How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Daniel Stoljar)


Does philosophy make progress? Daniel Stoljar, professor of philosophy at Australia National University, thinks it does, and he defends that idea in his new book, Philosophical Progress: In Defence of a Reasonable Optimism.  In the following guest post,* he presents one kind of argument for his view.

How Philosophy Makes Progress:
On The Identity of Philosophical Problems over Time
by Daniel Stoljar

The much-discussed (and much worried about) question of whether there is progress in philosophy is highly sensitive to how we understand the identity of philosophical problems; that is, when we have one such problem and when we have another. If you assume that many problems discussed today are identical with those discussed in the past, pessimism is almost inevitable. But if you reject that assumption, optimism is much more plausible. It is partly because I reject that assumption that I defend optimism in this book.

To illustrate, consider the mind-body problem, and, in particular, consider two famous presentations of that problem: Frank Jackson’s ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia,’ the classic 1982 paper in which he set out the well known Mary thought experiment, and Descartes’s Meditation VI, where he discusses the real distinction between mind and body. Are the problems presented here the same or different?

The identity view (as we may call it) says they are the same: the same problem is present in these discussions, even if in some hard to understand way its outer clothing is different. The alternative view says they are different, though they might be related in interesting ways. Indeed, on this view, to use phrases like ‘the mind-body problem’ and ‘two famous presentations of that problem’ is to use a misleading, though perhaps unavoidable, way of speaking.

The identity view makes pessimism almost inevitable. After all, Jackson’s problem is an open question; philosophers of mind are currently discussing various answers to it, and no consensus has been reached. If it is an open question, however, and if it is identical to Descartes’s problem, then Descartes’s problem must be open too. But if that is an open question, the history of the mind-body problem is the history of an open question with no progress being made. Again, pessimists or people worried by it say repeatedly “in philosophy people continually disagree about the same old problems.” If ‘same’ here means ‘identical,’ as it presumably does, we have the identity view.

The identity view makes pessimism almost inevitable, but doesn’t quite entail it. In principle, you can be making progress on a problem without having solved it. You might be moving towards a solution, for example, without having arrived at one. Or you might be developing a better understanding of possible solutions, without deciding among them.  Or you might be opening up new vistas of inquiry, just as Justin Weinberg suggests here. Still, while all this is true, it is hard to shake the feeling that progress of this sort is not quite what we are searching for when we search for progress in philosophy. For in other fields, while progress of this sort certainly happens, a much more straightforward sort happens too, or any rate so people often think: what happens is you solve one problem, and then move onto others. If the identity view is true, nothing like that happens in philosophy.

But suppose now we reject the identity view. Then the issue of progress looks completely different. For one thing, if Jackson’s problem and Descartes’s problem are distinct, it doesn’t follow that the latter is open if the former is.  Hence the simple argument for pessimism I just set out goes away. Moreover, if they are distinct, it is open to us to argue that Descartes’s is a solved problem, even if Jackson’s is not. And if that is so, we may begin to see discussion of the mind-body problem over the years as in many ways like discussion in other fields: earlier problems raised and solved, contemporary problems still wide open.

That’s what happens anyway if the problems are distinct, and if the earlier one is solved—to what extent are these things plausible? While the issues are complex, I think we can see that they are plausible without going too far into the details. First, an essential assumption in Descartes’s problem is (to put it simply) that matter is extension in space. That assumption is what entitles him to claim a clear and distinct idea of what matter is, and, in turn, to argue for the distinction between mind and body. But no such assumption is essential to Jackson’s problem, which is a very good reason for thinking that the problems are distinct. Second, the assumption that matter is extension is false; at any rate, in the light of philosophical and scientific developments after Descartes, nobody now accepts it, at least as he intended it. If so, and if the assumption is essential to Descartes’s problem, we may well regard that problem as solved, even if Jackson’s is not.

To say that the problems are distinct in these ways is not to deny they are related. Jackson’s problem is formulated in the knowledge of Descartes’s, for example, but not vice versa; to that extent, the later problem is a successor of the earlier one. And both problems are on the same general topic or subject matter, namely, the relation between the mind and body. This is a topic that many people in many different times and cultures have been interested in, just as they have been interested in other topics of philosophical concern. But Descartes and Jackson are asking different questions about this topic. And that Descartes’s question is answered does not mean the topic itself goes away.

In sum, if we reject the idea that many philosophical problems raised today are identical to those raised in the past, we have available to us an optimistic picture of progress in philosophy very different from the common pessimistic one. On the pessimistic picture, philosophy is a locus of endless disagreement over identical questions. On the optimistic picture, people at different times ask different but related questions, and moreover earlier questions have often been answered.

All this assumes a lot about the case of mind and body, of course, not least that it is a typical piece of philosophy. In the book I argue it is typical, or at any rate that we find the same pattern in many other cases.  But I don’t doubt there is much more to say, and I’d be very interested to know if others see something similar in their own sub-fields of philosophy.


Art: Paul Gauguin, self-portraits, 1888-1897

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Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
3 years ago

Optimism on this account requires some sense of the rate at which the prior distinct problems get solved. Otherwise, the more philosophy gets done, the worse our record becomes!Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Very much like the idea that Descartes and Jackson are dealing with different problems, and there is no one mind-body problem. All for that.

As for philosophical progress, this view seems like a pyrrhic victory. If Descartes’ problem is solved because his view of matter was shown to be wrong, that suggests progress made possible really by science. And so even Jackson’s problem might be solved not by philosophical debate but by some unexpected discovery about neurons.

Better perhaps to see there is actually not even one Cartesian mind-body problem. The power of Descartes’ discussion on the mind in the Meditations is that he was trying to solve so many different problems with it. Even though he separated mind and body in his view, what he managed to do through that dualism – practically and socially – was to suggest that Catholicism and modern science are compatible, and that critical thinking can be part of harmonious social living (rather than breeding anarchy). Jackson’s problem is pretty one dimensional by comparison. A better comparison to the Meditations would be Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind, which caught the public imagination precisely because it got caught up in various, intersecting cultural wars (religion and science, can science acknowledge the human condition, etc).

Great philosophy is like a diamond, which sheds light in many refracted ways on many issues. What matters then isn’t progress as in solutions, but if philosophers are still producing high quality diamonds – if that craft is still being practiced at a high level.Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

Yes new words are needed, though I would drop ‘sub fields’ in favor of “fields”–Could fields of tension represent “organic philosophy” today…
…Through philosophical adaptions -10,000 years ago to the present, the fields of philosophy has grown from small human populations to a populated planet…
…That we include pessimism and optimism as tensors in tensions could also provide us with balance at times too, in what appears to be our progression…

Ever mindful in pursuing our two natures Being here-nowReport

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

Suppose a philosopher P1 at time T articulates a general philosophical issue, e.g., the question of how our minds and our bodies interact, in terms of X. And then another philosopher P2 at time T+1 (say, several centuries later) articulates that general issue in terms of Y. Then assume as Stoljar does that P1’s articulation X is not identical to P2’s articulation Y. How does it follow, merely from this difference, that articulation Y represents “progress” over articulation X? Couldn’t it also be said that articulation Y is a step backwards from articulation X? Moreover, suppose that philosopher P3, at time T+2, shows that articulation X and articulation Y are not different, but identical. How does pessimism follow from this? Could it not also be that the philosophical issue being explored is a really, really HARD one, and that for this reason, it might well take 50,000 years of philosophical consideration to make progress, not merely a few centuries?Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

More than the mind adapting –the body must adapt too?Report

Dylan
Dylan
3 years ago

I’ve learned a great deal from Stoljar’s prior work, both his prior books are excellent, so I’m looking forward to this one.I’m really not sure if we make progress or not. I’m inclined to a pessimistic view. But I hope he can convince me we do.

I find it hard to see how Stoljar’s strategy might be extended into some areas I’m familiar with. Take debates about the problem of perception. The presuppositions surrounding those debates change over time– say the role or lack thereof played by a deity. Maybe different aspects of the problem are emphasized at different times. For example, sometimes the epistemic aspect of the problem of perception looms larger than the metaphysical one (how does perception tell us about the world? vs. are perceptual experiences really made in part out of ordinary worldly objects?). And with respect to the metaphysical question, sometimes most philosophers are indirect realists, sometimes most are direct realist, and swings in the prevailing fashion can happen relatively quickly. It’s not clear to me that these swings in outlook are best explained by fine-graining the basic problem into different questions where the old ones are solved and the successors are open.
Stoljar’s strategy might work if we took a very long view of the problem. I think there might have been one metaphysical question about the nature of perceptual experience that could be asked before we had a grip on the basic outline of the causal facts about the origin of perceptual experience (say when it was still possible for us to reasonably believe in eyebeams) and there is another question being asked once we get roughly to the early modern period.

It is still tempting for me to say that, though these debates differed over certain presuppositions, in another sense even the pre-modern and modern discussions at least involved one of the very same questions: are perceptual experiences made out of external things or not? And that is something people still debate

Also: maybe there is a pessimistic bias among working philosophers because we tend to only work on the problems we personally feel are open (and with respect to which we feel we can place a stone on the path to what we bet is the right answer).

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Daniel Stoljar
3 years ago

Thanks all for those comments. Let me try to say something in response.

Dylan: the philosophy of perception is a very interesting case study that in many ways is different from the mind-body case. But actually I think it fits the pattern I describe pretty well. After all, if you go back 50 years, the big issue in the field then (at least in analytic philosophy) was whether the sense-datum theory was true or whether some adverbial rival was true. There were of course various other theories around—e.g. those suggested by Armstrong or Pitcher or Hinton. But they didn’t dominate the field. Now things look completely different. What is at issue now is whether a representationalist view is true, or a relational or disjunctivist view, or some hybrid. So philosophy of perception looks to be a field in which what is at issue in current discussion is different from what was at issue in the past. (Tks for those nice comments on my other books, btw!)

David Curtis Glebe: I agree the identity view I describe in the post does not entail pessimism, just as its denial doesn’t entail optimism. I don’t want to make claims like that. What I do claim, though, is that, if you hold the identity view, then, that together with other claims makes pessimism seem very plausible, and also constrains the options for optimism. Likewise, denying the identity view opens up many options for optimism, which otherwise are invisible.

Bharath Vallabha: It is certainly natural to look at the mind-body example and think ‘well isn’t it scientists who are making progress here not philosophers’. But what I try to argue in the book is that, on closer examination, there is less here than meets the eye. One reason is that, as people often point out, prior to about the 19th century, there was no philosophy-science distinction, at least at an institutional level. Another is that there is no major methodological difference (or so I think) between philosophy and science. A third reason is that we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the mere fact that a philosopher draws on some scientific result to answer some problem means that it is ‘really’ science that has solved the problem. And a fourth is that the mind-body case is in the end only one case anyway; I think there are others which don’t provoke the ‘but isn’t it science not philosophy’ impulse.

Arnold: It isn’t so much that new terms are needed, though I can understand why you say they are. It’s rather that we should not be mislead by the terms we do use; in particular, we should not forget that the terms tend to pick out different problems at different times.

Wesley Buckwalter: The speed issue is interesting but it is not something I try to address in the book. What I do try to do is make sure that, while some examples of progress I consider involve long-ish temporal periods, many others do not. For example, one case I discuss quite a bit is presented by Quine’s discussion of the indeterminacy of translation. I argue that this too fits the pattern I am interested in, but it clearly falls within institutional memory.
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Dylan
Dylan
Reply to  Daniel Stoljar
3 years ago

Thanks for replying Daniel! I agree the debates in the philosophy of perception have shifted since the middle of the last century in the ways you outline. And It’s often claimed that pretty much everyone is a direct realist in some sense now– both representationalists and disjunctivists. I guess I doubt that this is because we have quite conclusively dispelled the most powerful considerations or dissolved the strongest arguments which motivated sense-data theory at that time in the first place. (And actually aspects of your discussion of transparency arguments have influenced some of my own thoughts in this vicinity.) Not saying that we should return to sense-data theory, but I do believe considerations in favor of (a metaphysical) indirect realism are more powerful than is commonly admitted. I realize this is a minority view at present. And as someone somewhat sympathetic to views out of step with the current consensus within philosophy of perception maybe I’m a bit biased and find it hard to see certain shifts in the debate as pure progress because, were it so, I would likely be on the wrong track.

At any rate, I look forward to reading this book.Report

Joshua soffer
Joshua soffer
3 years ago

I suppose if you are a philosopher of mind or analytic philosopher , solution is an important goal. If you are a continental philosopher. It’s beside the point at best and at worst a sign of stagnation.
Much more interesting to me than the goal of ‘solving’ a question is making old answers incoherent by transforming the framework out of which prior questions get their sense.
There is a progress of philosophy to the exact extent that a progress can be seen in the arts, politics and all other arenas of culture.
It would not be the progress of completing a puzzle but of turning it on it’s head and revealing a different, but more interesting puzzle. Report

David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

Isn’t there also something to be said for the “progress,” or the level of personal enlightenment or the deepened insight that individual philosophers can attain — after many years of thinking, reading, and discussing various issues — as opposed to what the present community of academics happen to be talking about? Along these lines, I am often surprised that so many academics still SEEM to embrace both essentialism and foundationalism, which are Platonic/Cartesian approaches that are highly problematic. Reject those approaches and many “puzzles” disappear. (For example, one friend of mine recently said to me, in the context of a discussion of the ethics of abortion, something like, “Well, maybe someday we will be able to discover whether fetuses are REALLY persons or not, but we haven’t reached that point yet.” What?)Report

arnold
arnold
Reply to  David Curtis Glebe, J.D., Ph.D.
3 years ago

Do I understand your affirmations about individualism lessening complexity, as being for oneself or for oneself and others too..
…That life’s meaning progresses because of complexity of ‘what’…I feel some people like a thank you sometimes , thank you… Report

John Harmer
1 year ago

What I notice as someone who took a philosophy first degree, but has had no further professional involvement, is that Philosophy seems to be the only discipline where at the conclusion of three years of study the main take away is knowing the mistakes and inconsistencies in all the venerable names that loom over the culture. So we know all the problems with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, Mill, Kant, Sartre and Wittgenstein. No one emerges as having the answer. I saw this as depressing at the time, but as a boon now many years later. That these great thinkers are regularly pulled apart by teenagers is a kind of progress I guess, but I do see philosophy as addressing the open questions, most of which are likely to remain so for the forseeable future.Report