Philosophy’s Progress, If You Don’t Care Whether It’s Called Philosophy


Over at Marginal RevolutionTyler Cowen (GMU) asks, “has there been progress in philosophy?” His answer: “there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.”

[Juan Fontanive, “Colorthing”]

Cowen’s emphasis is largely on forms of progress of a piece with what David Chalmers (NYU) calls “disciplinary speciation”:

many new disciplines have sprung forth from philosophy over the years: physics, psychology, logic, linguistics, economics, and so on. In each case, these fields have sprung forth as tools have been developed to address questions more precisely and more decisively. The key thesis is that when we develop methods for conclusively answering philosophical questions, those methods come to constitute a new field and the questions are no longer deemed philosophical. (“Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” p.21)

Some of the questions are no longer deemed philosophical, but I suspect Cowen, having a more expansive conception of the philosophical than some philosophers, would not agree with that deeming.

Here is Cowen’s list of philosophical breakthroughs:

  1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.
  2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.
  3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import.
  4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.
  5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.
  6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.
  7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.
  8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.
  9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.
  10.  Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.
  11.  Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.
  12.  Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.
  13.  Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.
  14.  Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.
  15.  Development of an “internet way of thinking.”
  16.  Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

Do you have others for Cowen’s list?


Related: “The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions“, “Whether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered“, “Why Progress Is Slower in Philosophy than in Science“, “Interdisciplinarity and Progress in Philosophy“, “Progress in Philosophy,”, “Lack of Philosophical Progress Owed to Procrastination, Study Hopes to Find

Juan Fontanive, Colorthing, 2015 from Danese Corey on Vimeo.

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Brian Kemple
3 years ago

I mean… progress towards what, exactly? Greater knowledge? Better human living? Greater fragmentation? Listicular-nonsense? Neologistic aptitude?
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Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

Greater/deeper understanding, in some rough sense, seems to be the common thread in these examples.Report

Brian Kemple

Ironic, given their muslin-thin presentation.

Also, I’d contest just about all of them, but I’m trying to do a better job at not engaging in fruitless labor…Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
3 years ago

He had me at “Singapore.”Report

dionissis mitropoulos
dionissis mitropoulos
3 years ago

I infer that there must be a philosophical breakthrough closely related to #9, which was:

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

The breakthrough i infer is this:

A better understanding of woman’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

Wouldn’t this double as a breakthrough closely related to #16?

16.Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

PS to prof Weinberg: i won’t take offense if the comment doesn’t pass moderation. Just to explain my motivation for my comment, i don’t meant it polemically, i only mean it as a nudge for cultivating some good habits regarding linguistic reference to humans.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Cowen is basically echoing Russell’s point in ‘Philosophy for Laymen’ in Unpopular Essays (p. 35 of the 1995 edition). Report

Holger Leuz
Holger Leuz
3 years ago

Even though this may be covered by items 2 and 6, I think it’s worth separate mention: Theoretical computer science, the very discipline, grew out of mathematical logic, which grew out of philosophical concerns. Another item: Theories of causality (e.g. J. Pearl) initiated by Hume.Report

Brian Kemple
Reply to  Holger Leuz
3 years ago

Sorry, maybe I misunderstand, but… you think Hume was the first one to have a theory of causality?Report

Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Reply to  Brian Kemple
3 years ago

I think they mean we’ve made progress in having better theories of causality, and this progress comes out of responding to Hume*, not that there weren’t theories before.

*it’s a little strange to me to use “initiated” since it suggests that the (proposed) progress is building on Hume, instead of being the result of attempts to build an account that responds to Hume’s challenges.Report

Brian Kemple

This makes some sense, though I’d have to say it hardly represents “progress” when the scholastic development of theories of causation (particularly in 16th-17th century Iberia) were far more sophisticated (and insightful) than Pearl or Rubin.

Might be biased, there, though… also, there are some underlying methodological and metaphysical issues, no doubt.Report

Aeon Skoble
Aeon Skoble
3 years ago

I think people think we never make any progress partly because a lot of our teaching is “well there’s this view, but on the other hand there’s also this view,” motivated partly by epistemic humility and partly by wanting students to figure stuff out for themselves. If we had the kind of consensus they have in, say, organic chemistry, we’d still be reminding ourselves that consensus doesn’t mean truth – at least not on most epistemological theories (whoops, there I go again). That said, we do get consensus on some things – no one seriously defends slavery, or absolute monarchy, or bodily humours, or phrenology. And there’s some truth to the idea that a lot of the things we do make progress on stop getting called philosophy, e.g. the kind of “what is the fundamental building block of matter” sort of inquiry that’s as old as Pre-Socratics, yet is now primarily studied in the physics dept.Report

Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Formerly M.A., now Ph.D., Student
Reply to  Aeon Skoble
3 years ago

I also think, as many have pointed out, that it’s wrong to think of progress in philosophy in terms of building consensus, and especially in terms of building consensus regarding positive proposals. On the latter point, as you note, there’s actually quite a bit of consensus on what we no longer consider live options. On the former, I like to think that there are lots of philosophical issues we understand more clearly now than before. In fact, sometimes a lack of consensus can be a sign of this – a deeper understanding of what’s at stake reveals more, and more intractable, points of contention.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum

“In fact, sometimes a lack of consensus can be a sign of this — a deeper understanding of what’s at stake reveals more, and more intractable, points of contention.”

This is really interesting. Would you mind saying more? Report

Phil Tanny
Phil Tanny
3 years ago

I feel the field of philosophy itself (not referring here to all the spin off fields) could make specific measurable progress if it reconfigured itself in to a problem solving machine aimed at real world challenges.

It would be very helpful to have a class of intellectual elites who specialize in the mastery of reason to craft, examine and test a menu of solutions to pressing social problems.

On another prominent philosophy blog the subject of race relations comes up regularly, which is good. Except that there appears to be exactly no interest in developing any specific plans to improve race relations, which tends to make philosophers irrelevant. In contrast, imagine that an association of professional philosophers dedicated themselves to developing and analyzing SPECIFIC proposals for erasing the wealth gap between blacks and whites.

To me, philosophy is a process of deploying carefully reason analysis in service to the public, or it is a parlor game played by over educated nerds hiding in the ivory tower. To the degree the later is true, documenting the progress of the field of philosophy will probably always involve trying to grab some credit from the work of other disciplines.
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Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil Tanny
3 years ago

“To me, philosophy is a process of deploying carefully reason analysis in service to the public”

Why must it be in service to the public?

Would reasoned analysis into say, the nature of self-knowledge, or the metaphysics of the will, or the metaphysics of time not count as Philosophy? I mean, they are not topics that are of “service to the public”, at least not in any obvious way. Much of what is called Philosophy today is not in the “service of the public”. Does that mean most of what is being called Philosophy today is not actual Philosophy?

“or it is a parlor game played by over educated nerds hiding in the ivory tower”

The same could be said about all academic disciplines, including the medical sciences. To think otherwise is to make an assumption about what things are valuable, about what’s important, and what makes something (like an academic discipline) worthwhile, and such a view needs to be argued for.

Besides, there is a third option: Philosophy, is an academic discipline which asks and tries to answer certain questions with certain methodologies. Why would its ‘practical’ significance, or its ability to be of “service to the public” (whatever these things even mean) have to do with Philosophy having made, making, and continuing to make progress, given that “service to the public” is an arbitrary measure of progress?

My own view is that there is progress in Philosophy because Philosophy aims to answer certain question with certain methodologies, and as the main post shows, it continues to do that. Whether this progress is in “service to the public” is irrelevant to its status as progress. I think the Philosophically trained ought to try and address serious social issues (and many do), but i don’t think doing or not doing so has any thing to do with whether or no the field is worthwhile, or makes worthwhile progress.

It would sort of be like saying exercise is activity aimed at developing one’s physical capacities in order to participate in a triathlon, and all other exercise is just motion aimed at wasting energy. Sure, a triathlon something one can do. But, the activity of exercise is significant and has purpose beyond just preparation for triathlons. Similarly, Philosophy that does not aim at solving social issues is still philosophy, and can still be worthwhile. It needn’t be (nor is it) one or the other. Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Invisiblessed
3 years ago

Hi Invisiblessed, thanks for your response.

> Why must it be in service to the public?

Yes, thank you, I should refine that statement. Philosophy should be in service to the public in those cases when it is the public which is funding the philosophy. Philosophy should be in service to the public if it wishes to be considered relevant and useful by the pubic. If philosophy has private funding and is not concerned with it’s reputation, then it seems the public need not be part of the picture.

> Would reasoned analysis into say, the nature of self-knowledge, or the metaphysics of the will, or the metaphysics of time not count as Philosophy?

Yes, it would be philosophy as the term is commonly used, but in a civilization rushing towards collapse such investigations would not be rational.

> Much of what is called Philosophy today is not in the “service of the public”. Does that mean most of what is being called Philosophy today is not actual Philosophy?

What you’re referring to is fairly called philosophy, just not relevant and useful philosophy.

> The same could be said about all academic disciplines, including the medical sciences.

Um, no. Medical sciences produce tangible goods and services of proven widely agreed upon value. I suppose other academic disciplines would have to be examined one by one.

> To think otherwise is to make an assumption about what things are valuable, about what’s important, and what makes something (like an academic discipline) worthwhile, and such a view needs to be argued for.

Ok, here’s an argument. A couple thousand hair trigger nuclear weapons are ready at a moment’s notice to destroy everything built over the last 500 years, and everything that could be built over the next 500 years. So what would be valuable would be investigations in to the relationship with knowledge which placed civilization in this near death situation.

This is not complicated reasoning requiring a PhD, only common sense is needed. If I was walking around all day everyday with a loaded gun in my mouth it would be highly irrational for me to ignore the gun and turn my attention to a thousand other obscure subjects. Once this common sense understanding is fully absorbed it becomes clear that human beings in general, including philosophers with PhDs, are highly irrational creatures. Thus, when any philosopher including this one says that we must present carefully constructed logical arguments, skepticism, even hilarity, is quite justified.

> Besides, there is a third option: Philosophy, is an academic discipline which asks and tries to answer certain questions with certain methodologies. Why would its ‘practical’ significance, or its ability to be of “service to the public” (whatever these things even mean) have to do with Philosophy having made, making, and continuing to make progress, given that “service to the public” is an arbitrary measure of progress?

Yes, well, it would depend on one’s definition of progress, agreed. If the purpose of philosophy is deemed to be entertainment, and we are increasingly entertained, then it could be said progress is being made.

> My own view is that there is progress in Philosophy because Philosophy aims to answer certain question with certain methodologies, and as the main post shows, it continues to do that. Whether this progress is in “service to the public” is irrelevant to its status as progress.

Is temporarily answering questions that almost no one cares about progress?

> Similarly, Philosophy that does not aim at solving social issues is still philosophy,

I agree. It is philosophy as that word is commonly used, but it’s not a product of reason. That is my argument.Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

“Yes, it would be philosophy as the term is commonly used, but in a civilization rushing towards collapse such investigations would not be rational.”

What makes you think this?

“What you’re referring to is fairly called philosophy, just not relevant and useful philosophy.”

My point was to say that this is very arbitrary conception of relevance and usefulness. It sounds like what you’re saying is that if something is not useful for what you care about, or what the general public cares about, then its not useful. Why?

Like I said, I think the philosophically trained ought to address serious social issues. But this has nothing to do with whether other areas and topics in philosophy that aren’t about those issues are ‘useful’ or not. I the claim is that certain topics do not serve some moral end, and so are useless, it can only be said that they are useless for that end, not that they serve no purpose at all.

“Ok, here’s an argument. A couple thousand hair trigger nuclear weapons are ready at a moment’s notice to destroy everything built over the last 500 years, and everything that could be built over the next 500 years. So what would be valuable would be investigations in to the relationship with knowledge which placed civilization in this near death situation.”

How do you get from a description of the world to an evaluative judgment of it? You say all that is needed is “common sense”, but this nothing more than a cheap dodge. Even if this is taken seriously, it does not follow from there being a need for philosophers needing to address certain issues that other issues become irrelevant.

“Is temporarily answering questions that almost no one cares about progress?”

What makes you think the answers are temporary (whatever this means)? Why does the number of people who care about an area determine whether progress can be made in that area? Why is this not founded on an arbitrary view of usefulness?

“It is philosophy as that word is commonly used, but it’s not a product of reason. That is my argument.”

What does it mean for something to be “a product of reason”? What does “reason” even mean here? From what I gather from your comments, what’s reasonable is just that happens to conform with your arbitrary conception of usefulness.

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Phil
Phil
Reply to  Invisiblessed
3 years ago

> “Yes, it would be philosophy as the term is commonly used, but in a civilization rushing towards collapse such investigations would not be rational.”
> What makes you think this?

Would it be rational for me to write papers about Plato while I have a hair trigger loaded gun in my mouth? Or would it show more intelligence for me to forget about Plato and turn my attention to the gun? Professional philosophers would choose to write about Plato, thus they are not rational.

Here’s the evidence. The APA has been publishing articles about twice a day for 2 years. In that time they have published only one brief article on nuclear weapons, and that only after consistent badgering from me.

It’s not rational for highly educated intellectual elites to blatantly ignore an imminent lethal threat to civilization, and the relationship with knowledge which generated that threat. Useful is perhaps most meaningfully defined as survival, which philosophers appear to have no interest in.

> My point was to say that this is very arbitrary conception of relevance and usefulness. It sounds like what you’re saying is that if something is not useful for what you care about, or what the general public cares about, then its not useful. Why?

Any philosophy which in some way receives it’s funding from the public is obligated to serve the public. I explained this already.

> Like I said, I think the philosophically trained ought to address serious social issues. But this has nothing to do with whether other areas and topics in philosophy that aren’t about those issues are ‘useful’ or not. I the claim is that certain topics do not serve some moral end, and so are useless, it can only be said that they are useless for that end, not that they serve no purpose at all.

“Useful” is in the eye of the beholder. I’m just sharing what I see. You are of course free to disagree.

> Why does the number of people who care about an area determine whether progress can be made in that area? Why is this not founded on an arbitrary view of usefulness?

All definitions of “usefulness” are arbitrary, subjective. Any definition you would care to share would be the same.Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

“Medical sciences produce tangible goods and services of proven widely agreed upon value.”

Why is this not just an appeal to popularity? Presumably the medical sciences would be valuable even if there was no agreement about their value. So, their value and use is not determined by what any group or individual takes their value and use to be. I think something similar is true for Philosophy. If not, why subscribe to a sort of relativism?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Invisiblessed
3 years ago

Let’s revisit this question again after someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer. Then we can move from philosophy to common sense.Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

Saying “common sense” is not an argument. Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

“Ok, here’s an argument. A couple thousand hair trigger nuclear weapons are ready at a moment’s notice to destroy everything built over the last 500 years, and everything that could be built over the next 500 years. So what would be valuable would be investigations in to the relationship with knowledge which placed civilization in this near death situation.”

Premise 1: There are nuclear weapons that can cause great destruction.
Therefore,
Conclusion: Investigations in to the relationship with knowledge which placed civilization in this near death situation would be valuable.

Now, I’m just some guy on the internet, so y’all can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m going to go ahead and say this is an invalid argument.
Is this the sort of “common sense” and “rational” argumentation that is needed?Report

Phil
Phil
Reply to  Invisiblessed
3 years ago

> Premise 1: There are nuclear weapons that can cause great destruction.
> Therefore, Conclusion: Investigations in to the relationship with knowledge which placed civilization in this near death situation would be valuable. Is this the sort of “common sense” and “rational” argumentation that is needed?

Yes, Invisiblessed, that’s correct.

A “more is better” relationship with knowledge was valid in a long era of knowledge scarcity. Our entire culture including philosophers, scientists and other intellectual elites are assuming without questioning that a simplistic and outdated “more is better” relationship with knowledge is also valid in a era characterized by a knowledge explosion. Nuclear weapons demonstrate this to be false. Our entire culture hangs in the balance due to some really lousy philosophy.Report

Invisiblessed
Invisiblessed
Reply to  Phil
3 years ago

Well, you’ve given me some nice examples of lousy philosophy, so maybe you’re right. Report

Phil Tanny
Phil Tanny
3 years ago

Brian Kemple asks…

“I mean… progress towards what, exactly?”

That’s a great question so it’s good it appears at the very top of the thread. Without meaning to propose a “one true way” here’s an attempt at an answer.

It seems to me that one of the most important functions of philosophy is to explore the boundaries of the group consensus. My favorite example of this is the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which serves as a foundation of modern society. Yes, that was an entirely valid paradigm in the long era of knowledge scarcity, but is that relationship still valid in the time of a knowledge explosion? Philosophers should be exploring the boundary of that group consensus.

If the group consensus is XYZ, and a challenge from philosophers causes the group consensus to change to ABC, the philosopher’s job is to then explore the boundaries of ABC. Where ever the group is, the philosopher should be the hopefully objective outsider observer.

If the process of challenging each emerging group consensus is successful, it will in time become apparent that there is no group consensus which can’t be ripped to shreds in the right hands. To the degree that insight takes hold we will as humans develop more humility, and perhaps even a sense of humor, about those ideas which we hold dear. As we relax our grip on ideologies we become less likely to enter in to conflict with those holding other ideologies, a movement towards peace which can fairly be labeled progress.

That is, it’s not just the philosophers job to challenge particular philosophies, but to challenge philosophy itself, the notion that we can come to “The Truth” in the medium of thought.

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Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
3 years ago

Is “logic” now a free-standing discipline? A part of Cognitive or Computer Science? Does it “follow the money”? Report

Vivian
Vivian
3 years ago

I’ve always chaffed at this question (i.e., “Does philosophy progress?”) It seems to me an ill-defined mess. First, define for me what you mean by “progress.” Do you have a particular dictionary definition in mind, or do you have a private, idiosyncratic definition in mind? If the former, then give the definition, and the task of answering the question becomes the trivially task of observing whether philosophy has done what is definitionally necessitated of things that progress. If the latter, then we are all rather hopelessly, and, I must add, foolishly, talking past one another, no? I am afraid that, behind the original question, there lurks a humiliating insecurity about the value of philosophy, and a deep-seated envy of rigorous science.Report