Why Progress Is Slower In Philosophy Than In Science


“Since science took its modern form in the seventeenth century, it has been one long success story.” By contrast, we philosophers “don’t seem to have progressed much in the two and a half millennia since Plato wrote his dialogues.” That’s the conventional wisdom, as described by David Papineau (King’s College London) in The Times Literary Supplement. But if there’s one lesson in philosophy, it’s that the conventional wisdom isn’t the whole story.

Papineau thinks that philosophy is “a route to truth,” but takes up the reasonable question: “where’s the progress?” He mentions the “spin-off” theory, according to which

the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.

But that isn’t the whole story, he says. Philosophy still has plenty of its own questions, including ones that have been with it for millennia.

Getting clear on why philosophy’s progress is slower than that of the sciences depends on getting clearer on the differences between philosophy and science. Here’s the crucial one, says Papineau:

The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox. People can be influenced by morality, for example, but moral facts are not part of the causal order. Free will is incompatible with determinism, but incompatible with randomness too. We know that we are sitting at a real table, but our evidence doesn’t exclude us sitting in a Matrix-like computer simulation. In the face of such conundrums, we need philosophical methods to unravel our thinking. Something is amiss, but we aren’t sure what. We need to catalogue our assumptions, often including those we didn’t know we had, and subject them to critical analysis.

This is why philosophical problems can arise in scientific subject areas too. Scientific theories can themselves be infected by paradox. The quantum wave packet must collapse, but this violates physical law. Altruism can’t possibly evolve, but it does. Here again philosophical methods are called for. We need to figure out where our thinking is leading us astray, to winnow through our theoretical presuppositions and locate the flaws.

It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

Progress in philosophy may be slower than that in the sciences, but this is to be expected, given the difficulty of the questions it takes up:

Most people don’t enjoy banging their heads against nasty paradoxes. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Given this, it is unsurprising that philosophical problems aren’t easy to settle. The difficulty of philosophy doesn’t stem from its peculiar subject matter or the inadequacy of its methods, but simply from the fact that it takes on the hard questions.

You can read the whole of Papineau’s essay here.

M.C. Escher, “The Waterfall”

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Eric Walker
Eric Walker
4 years ago

Many “conundrums” of the sort Papineau mentions sustain whole industries of article-production, where workers use a largely unquestioned vocabulary (e.g., “possible world” or “proposition”), assume the appropriateness of certain techniques (e.g., translation into quantificational logic), look to exemplars as inspiration for problem-solving (e.g., Russel’s “On Denoting”), and presuppose a picture of how things must be (e.g., the world is (built out of) objects in relations). Now, it’s not like these puzzles get solved in any meaningful sense, or that practitioners have a clear picture of what counts as solving them. But the sorts of “paradoxes” cited have more in common with Kuhnian paradigms than Papineau lets on.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Eric Walker
4 years ago

Wait, all of these assumptions have been challenged. There was a huge debate about the existence and nature of possible worlds, largely in the 70s and 80s, but continuing to today. There have been massive debates about the nature of propositions going back to Frege and Russell, and a slightly less massive but still sizable debate about the existence of propositions. Ordinary language philosophy, which had a pretty good run, rejected the appropriateness (in many/most circumstances) of translation into quantificational logic as a central tenet. And there has been and continues to be significant debate about whether the world is built out of objects in relations (Bradley, Schaffer, etc.). I guess we do look to exemplars for inspiration, but I’m not sure what’s supposed to be wrong with that. But my broader point is that pretty much everything in analytic philosophy is up for debate, and most things–some might say more than is reasonable–have in fact been debated.Report

Eric Walker
Eric Walker
Reply to  JDRox
4 years ago

I see your point, JDRox, and I sympathize. Things are more “up for grabs” in our discipline. (And I feel a kinship with all philosophers because we somehow find such madness alluring!)

But you’re on the verge of making my point. Yes, the things I mentioned have been challenged and debated. But assumption-challenging is just another particular style of discourse that unites many practitioners the way a paradigm might. What’s more, massive debates are just the sorts of industry that look more like Kuhnian normal science than Papineau allows. (Assuming the debates are largely genuine, and not just a host of inventive minds talking past one another.)

I didn’t mean to suggest that industries all have the same structure, or all look like Kuhnian paradigms and in the same way, or are all defined by their having the same explicit views about things. Industries, in both philosophy and science, I submit, cohere not just in virtue of propositionally articulable views and crisply statable techniques, but also in virtue of sensibilities, perceptions of salience and significance, vague but ponderable enough intuitions of what “one should know” and of how things should be described, etc.Report

WW
WW
4 years ago

Thinking about how the unique nature of philosophy and philosophical problems bears on the apparent problem of philosophical progress, as Papineau does here, is no doubt necessary in order to fully understand and resolve that problem. But I worry that it isn’t sufficient. Papineau claims that scientists “are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science’, working within ‘paradigms’ of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally”, but it seems something very similar could be said about philosophers. As Jessica Wilson has argued (http://individual.utoronto.ca/jmwilson/Wilson-Three-Barriers-to-Philosophical-Progress.pdf), philosophers seem to get swept into ‘intra-disciplinary silos’: clique- and cottage industry-like research programs that tend to reinvent wheels, mischaracterize (or be ignorant of) relevant work external to the silo due to a lack of reading widely, etc. If Wilson’s right, (many) philosophers are quite happy to do ‘normal philosophy’, working in paradigms of settled assumptions (Hume’s Dictum is Wilson’s example) and techniques that allow them to make dialectical headway with the questions which concern them. Pair this phenomenon with the dearth of universally accepted methodological standards, the sociological and intellectual impacts of philosophical giants (Lewis is Wilson’s example), and philosophy’s problem with gender bias/imbalance, and we have a recipe for intellectual inefficiency. Pair this inefficiency with the difficulty of philosophical problems themselves, and it’s no wonder philosophical progress isn’t more pronounced.

I’m not sure how much more pronounced it would be if the apparent intellectual inefficiencies and injustices of our field were resolved. But while they persist, it seems mistaken to attempt to explain or fix the problem of philosophical progress as a whole without coming to grips with how they exacerbate resolving philosophical issues.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“…Getting clear on why philosophy’s progress is slower than that of the sciences depends on getting clearer on the differences between philosophy and science…”

I came to a similar realization about a year ago. I have no idea what it means to say that the “progress” of philosophy is “slower” than the “progress” of science. It’s sort of like saying the the “progress” of literary fiction is “slower” than the “progress” of software engineering. What does it even mean to say that human activities make “progress”? And, even if we can answer this question for specific domains, how can activities that span wildly disparate domains (like empirical investigation and theoretical analysis) be said to share the same kind of “progress”?

I would expect, for example, a fireman to be much slower at making his way around a racetrack in a UPG-90, than a formula one race car driver in the latest Haas VS-17. I would expect an author to be much slower at writing a book, than a computer program devised to output 25,000 random English words. But what is the point of making such comparisons in the first place? What do I learn by doing this comparison? Seems to me, the comparison itself is a mistake, even if we could come up with coherent definitions of “progress”…Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

I take it that research in most disciplines is aimed at increasing our significant store of truths in some way. We say that science has progressed when we take ourselves to know more about the universe. It isn’t hard to see why the public would be justified in supporting a discipline that provides them with such progress. Conversely, I think it would be a very fair question for them to ask us why, if we aren’t providing progress like that, they should pay for our research.Report

RobotBoy
RobotBoy
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

It’s tough to quantify the results of teaching people to reason, ask better questions and make better arguments. Sometimes the struggle seems to be less about progress than a desperate attempt to keep everything from falling apart.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

On one specific point in this interesting article: Papineau writes that-

“Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox. … It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.”

I don’t recognize this as a description of scientists. Part of Kuhn’s point was that the really striking advances in science are the paradigm shifts (at various scales). And what scientist doesn’t dream of bringing about a paradigm shift in their field? “Real theoretical puzzles” are a lot of what drives contemporary physics: think about the puzzle of how matter could be stable[1], or how the aether could be undetectable[2], or how to understand the infinities in quantum field theory[3], or how to protect quantum computation from the environment[4], or how to reconcile black holes’ apparent thermodynamic properties with the fact that they don’t radiate[5], or how the force-carrying particles in the weak interaction can be massive when only massless force-carriers seem compatible with quantum field theory[6]… and on, and on. (I imagine there are examples in other sciences; physics is just the one I know best.)

(Looking at Papineau’s article, I think he has the quantum measurement problem in mind. And indeed, the neglect of the measurement problem by most physicists in the 1930-1980 period is unedifying (though the proponents of the Copenhagen interpretation were very much drawing on the philosophy of their time, so philosophers shouldn’t get too smug here). But I think that’s a special case.)

[1] Answer: quantum mechanics
[2] Answer: special relativity
[3] Answer: the renormalization group and the effective-field-theory program
[4] Answer: quantum error correction and fault-tolerant computation
[5] Answer: Hawking radiation
[6] Answer: the Higgs mechanismReport

DC
DC
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

” When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.””

Right, that bears very little resemblance to the science (and scientists) with which I am familiar, but seems to be a common theme among many philosophers.

It reminds me of some comment threads over the recurrent “why don’t those dim scientists realize how much we can teach them” stories on DailyNous. There seems to be this two-dimensional, naive realist version of scientists that is just divorced from reality. And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of philosophers of science who have described scientific practice in terms that philosophers can understand.Report

NaturalPhilosopher
NaturalPhilosopher
4 years ago

I’ve heard philosophers give the “spin-off” theory many times. It’s comfortable story: we philosophers clarify problems, and then other disciplines spin off. But I wonder what clear evidence there is for this theory. It doesn’t seem to me to accurately describe history. History is replete with philosophers making little progress on issues, and then enterprising scientists developing new technologies (the telescope, microscopes) and using them to disprove what philosophers thought. Aristotelian “physics” wasn’t jettisoned by philosophers clarifying things or questioning orthodoxy. It was overthrown by Galileo and a telescope. Historically, this is not an exception to the rule: it is the rule.Report

Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
Reply to  NaturalPhilosopher
4 years ago

When Galileo moved to the Medici court, it was important to him to get the title of philosopher (as opposed to ‘mathematician’), partly because the title of philosopher was more prestigious and partly because philosophers dealt with real causes and not with accidents (see Biagioli, _Galileo: Courtier_). By our lights he may or may not have been doing philosophy, but by his lights and by the lights of his contemporaries he was, and from the point of view of evaluating the spin-off theory, I think that’s the important thing.Report

NaturalPhilosopher
NaturalPhilosopher
Reply to  Mike Jacovides
4 years ago

He may have called himself a philosopher, but he is plainly a natural scientist — and the actual philosophers of his era (who we would recognize as philosophers) appear to have regarded him in fairly large numbers as heretic for using “non-philosophical” methods to question Aristotelian physics.

See https://www.amazon.com/Great-Physicists-Leading-Galileo-Hawking/dp/0195173244Report

Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
4 years ago

No one (so far as I know) denied that Galileo deserved the title of philosopher. No one at the time would call someone a heretic for using non-philosophical methods. The spin-off theory explains the lack of progress of what is now called philosophy by saying that as branches of what was called ‘philosophy’ succeed they stop being called philosophy. Galileo is evidence in favor of that hypothesis.

Now you can say: I’m not interested in the success or failure of philosophy broadly so-called or as people conceived of themselves as dong philosophy. I’m interested in the failures of the remaining nub. Which is fine, but you aren’t really engaging the spin-off hypothesis at that point.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Mike Jacovides
4 years ago

In support of this: it is simply anachronism to look back at the 17th century and classify Descartes and Leibniz as “philosophers” and Newton and Galileo as “physicists”. They’re fairly clearly engaged in the same enterprise, and engage directly with one another. (And of course Descartes and Leibniz made fairly substantial mathematical contributions even as their dynamics lost out to Newton’s.)Report

NaturalPhilosopher
NaturalPhilosopher
Reply to  David Wallace
4 years ago

If we call Galileo a “philosopher” simply because the term was more or less coextensive with “scientist” in his age, then of course philosophy makes progress: it was just science. But this is almost certainly not what Papineau has in mind by “philosophy” when he asks whether it is harder than science, suggests it has unique problems and methods, or suggests it makes progress by spinning off new fields. [Side-note: Galileo’s contract at the University of Pisa wasn’t renewed because the Aristotelian philosophers there didn’t like his scientific methods–which is precisely what led him to work under the Medici with the title of “philosopher”…doing science!]Report

Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
Reply to  NaturalPhilosopher
4 years ago

You started talking about the spin-off argument and not Papineau’s supplements to it, and that’s all that I was talking about. You just muddy the waters by bringing in other stuff. Galileo taught mathematics (broadly so-called) at the University of Padua after leaving Pisa. It’s not obvious why he left. One story his biographers tell is that he had criticized a dredging project that a noble had advocated. (See Segre “Galileo as Politician,” p. 72)

But let it be that his contract wasn’t renewed at Pisa because his criticisms of Aristotle’s physics offended his colleagues. As a matter of _topic_, we would call most of the parts of Aristotle’s physics that Galileo criticized matters of physics (the rate of falling bodies, the explanation and character of projectile motion, the paths of the planets).

You know, given your screen name, that most of what we call science now was called ‘natural philosophy’ then. Perhaps the only way to say that what Galileo’s foes were doing is philosophy (and not science) but what Galileo was doing was science (and not philosophy) is to call something science if it’s successful and leads to progress and philosophy if it isn’t and doesn’t. This is part of the spin-off explanation and not a criticism of it.

You don’t need to dig in. I thought that given your example you didn’t know that Galileo thought of himself as a philosopher and that he fought to get that title. If you do know and you don’t care because you think there are clear lines between philosophy and science and Galileo was plainly on one side and his foes were on the other, well, that’s fine too.Report

Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
Reply to  Mike Jacovides
4 years ago

(I half-implied that Galileo was a Copernican at Pisa, but he probably wasn’t)Report

NaturalPhilosopher
NaturalPhilosopher
Reply to  Mike Jacovides
4 years ago

Fair enough!Report

Sikander
Sikander
4 years ago

What would progress in philosophy look like anyway? The only form of progress that seems relevant here is individual: it consists in individuals having a better grasp on certain issues. I consider it progress to clarify one’s own positions on an ethical issue, for example. According to this definition progress in philosophy happens all the time. I’m not sure what else ‘progress in philosophy’ could mean.Report

Shoebill
Shoebill
Reply to  Sikander
4 years ago

A combination of Sikander’s view and the ‘spin-off’ view seems right to me. Philosophy helps individuals make progress in grappling with the human condition. Sometimes, in the course of this grappling, philosophers help come up with (and, frequently, participate in) new avenues of scientific inquiry.Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Massimo Pigliucci, with whom I host a philosophy program on BloggingHeads.TV, published an entire book on progress in philosophy online. We did three dialogues on it, for BloggingHeads. One of the notable features of the book is that it compares progress in philosophy to progress in (a) the natural sciences; (b) mathematics; (c) Logic. But in our discussion, we extended the comparisons to include the social sciences and even the arts.

Links to the videos:

http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/35149
http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/35593
http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/35968

Link to the book:

https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/category/nature-of-philosophy/

I also published a response of sorts, outlining my areas of disagreement:

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/02/on-philosophy-and-its-progress-a-response-of-sorts-to-massimo-pigliucci/Report

Stuart
Stuart
4 years ago
Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
4 years ago

“Even so, the majority of contemporary philosophers, myself included, probably still think of philosophy as a route to the truth. After all, the methods we use wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.”

There is lots of progress in philosophy if the goal is to generate good theories. We have more well worked out theories than ever before. There are lots of ways theories could be good (for example, on Kuhn’s list of values was accuracy, consistency, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness). Philosophers regularly prioritize these and other values over accuracy in theory construction despite the activity being “a route to the truth”. I think that is actually part of how to makes sense of its methods.Report

DanD
DanD
4 years ago

The reason progress is so much slower in philosophy than science is that most philosophers are working on the wrong question, and so wasting their time. The only question philosophers can make progress on is ‘What shall I do?’ Where choosing to see the world, human nature etc as being one way rather than another is something that you do, so is ultimately part of ethics.

If you want to know about ‘what is the case’, then you have to do science.

And if you are working on some question other than the above two, then all you can do is play games, making one move against another move, with no connection to real questions that we human beings have to face. You are then wasting your time, ‘a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism’ as Wittgenstein says.

Thus I would discount even more of what is standardly done in a philosophy department than does Kant:

‘Kant pursues a variety of projects in the “Dialectic” of the Critique of Pure
Reason; but chief among them is the program of “transcendental criticism”:
pure reason’s systematic detection, correction, and explanation
of its own excesses. These excesses occur, according to Kant, because
reason constantly strives to transcend the bounds of sense in its pursuit
of speculative knowledge. In Kant’s view, all such attempts to “rise above
the world of sense through the mere might of speculation” (A 591/B 619)
are destined to fail.’ Ian Proops ‘Kant’s first parologism’ Phil Review 2010Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  DanD
4 years ago

How someone answers the question “what shall I do?” will depend on how they answer other questions including moral questions like “what should I do?” and metaphysical questions like “is there free will?”, “does God exist?”, “can machines feel pain?” and so on and so forth.Report

DanD
DanD
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

That’s largely right. But starting with the right question provides a context for those other questions, which can help resolve them. For instance, when deciding whether to steal, answering the question, ‘Is there free will?’ and ‘Am I free?’ does not help you make a decision. Thus we can see that questions pertaining to freewill can be put to one side.Report