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.


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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