How Philosophy Makes Progress (guest post by Agnes Callard)

Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago? The answer is: certainly. 

The following is a guest post* by Agnes Callard, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, in which she responds to the recent post by Tyler Cowen (GMU) at Marginal Revolution regarding progress in philosophy, mentioned here a couple of days ago. A version of it first appeared at her website. Follow Professor Callard on Twitter: @AgnesCallard.

How Philosophy Makes Progress
by Agnes Callard

In a recent post on his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen talks about whether there has been progress in philosophy. Tyler approaches this question by describing some ways other fields have taken on philosophical problems, approaches or insights. One might still wonder: what have philosophers done for philosophy itself? This question is related to another: why do we (still) read old books of philosophy? In what follows, I try to answer these questions, and also to consider what the demand for progress reveals about the relationship between philosophers and non-philosophers.


Academic disciplines regularly export technologies, ideas and practices outside the ivory tower, or to other parts of it.  Tyler’s list consists mostly of what I would classify as (sometimes second- or third-hand) philosophical exports. I don’t deny the value or the philosophical character of any of those items, but I do deny the implication that philosophy should be judged by what gets exported from it—-any more than physics or mathematics should be assessed in this mercenary and extrinsic way. Learning, knowing—these are some of the greatest goods human beings can hope to attain. They do not serve. Other things serve them.

If we are to evaluate philosophy from the inside, which is to say, to gauge its progress as a form of learning or knowledge in its own right, we must acknowledge that philosophy, as it is currently practiced, is not in the business of building consensus. In this respect, it differs from many academic disciplines. It also differs from earlier incarnations of itself: think of Plato’s Academy, or Zeno and the Stoa, or German idealism or the Vienna Circle. Think of Aquinas and Augustine and all the great religious philosophers who are philosophizing strictly within Christianity. Think of Maimonides’ commitment to reconciling the Rabbinical teachings with Aristotle. Each of these philosophers lived inside a philosophical world of a particular character, within which progress was possible because of the practice of handing down teachings. My philosophical colleagues and I don’t do that.  We don’t expect our students to progress within the framework we set down for them.

Though I think all of those philosophers are worth reading—more on that below—I believe the turn away from schools, teachings and doctrines is itself one of the great instances of philosophical progress. (And also, incidentally, one of philosophy’s most valuable exports.) But it has the consequence of eliminating the “we” featured in Tyler’s (1)-(16).  Anything which is such that we can say, “we now know it” is likely to be an export, or to lie at the intersection of philosophy and some other field (e.g. mathematical logic). In philosophy proper—which is to say, that by reference to which the progress of philosophy ought to be judged—there is nothing “we” think. Some of us believe there are true contradictions. Some of us believe that possible worlds are real. Some of us believe that, because we can’t create our characters, and our characters determine how we act, we can’t ever be morally responsible for anything we do.  We are a motley crew.

Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago? The answer is: certainly. Here are two very different reasons why:

(1) If she is a she, she wouldn’t have been able to do it at all until fairly recently. (This is also true of many—most—“he”s.)

(2) There are many great philosophical arguments and ideas available for her to engage with. She has better interlocutors to think with than people did 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago: later philosophers always have the advantage. The more we respond to one another, the better materials we hand down to our descendants for thinking with. For example, nowadays if you want to go ahead and assert, in a philosophical context, that there aren’t any true contradictions or that what didn’t but could’ve happened is unreal, or that you are sometimes morally responsible for some of the things you do, there are philosophers who have made it hard for you to do that. Graham Priest and David Lewis and Galen Strawson have, respectively, raised the cost of saying what you’re reflexively inclined to say. They’ve made you work for it—made you think for it.

Priest, Lewis and Strawson offer the person who is willing to do this work a decrease in the entropy in their original claim, which now has to be more specific and determinate. What one had before encountering them was, one now sees, nothing more than a way of vaguely gesturing at the idea in question. Engaging with them introduces order into one’s thinking as to what exactly is meant by claiming, e.g. that one is morally responsible. If someone is willing to do the work, she can have thoughts about these common sense, intuitive claims that are better than anyone could’ve had 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago. What greater gift one possibly ask for?

But if philosophical thinking is getting better and better—more precise, truthful, articulate, deep—why should we still read Aristotle or Maimonides? The reason we need to do the history of philosophy is precisely that philosophy has made massive amounts of progress in Tyler’s sense of the word: it has filtered into, shaped and organized commonsense, ordinary thought. Indeed, it constitutes much of that thought. Recently a historian of philosophy named Wolfgang Mann wrote a book called The Discovery of Things. He argues, just as the title of his book suggests, that Aristotle discovered things. It’s a book about the distinction between subject and predicate in Aristotle’s Categories—between what is and how it is. You may not have realized this but: someone had to come up with that! Many of the things that seem obvious to you—that human beings have basic rights, that knowledge requires justification, that modus ponens is a valid syllogistic form, that the world is filled with things—people had to come up with those ideas. And the people who came up with them were philosophers.

So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind. Not everyone is interested in learning about the history of philosophy. But if you are the kind of person who is not happy about having delegated some of your most fundamental thinking to other people; if you want to go back and retrace those steps to make sure you are on board; if you want to take full ownership of your own mind, well, in that case the history of philosophy might be for you.

Up until this point I have not raised any doubts about the spirit of the question Tyler and I are answering. In view of certain features of the framing of the question, I feel must end by addressing a less charitable interpretation of the questioner’s motivations. You will recall that he asks us,

“You know this old debate: why are we still reading Plato? Haven’t they figured out free will yet? Will they ever? Don’t the philosophers obsess too much over very old texts?”

We don’t demand progress in the fields of fashion or literature, because these things please us. Philosophy, by contrast, is bitter, and we want to know what good it will do us, and when, finally, it will be over. It is not pleasant to be told that maybe you don’t know who you are, or how to treat your friends, or how to be happy. It’s not pleasant to have it pointed out to you that maybe nothing you have ever done matters, or that, for all you know, there is nothing out there at all.

So one way to hear the questioner is as asking:

“When will philosophy finally go away? When will they stop raising questions about whether my own will is free, or saying that I can’t tell whether I’m leading my life or it’s leading me? When will they stop telling me that I need to read this or that book in order to be fully human? When will they leave me alone?”

The answer is: never.

It is not the point of philosophy to end philosophy, to ‘solve’ the deep questions so that people can stop thinking about them. It is the point of people to think about these questions, and the job of philosophers to rub their faces in that fact. Of all of philosophy’s achievements, perhaps the greatest one is just sticking around in the face of the fact that, from day one, anyone who has plumbed the depths of our ambitions has either joined us or… tried to silence, stop or kill us. This is an “old debate” indeed.

The first philosopher was once asked this question:

“Tell me, Socrates, are we to take you as being in earnest now, or joking? For if you are in earnest, and these things you’re saying are really true, won’t this human life of ours be turned upside down, and won’t everything we do evidently be the opposite of what we should do?”

Philosophers today remain the children of Socrates, and we are in earnest.

Art: sculpture made from books by Liu Wei

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Clifford Sosis
5 years ago

This sneak peek of my upcoming interview with Simon Kirchin ( seems relevant…

“Clifford Sosis: How has your overall conception of philosophy changed?

Simon Kirchin: When I started as a grad student I suppose I thought that the main point of philosophy was to mount arguments for particular ideas and claims, and to try to have better arguments and more plausible claims than other people. As time went on I realised that although arguments and debates are the lifeblood of philosophy, the more important aspect of what we do centres on understanding. In hearing you articulate your ideas and arguments for them, I should (if things go well) see how you understand the world, or the aspect of it that we are discussing. Through that I should be able to think through better how I understand the world, especially when I see how you receive my ideas and arguments for them. We might still disagree, of course. But one would hope that some progress has been made, even if it is simply understanding how wide the gulf is between us and what that gulf consists in. Through these debates we can also call into question how I, you or we have framed the issue between us in the first place, and how we have phrased the questions. With each passing year I feel this more and more keenly. So, I still think that arguments and debates are at the centre of what we do, but the purpose is to understand better our world and the lives we live in it. And, as a corollary to all of that, this is why it is vital to have lots of different perspectives and ideas in the mix in philosophy. Our understanding of life and our world is evolving, and it is better to have lots of different voices contributing to those discussions.

Clifford Sosis: I agree. Do you worry about the lack of progress in philosophy?

Simon Kirchin: I’m not sure there is a lack of progress in philosophy. Or, at least, I think there are definitely trends and fashions, and from such fashions definite changes have emerged, and some of these changes can be classed as positive. If you put those together it looks like a type of progress to me! (I do admit, though, that some of what happens seems to be mere fashion rather than progress.)”

5 years ago

Excellent, excellent! Many thanks!

5 years ago

That’s a pretty narrow view of philosophy, very Euro-centered. I don’t think the same is quite true of Indian, Persian, African or even Chinese philosophy. Not all.children of Socrates either.

Reply to  jj
5 years ago

She is talking about Western philosophy. Those you ‘mention’ are different beasts.

Reply to  D
5 years ago

I did not see that specified anywhere. I think there has been a lot of discussion of exclusion o other traditions from academic philosophy in US recently, so I am surprised that that discussion has had a little impact. Like with that “discovery of things” by Aristotle – it’s often claimed he discovered things and he certainly did, but so did many philosophers elsewhere often before or concurrently with him (say, in Indian or Chinese philosophy). Similarly, there are many traditions and ways of doing philosophy and not all of them, even in Western philosophy, are staying away from “building consensus.” So it’s just a statement of how one person or perhaps a group of people sees what they do and how they enjoy doing things…And that’s fine, but then the demand is made that this is what philosophy is…

5 years ago

“Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago? The answer is: certainly.” This is interesting. But it isn’t clear to me that this is the question to ask if we want to know whether philosophy has made intellectual progress by it’s own lights. The points Callard cites in favor of answering ’certainly’ to her question may be signs that would be philosophers are better off now than before, but these signs fail to track what people are typically interested in when they ask “has philosophy made progress?” Why? Both (1) and (2) fail the Alchemy Test. (1) and (2) might also be true of prospective alchemists, but alchemy has made no intellectual progress. So (1) and (2) aren’t necessarily signs of intellectual progress.
(1) says philosophy is more inclusive. This is clearly a good thing and is one type of social progress, so in that sense of progress, the answer is yes. But when philosophers and others ask the question “has philosophy made progress?” they are typically wondering if we have answered or otherwise disposed of any of the questions we asked in the past. The fact that now all kinds of people can puzzle over philosophical problems in a formal setting, sometimes for pay, leaves that question nearly untouched. Alchemical societies may be more inclusive now than ever, though alchemy itself remains in a pretty dismal state.
(2) says the most important philosophical ideas of the past and present are more available to the would be philosopher now than they ever were before. True and good, but that in itself is not a sign of progress in an intellectual field. Thanks to the internet, the same is true of most any field of inquiry. But not every field makes progress. The would be modern day alchemist likely has more alchemical treatises at their fingertips
than ever before. Again, presumably, this alone is no sign alchemy itself has made any progress.

So why should we ask about the progress of prospective philosophers instead of asking about the progress of philosophy? Alchemy, you might say, has obvious goals, such as transmuting common base metals into more rare and valuable ones or creating an elixir of immortality. And so this provides a clear standard for assessing the success of the alchemist’s activities. Philosophy, Callard suggests, has no goals beyond asking questions most people don’t. If we just need to ask questions, then philosophy turns out to be an unmitigated success. But I think this reading conflicts with most philosopher’s practices throughout history. We ask questions and we tend to seek answers. Not only do we look for answers, but we spend years writing essays and books defending particular answers. There may be a sense in which philosophical musing can sometimes be an end in itself, but we often take it up with a goal in mind. And if we have a goal, we can fail. Much of philosophy is just not intellectually fail-proof. To say that it is, despite all appearances to the contrary, just seems to be a way of insulating the field from standard forms of intellectual criticism.

I personally believe philosophy has made some internal intellectual progress despite lingering dissension in many areas. (Contra Callard, I think dissensus is typically a regrettable bug, not a feature.) And we have also probably done pretty well with our exports. Sometimes philosophy helps other fields along and it has occasionally made the world a better place. Some may dispute this. And I could be wrong about the extent of the progress we have made and the progress we have helped the world at large to make. Maybe someone will eventually convince me of this. I don’t think we should let ourselves off too easy. The old “philosophizing is an end-in-itself story” seems to do just that.

5 years ago

“Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago? The answer is: certainly”

I think we’d all prefer to answer easy questions than hard questions…seriously though, the question of what philosophy is contributing goes to larger questions of why should we fund its practitioners. Saying it’s a good deal for the practitioners doesn’t answer that question.

5 years ago

The arguments for progress here seem problematic to me. The first argument states that the existence of a plurality of well-reasoned positions on any number of controversial issues (free will, modal realism, dialethic logic, et al.) marks an improvement over older traditions within philosophy that stressed a consensus or even orthodoxy regarding various fundamental issues (e.g free will, existence of God, moral realism, et al.). This establishes only a change from one way of conceptualizing philosophy (one in which schools of thought feature prominently) to another way of doing so (in which individuals are encouraged to develop their own positions on these matters independent of school-affiliation).

Now, the question is whether or not there has been *progress,* not whether there has been a change in ways of doing philosophy. The author then argues that by forcing individuals to think more carefully about their own positions before writing, this change is in fact an improvement. But this needs to be unpacked and explored. It may appear to her and other contemporary philosophers that by emphasizing individual differences in position over differences between co-existing schools (Aristotelians, Platonists, Empiricists, Rationalists, etc.) each individual philosopher is forced to think more carefully and anticipate more potential counterarguments, resulting in finer thinking. But this is not necessarily true. I believe it reflects a pretheoretical bias in favor of individualism.

Consider the vying ethical, epistemic and ontological positions in Greco Roman, Christian and early Modern philosophy in the West. 1) The various schools (the Academy, Stoics, empiricists, rationalists) were not static, nor was there a lack of internal debate within the schools. The Academy of Plato and Carneades are quite different, for example, as one emphasizes universal knowledge and the other skepticism. The Academy also produced philosohers that had to anticipate the objections and counter-arguments of Epicurians, Peripatetics, Stoics and others who had their own internally vital communities. Yes, there was a greater value placed on belonging to a tradition, but the tradition did not obliterate, but in the best cases, stimulated discussion and debate. Further, there was rarely one philosophical system that was beyond question for any length of time if at all.

Finally, though it appears to many of us today that we are not part of an ethos, or a philosophical community with shared metaphilosophical norms, values and shared substantive positions which become more or less “fashionable,” this may be due to the blindspot of inhabiting our own era and not seeing it with sufficient sociological distance. When we look back decades and centuries it becomes easier to group philosophers who may have thought themselves to be somewhat different under headings and isms. I doubt most philosophers taught in a course on, say, Existentialism, would have seen themselves as members of a school. Most did not even use the descriptor, “existentialism” at all.