Improvement in Philosophy over Time


“If Aristotle lived today, there is no way that he would be an Aristotelian.” That winning line is from a recent critique of the history of philosophy by Michael Huemer (Colorado).

Paintings on the wall of Chauvet Cave, France, believed to have been made roughly 30,000 years ago.

You can read Professor Huemer’s post, “Against History,” at his blog, Fake Nous.

There are some parts of his characterization of the history of philosophy I disagree with—and I bet those who work in the history of philosophy do, too. And I think the post surprisingly, perhaps in pursuit of being provocative, fails to express an appreciation for intellectual diversity (or to put it another way, a kind of intellectual division of labor), the benefits of which may be hard to specifically identify.

But Professor Huemer makes a point worth appreciating towards the end of his post. He begins by noting that “almost all philosophers are mostly wrong.” He continues:

If your philosophy basically corresponds to that of some philosopher who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, then you’re basically saying that none of the vast expansion in human knowledge that has occurred since then, nor any of the work done by philosophers themselves in the past couple of centuries, is philosophically important. None of that has taken us significantly farther, when it comes to philosophical questions, than some guy who lived in prescientific times. I think that’s super-unlikely.

To give one important example, there are people today who are followers of Aristotle. I think that’s crazy. If Aristotle lived today, there is no way that he would be an Aristotelian. If we brought him through time to the present day, he would swiftly start learning modern science, whereupon he would throw out his outdated worldview, and he’d probably laugh at the modern Aristotelians.

This leads to the point I think is worth appreciating:

Aristotle might have been the greatest thinker of all time. But being a great thinker, even the greatest, is not as important as having access to the accumulated human knowledge of the last 2,000 years. This is why the work of much less-great thinkers who are born today is more likely to be correct than the work of Aristotle.

Relatedly, I sometimes hear the question, “where are today’s great philosophers?” posed as a critique of contemporary philosophy. Yet of the explanations for the belief that “compared to the past, philosophy today lacks great thinkers,” the most plausible possibilities are compatible with philosophy being in better shape than ever. These include:

  1. Time. The filter of history has yet to distinguish which of today’s philosophers will be remembered as the era’s greats.
  2. Naiveté. What the filter of history has selected for is not greatness, but some combination of quality and luck (accidents, biases, etc.),  so the lack of identifiable greats today isn’t an indication of a relative lack of great philosophers compared to the past.
  3. Ignorance. Significant philosophical achievements of today may take place in much more specialized and advanced areas of inquiry compared to significant philosophical achievements of the past, areas about which those who are issuing grand critiques of philosophy or philosophers today are likely to be largely ignorant.
  4. Improvement. Philosophers in general are more informed (philosophically and otherwise) and better trained than those in past eras, making it more difficult for individual philosophers to stand out as noticeably from their peers.

In 2020 there are more philosophers, and more kinds of philosophers, taking up more kinds of questions in more kinds of ways than in any previous era in human history, and doing so with more knowledge of various kinds to make use of.

To criticize philosophy today by comparing it with a supposedly glorious past is to think that philosophy was somehow better when fewer people, and fewer types of people, were taking up fewer kinds of questions with fewer kinds of methods, on the basis of less knowledge about the world. That seems highly implausible.

We have lots of reasons to think that philosophy is doing better than ever. Returning to Professor Huemer’s post, I think this goes for the history of philosophy, too, which has increasingly brought attention and scrutiny to the ideas of a wider array of thinkers. This repopulation of our discipline’s history, and the study of the various nonphilosophical factors (institutional influences, social biases, etc.) that have shaped our understanding of what good philosophy has been and what good philosophers have looked like, counteract some of the tendencies of philosophical hero worship that Huemer decries in his caricature of the history of philosophy.

That is, the continued improvement of the history of philosophy is one reason to have a more favorable attitude towards the history of philosophy.

UPDATE 1: Kevin Vallier (Bowling Green) posted a very good response to Huemer at his blog, Reconciled.

UDPATE 2: Landon D.C. Elkind (Iowa) replies at his blog to Huemer, whose post, he thinks, reveals an “unfamiliarity with modern history of philosophy.”

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Martin Lenz
1 year ago

I like the point about accumumlation, too. But is philosophical work really portrayed as part of an accumulative project? – I’m asking because Michael Huemer’s dismissive attitude towords other philosophies (historical or current: “mostly wrong”) makes it seem a *competitive* rather than an accumulative enterprise.Report

Graham Clay
1 year ago

There’s no doubting that the structure of the academy–coupled with its age (a lot of great work has already been done)–encourages us to specialize more and more. Publish or perish! Or at least that’s how it feels to many of us. One consequence of this pressure is that the philosophers of recent years are not building philosophical systems of any significant scale, at least when compared with the likes of Aristotle, Hume, or Kant. The goal of the vast majority of contemporary philosophers, myself included, is to justify a small set of philosophical claims about some relatively small domain. This is mentioned in passing by Huemer and Vallier (and by Michael Hemmingsen in the comments on Huemer’s post), but I think it’s important to think about further.

Now, as I see it, justifying a philosophical claim is generally a twofold task: (1) showing that it does theoretical work of some variety (typically explanatory) and (2) showing that it is consistent with other justified claims (either that are intuitively so or that are justified by those that are). Since many of us contemporary philosophers are working in rather small domains, we are not–at least regularly–doing (1) and (2) beyond the confines of our specialties. We develop our tight collection of claims (“theory”) to handle the theoretical demands, cases, and counterexamples of our domain, and then we publish the result. Or, if we do (1) and (2) beyond our domain, it’s a focused and limited excursion from our domain (e.g. causation) to another nearby (e.g. determinism or moral responsibility).

As someone who spends much of their time doing history of philosophy, I think that one of the most important benefits of working on the likes of Aristotle, Hume, or Kant is learning how to build a philosophical system that hangs together well and gives answers to as many of the important philosophical questions as possible. And, what’s better, some of the “greats” give pretty good answers or at least the materials for them. I think it’s important to remember that a theory can be closer to the truth than another even if both are composed of false claims. While Hume may be wrong on nearly every issue, his system is closer to answering the questions we need answered than the views of the contemporary philosopher who is right about some issue in their specialty, regardless of the import of the issue or the specialty in question. The gap in breadth is massive.

In effect, the “great” philosophers of the past were doing what we today all presume the field as a whole is doing via “distributed computing,” but the problem is that we have distributed the tasks and have little incentive to bring it all back together again! I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen person A’s theory in some small domain undermined by someone who has a wider perspective or a strong counterexample from another domain. Ideally, we would have specialists working in each subfield and then have many excellent philosophers who are specialist generalists. The latter would unify all of the results of the subfields into viable systems. But there’s little incentive for this sort of work given the aforementioned pressure (and others). Until the pressures change, I’ll be spending time working on, learning from, and publishing on the great systematic thinkers of the past…Report

Adjunct in the Wilderness
Adjunct in the Wilderness
1 year ago

Is mythology just bad physics? If so, why bother studying the beliefs and stories of ancient people, or present-day peoples who live in technologically primitive societies? It’s just bad science, right?

Back to philosophy: is metaphysics just bad physics? Are philosophy of mind, action, moral psychology, and so on just bad neuroscience? Is the point of studying Aristotle’s _Physics_ to improve on existing physics textbooks?

So: is the history of philosophy just a doxography, a record of past, mostly or entirely wrong beliefs? Or – bear with me here – could it be that there is something to learn from our predecessors, because philosophy is primarily *not* just under-developed / bad / wrong natural science?Report

Paul Taborsky
Paul Taborsky
Reply to  Adjunct in the Wilderness
1 year ago

Without wishing to raise the spectre of ‘laws of history’, or philosophy of history or similar – Perhaps there are things which we can learn from the philosophy of the past that have implications for all of philosophy, including philosophy of the present. This would especially be the case if we can discern patterns in the philosophy of the past, and not just a series of random views. These patterns might have implications for present philosophy, as there is little reason to suspect that current philosophy would be discontinuous from the past or be exempt from these patterns. If we wished to know something about philosophy, and not just philosophize (of course the former is also a part of philosophy) then studying the history of philosophy is very useful as there is simply more of it to study, and distance in time and thought may improve our perspective.Report

Andy Stroble
Andy Stroble
Reply to  Adjunct in the Wilderness
1 year ago

So many levels of confusion! Mythology is not bad physics, it is bad philosophy. And so metaphysics is not bad physics, in fact it is the necessary precursor of any possible physics, or at least my friend Immanuel keeps saying. To think that philosophy is just science that has not yet formulated it’s research agenda is, well, rather scientistic. And in that regard, mythology can be rather decent philosophy, but only if given a rational interpretation. Of course, the same criticism can be leveled at science. Progress? Philosophy begins always from the same place, one with no assumptions. Or at least that is what I assume, and I may, or may not, be a philosopher.Report

Džon Nijemović
Džon Nijemović
1 year ago

“To criticize philosophy today by comparing it with a supposedly glorious past is to think that philosophy was somehow better when fewer people, and fewer types of people, were taking up fewer kinds of questions with fewer kinds of methods, on the basis of less knowledge about the world. That seems highly implausible.”

I see five clear assumptions here:

(1) Philosophy itself improves when more people do it.
(2) There are not some types of people doing philosophy now who have made it worse.
(3) There are not a great many vapid questions that have been “taken up” by philosophy as it is today
(4) Proliferation of “methods” is good for philosophy.
(5) We have more philosophically relevant knowledge about the world than did our predecessors.

I think we have good reason to reject all of these assumptions. I happen to reject them myself, and I find it strange that someone would think they are all obviously true.Report

Benji
Benji
Reply to  Džon Nijemović
1 year ago

It’s in no way “clear” that Huemer assumes (2) and (3). Here are two distinct claims:
* philosophy will generally improve as more types of people do philosophy
* when some types of people do philosophy, they make philosophy worse
These claims are entirely consistent, and asserting the former does not entail denying the latter. The coherence is especially plausible if we think there is some selection effect for good views in philosophy in general. That is, if true (or “good” however we want to define that) philosophical views are coercive over philosophical opinion in the long run (to paraphrase William James), then adding 100 new views to our population of candidate philosophical positions will be good for philosophy as a whole EVEN IF 90 of those 100 views are complete garbage.

(1), (4) and (5) are more plausibly read as assumptions within the passage you quoted. They raise questions too big for a blog comment, but denying 5 outright strikes me as basically laughable. Darwin is totally irrelevant to philosophy?Report

Džon Nijemović
Džon Nijemović
Reply to  Benji
1 year ago

Thanks for the catches on (2) and (3). I’m not sure, though, that the two claims you distinguish vis-a-vis (2) are consistent. In one, philosophy improves, and in the other it is made worse. So, it’s a question of whether extending philosophy to the particular “more types” of people who purportedly make philosophy better will inevitably extend it to the “types” who purportedly make it worse. A similar point holds for (3); does raising the particular “more questions” which purportedly make philosophy better inevitably raise the ones that purportedly make it worse?

I’m not sure how to judge such hypotheticals. Second-order claims about what we would *expect* to make philosophy better or worse as a whole, or indeed about *whether* we should expect it to get better or worse in the first place (e.g., selection-effect claims) presuppose first-order judgments about whether philosophy at place-time X *is* better or worse than philosophy at place-time Y. For instance, if you think there is a selection-effect for good views, it would seem to be because you have looked at the history of philosophy and noticed that good views tend to coerce philosophical opinion in the long run, whereas bad ones tend to wither out. When I consider philosophy, though, I don’t see anything like such coercion. I do agree with you that good philosophical views tend to endure, and that bad ones tend to wither out; but endurance and proliferation (or general coercion, or whatever) aren’t the same thing. Moreover, when bad views wither out, I take it that they’re quickly replaced with new ones.

As for Darwin, I do think he is philosophically relevant. I just don’t think he tips the scales in favor of the verdict that we have more philosophically relevant knowledge than pre-Darwinians. This is because I think that the facts of natural history, and the facts discoverable by natural science in general, especially when that science is technologically driven, are relatively unimportant for philosophy. Did you have a counterexample in mind?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Džon Nijemović
1 year ago

Unless you think we’ve actually lost philosophically-relevant knowledge, it only requires one small example to tip the scales!
(Natural selection is a huge example, and one of many, but even a small example would suffice.)Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Well, part of the issue is what counts as knowledge. But here are some examples worth chewing over:
1. The discussion of metaphysics of the last 25 years is, in many respects, (but not all of course,) a recovery of Kuhn-style loss of knowledge after half a century of neglect if not contempt. Some of that recovery has been done in critical conversation with earlier philosophy (think of Wiggins and Locke on essences; Della Rocca and the PSR in Spinoza; etc.).
2. These may not count for much for some people. So, how about Stein on Newton and space/time, which helped constitute the modern (and subsequently more sophisticated discussion)? Or Jos Uffink’s use of Boltzman on statistical mechanics?
3. The shape of recent virtue ethics had to be reconstituted, in no small part, through engagement with Aristotle, Thomas, and even Hume/Smith.
4. In economics, it is pretty clear that the modern analytic apparatus (presupposing no arbitrage) made discussion of bubbles very difficult. And so any reflection on the nature of bubbles, and the political and ethical significance of them, required going back to much earlier treatments of bubbles.
5. The nineteenth century recovery of Stoic logic played a role in the development of modern logic. When this was treated by Łukasiewic and Mates this inspired Arthur Prior’s important work in the philosophy of logic.Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
Reply to  Eric Schliesser
1 year ago

Obviously, in lots of areas ”we” have more philosophically relevant knowledge than those working in the past. But it’s also become much harder to know much of it.Report

Max DuBoff
Max DuBoff
Reply to  Benji
1 year ago

Although I agree it’d be laughable to deny 5) outright, it seems there are significant areas in which 5) is false. At least prima facie I think this is the case for much of ethics. Instead of looking at Aristotle, let’s look at someone like Epicurus. As an atomist who didn’t think we need theism to explain natural phenomenona, he turned out to be in the right ballpark about the parts of science important to ethics today, namely a deterministic, naturalistic universe. He was broadly egalitarian. Politics in democratic countries is a relatively similar system to what he was criticizing, except of course for the expansion of the franchise. Although his ethics rely, sometimes intricately, on his physics, they rely for the most part on broad ideas that aren’t so different from how we understand the world today. (I can’t say exactly why Epicurus interests me more than Aristotle does, but quite possibly what I’m describing plays a role: he thinks about the world in a way that makes perfect sense to me in the 21st century.)Report

Faisal
Faisal
1 year ago

You fool now a days philosopher evolute into scientists and ordinary people evolute into philosopher can’t you figure out the difference of now and then it’s a shame. you should research more about Renaissance and 17th century scientific revolution before writing this blog.Report

Cicero
Cicero
1 year ago

Prof Huemer, whom this author is citing did not understand Aristotle enough. If you follow current debates between William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins all revolve around the cosmological argument-which we owe to Aristotle.
Plato’s 2 worlds theory becomes relevant in the debate on consciousness and the schism happening in quantum mechanics re:the observer and the observed.Report

AristotleISokay
AristotleISokay
1 year ago

Aristotle was a pluralist about explanation (i.e. The Doctrine of the Four Causes) before it was cool. After decades of failed attempts to come up with the One True Model of explanation, I would say the received view in philosophy of science is some sort of explanatory pluralism. Perhaps Aristotle was on to something!!Report

Zain
Zain
1 year ago

Doesn’t this depend on what you mean by being an Aristotelian? He will probably not believe in any of the naive biological claims he made, but then which modern Aristotelian does? To my knowledge, what modern Aristotelians take from Aristotle are his metaphysics and ethics. And they take these positions *given* the current state of thought in those disciplines. Just look at the revival of Aristotelian views of teleology and causation, precisely as a reaction to modern biology and physics. Modern Aristotelians are not ignoring the development of thought, but engaging with it.Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
1 year ago

To encounter other philosophers, be they dead or alive, is to encounter interesting minds: interesting voices, interesting ways of expressing ideas, interesting ways of arguing and explaining, interesting trains of thought, interesting sources of inspiration, drawing attention to overlooked but interesting phenomena, drawing attention to interesting similarities and differences, interesting ways of making the familiar seem unfamiliar and the unfamiliar seem familiar, interesting formulations of problems, interesting ways of synopsizing the views of others, interesting sensibilities, interesting kinds of presuppositions, interesting ways of comparing and contrasting, and on and on.

The truth-value of a philosopher’s view, be it old or new? The least edifying, least interesting thing of all.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

What counts as progress in philosophy? We don’t provide demonstrable answers to the big questions, so what do we do? I don’t think we can class modern philosophy as better or worse than older philosophy without some idea f what it is for philosophy to be better or worse.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 year ago

@Justin. Both of these strike me as plausible answers (and I have other answers that seem plausible to me too). But deciding on what we are going to count as progress is a necessary preliminary to deciding whether philosophy is progressing. (We would also, as Cathy points out, need to decide what counts as evidence that we are asking better questions or doing a better job of mapping the unknown).Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Yes, and in what units might such a judgement be measured? (Serious question)Report

Peter
Peter
1 year ago

One possible idea: some of us have come to the conclusion that most of contemporary philosophy is not worth studying because it tackles questions that are better answered by other disciplines, hopelessly confused or overinflated, really political questions masked in philosophical rhetoric, etc. (That’s not an exhaustive list.) History of philosophy is interesting because it involves rigorously working out and then appreciating how different people thought about the world. (Kind of like appreciating a work of intellectual art.) I don’t know (or particularly care) if this has extrinsic benefits, but I personally find the practice fascinating and my students tend to agree.Report

G
G
1 year ago

in the last 100 years I can think of several candidates for ‘great’ philosophers; Russell, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger fopr instance. I wonder if the members of Plato’s academy c. 100 AD also wondered where are the great contemporary philosophers.Report