clear and readable? Not Rawls I’ll assume 😉Report

Andrew Moon
Reply to  Just a Guy
5 years ago

i don’t point to anyone as “exceptionally clear and readable” because I think many philosophers are decently clear, and i’m not sure who would stand out as exceptional among them. so, it’s hard to answer the question.

when making recommendations, i consider what education level the person’s at, what exposure to philosophy they’ve had, what interests they’ve shown, etc. i also consider what they’re looking for. some people might actually be looking to read classic texts in political philosophy, and then i would point them to Rawls. i guess it’s hard to make a blanket recommendation w/out a context or a person who i’m actually trying to help.Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

The Ancient Oracle of Delphi: There is one who is wisest because he knows one thing: that by questioning he knows nothing.

The Modern Oracle of Justin: There is one who is wisest because she knows one thing: that she knows lots of nothings and in excruciatingly analytic erotetic detail.

I’m not being cynical or even critical here. Knowing that one knows nothing in greater detail is progress in assessing the expanse for the need of epistemic humility in the face of increasingly constrained and precise questions that include lots of empirical data and even theories based on that data. Given the number of people who claim to know the truth–just witness the “presidential” candidate “debates,” the most breath-taking demonstration-of-ignorance-taken-as-truth I’ve ever seen–the claim of the Oracle of Justin is indeed progress. I might add “no doubt,” but I would then meta-deny this very point.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Nowhere in the post above does there seem to be an example of progress. It’s all hand-waiving. The idea that philosophical progress lies in the improvement of our questions rather than the discovery of any answers makes this clear.

Analysis is surely the only way forward so let’s not blame our tools. The problem, if there is one, must be that our analysis is not correct, and this would be why it has to be so complex. This would be a common diagnosis among critics.

Even so, philosophy in the Academy has made progress. Over time it has established beyond any possible doubt that all extreme metaphysical position do not work. The problem now would be only that this is interpreted in the Academy pessimistically, as a failure to make progress instead of a hard-won result and a sound foundation for a general theory. It’s all stop while this result continues to be denied or is seen as an obstacle to be overturned. I believe that progress becomes impossible for just this one simple reason. It means that mysticism must be rejected and then dualism cannot be overcome for a workable theory. I believe that this ongoing lack of progress is a direct and ineluctable result of rejecting any theories that would seem to imply a neutral metaphysical position on the grounds that it seems ‘mystical’.

Pardon my continual insistence on this point. It seems crucially important but is largely ignored, with the consequence that we have to keep apologising for this way of doing philosophy and are defenceless against charges of ossification.Report

Ben
Ben
5 years ago

I think there are many examples of straightforward progress in philosophy. For example, the various accounts of scientific explanation — the causal account, the unification account, the DN account, etc. — all clearly capture something true and important about explanation in science, although none of the accounts by itself provides the total story. The same can be said for the different accounts of justification provided by epistemologists.

Moreover, although it is has obvious limitations, the Bayesian formalism clearly captures something very fundamental and significant about rational reasoning and decision making, and the work done by Bayesian epistemologists and philosophers of science over the past 60 or so years has been very fruitful.

I could come up with many more examples. More generally, I think philosophers are often in the business of coming up with partial explanations and incomplete accounts of a messy philosophical reality, and any account that provides additional insights should count as progress. I think the fact that philosophers often come up with many accounts of the same phenomenon without a way of deciding which account is “right” is often interpreted as a lack of progress, but I think the accounts philosophers come up with are usually not mutually exclusive even though they are typically regarded as such.Report

Andrew Moon
5 years ago

This is meant to supplement Ben’s comment.

I find that the following distinctions are helpful to students:
1) true belief vs. rational belief (and that there could be a rational, false belief), it provides an antidote to some of the “true for you” talk.
2) something’s being true vs. something’s being believed to be true (I know, so obvious, but it’s funny how much trouble this causes students in ethics discussions)
3) how the fact that the MEANING of a sentence might be determined by us doesn’t imply that the TRUTH of the sentence is determined by us (once the meaning is fixed). Again, obvious, but it creates trouble (“No, 2+2 could equal 5, because we could have meant different things by ‘2’!” they say.)
4) needing God to KNOW moral truths is different from needing God for there to BE moral truths, which is different from needing God for there to be ultimate ACCOUNTABILITY for our living according to moral truths. I find these distinctions are helpful for religious students.

These were just what were off the top of my head. There are surely more.

The more one goes into philosophy, the more one can make individual progress as a clearer and better thinker. Unfortunately, I find academics often prone to overlook the above distinctions and saying incoherent things as a result.Report

Ben
Ben
Reply to  Andrew Moon
5 years ago

This is a very good point. I do think philosophy has had plenty of “results,” but perhaps even more important is the large (and growing) “toolkit” for how to reason better that philosophers have developed over time.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Okay Ben, some useful clarifications and a growing toolkit, and some progress in phil. of science etc. But no progress on the important problems.

“I think philosophers are often in the business of coming up with partial explanations and incomplete accounts of a messy philosophical reality ….”

Yes. This seems to be the complaint here. The question would be whether it has to be like this.Report

Kuhio
Kuhio
5 years ago

I have no investment in the field or profession of philosophy, but I am interested in this idea that Philosophy departments have become detached from the broader public — that it has become “inaccessible.” Of course it has! Socrates was inaccessible to Gorgias, for example, because Socrates was introducing ideas that were not palatable to the mainstream public of ancient Greece. The character of Gorgias stands, in that dialogue, for all that is weak and diluted and thoughtless about the masses. If Plato is the beginning of academic philosophy, then philosophy today carries on that fine tradition of badgering the public’s sense of what is normal, moral, beautiful, knowable, etc.

As long as there exists a “Public,” there will be “Philosophy” to work against the blindnesses and illogics of that public. We don’t need academic philosophy for this to be so — as long as there is a public, philosophy will rise to confront it. Progress, in this (admittedly non-philosophic) perspective, takes place anytime thought and discourse pushes back against the worst impulses of the human masses.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Kuhio
5 years ago

The complexity of the ideas involved in philosophy and the difficulty of grasping them is more reason to work hard to make philosophy accessible, not reason to give up on the goal of accessibility. Scientists deal in complex ideas too, but that doesn’t prevent them from bringing science to the public. One striking thing about Gorgias is how accessible this ancient text is to students with no background in philosophy, as compared with how difficult students find work written by modern professional philosophers for one another. Modern philosophical writing is generally jargon filled and assumes extensive background knowledge on the reader’s part. There is nothing wrong with writing like that per se, but there is a problem with the lack of effort being put into making philosophy accessible.Report

Colin Cmiel
Colin Cmiel
5 years ago

1. She seems pretty confident in her dismissal of Heidegger (and implicitly the Continental Tradition). I would love to hear her refutation. I wonder if it’s as good as Russell’s ‘refutation’ of British Idealism. Cf. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bradley/#Rep

2. The idea that philosophy was the “first academic field” seems overly congratulatory to philosophy. We all know that ‘philosopher’ just means ‘lover of wisdom.’ So: “The first academic field was composed of lovers of wisdom.” I would add: the lovers of wisdom asked lots of questions about a lot of different stuff. Some of those questions we still find interesting and are discussed in what we today call biology. Other questions are discussed in what we today call psychology. Some of the questions are discussed in what we today call philosophy. Still other questions we don’t really care about. And still others are discussed in a plethora of fields (including philosophy)Report

Colin Cmiel
Colin Cmiel
5 years ago

An interesting example for Goldstein to use for singing the praises of Analytic philosophy:

Goldstein on Russell and British Idealism (Bradley)
“Analytic philosophy originated with philosophers who also did seminal work in mathematical logic, most notably Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, and the alliances with both formal logic and science are among its defining features. As such, analytic philosophy values conceptual clarity and argumentative precision, its techniques are developed in their service, and it condemns the turgid language (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the indifference or hostility to science) characteristic of what many people think of as philosophy. Hegelian idealism was the prototype of what early analytic philosophers thought philosophy should not be, and today such thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Slavoj Žižek have stepped into that role.”

The SEP on Bradley and Russell.
“One more locally significant factor was the tendentious but still damaging accounts of his views which appeared in the writings of Moore and Russell following their defection from the idealist camp. Russell’s widely read and justly celebrated ‘On Denoting’ provides a wonderful example of philosopical propaganda. Considering the question whether either ‘The King of France is bald’ or ‘The King of France is not bald’ is true or false in the absence of a present King of France, Russell wittily observes that ‘Hegelians’ will conclude that he wears a wig. Russell had a special literary talent for producing remarks of this sort, which could not fail to leave their mark, as there is no worse enemy than a charming irony. At the same time, Russell does not name any specific authors, nor does he address any specific idealist theory. The whole of British Idealism is thus simply dismissed because of its alleged association with Hegel, here ably introduced as the acme of absurdity.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bradley/#Rep

What I want to know, is given that the story is obviously false, why does it keep being repeated? I hope this isn’t supposed to be an example of philosophical progress.Report

PeterJ
5 years ago

Colin – As a fan of Bradley, Hegel and Heidegger, and having a very low opinion of Russell, I also feel aggrieved. Bradley’s view remains unfalsifiable and the idea that Russell put a dent in it is a non-starter. He did not even understand it, as can be seen by his incomprehension of Spencer Brown’s mathematical formalisation of Bradley’s philosophy.Report