Philosophical Quality Now and Then


“I find no good reason to think that philosophers today do philosophy better than philosophers 600 or 2000 years ago.”

[ancient Egyptian wine vessels]

That’s Ana María Mora-Márquez (Gothenburg) in an interview with Richard Marshall at 3:16am. The interview covers some of her work in medieval philosophy, Aristotle, and logic. At one point, Marshall asks:

Are there important things that contemporary debates can still use from this Aristotelian metaphysics, epistemology and logic or has it all been supplanted by more powerful explanations of the phenomena needing explanation?

Professor Mora-Márquez replies:

Good question: yes, there are. Most likely the phenomena that have now more powerful explanations are those we can now observe better because of better modern observation tools. That excludes precisely metaphysics and language and logic, the objects of which are not observable in the same way that, say, viruses and exoplanets are. Epistemology is a bit more complex because modern science has indeed supplanted many old explanations on some aspects of knowledge, but with explanations that are not philosophical. However, the social epistemology that has been developing in the last decades, for instance, has a historical precursor in ancient and medieval philosophy at which it would be worth taking a closer look. 

Also, it seems to me that metaphysicians then and now don’t lead substantially different discussions (except for the format), so contemporary debates could find good ideas in the old ones, I’m sure.

She cautions us to not mistake the possibility that contemporary philosophy is better suited for the aims we now have for philosophy, for the idea that it is better, period:

Finally, the kind of logic one develops is affected by the use one intends to give to it, and ancient and medieval logics were well suited to the ancient and medieval scientific needs on which they were dependent. I find it fascinating to try to understand how philosophers approached logic and language before the specific needs of the 20th century, a lot of them linked to the development of computational technology. Ancient and medieval logic and philosophy of language have given me perspective and a good case to support my view that the way we think about language, logic, and knowledge is very much dependent on the social context where we are situated. I find no good reason to think that philosophers today do philosophy better than philosophers 600 or 2000 years ago, or that someone who decides to tackle metaphysical or epistemological questions in dialogue with, say, Quine is going to fare any better than those who prefer to do it in dialogue with Aristotle or Aquinas. But, of course, people have preferences, which is perfectly fine.

The whole interview is here.

Discussion welcome.


Related posts: Are History’s ‘Greatest Philosophers’ All That Great?How Philosophy Makes Progress (Stoljar)Philosophy’s Progress, If You Don’t Care Whether It’s Called PhilosophyHow Philosophy Makes Progress (Callard)Convergence as Progress in PhilosophyWhether Philosophical Questions Can Be Answered, The Intellectual Achievement of Creating Questions, Which Sciences Can Help Answer Philosophical Questions?


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Gareth Pearce
Gareth Pearce
7 months ago

I think we have a lot of reasons to think that philosophers today do better philosophy than philosophers in the past. Here are a few such reasons.

First, we have access to concepts and methods that weren’t available in the past. To give an example of methods, Philosophers as of 80-100 years ago have a much better understanding of first-order logic and how to use it than philosophers before then. Philosophers as of 50 years ago have a better understanding of modal logics and how to use them than philosophers before them. As an example re concepts, philosophers post-Kant have access to the analytic/synthetic distinction (and post-Quine have reason to question it!). This was a useful concept that made doing philosophy easier (other examples abound).

Second, advances in technology make doing good philosophy easy. It takes me 10 minutes to find a paper on PhilPapers, look up the DOI and find the paper on my library portal. It would have taken someone doing research even 20-30 years ago doesn’t have access to those advances. Again, other examples abound. Philosophers 100 years ago have access to typewriters, Aquinas had to write by hand. (I think this is also the best explanation of “grade inflation”, but that’s beside the point)

Lastly, general education has improved drastically over the last few hundred years. Presumably, a consequence of this is that we’re just better cognitively trained than people a few hundred years ago and are hence better thinkers.

None of this is intended as disparaging towards historical thinkers. If anything, it’s more impressive that they managed to do good work, given the infrastructure that they didn’t have access to. But that’s beside the point as to if the philosophy happening now is better than that of the past.

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Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
7 months ago

It depends on what philosophy is trying to do, right? Rorty thought that the role of the philosopher was to excavate and interrogate the assumptions of her or his culture. Sometimes distance makes that easier, but sometimes distance makes it harder. As for first-order and modal logic, yes, we have gotten undeniably better at that. But there may also be things we’ve gotten worse at, too.

Take, for instance, what you say about ease of access to philosophy and better general education. The ease of access is a double-edged sword, for a few reasons. First, there is now a lot more philosophy to read. This can be illuminating, but it can also be paralyzing or obscuring. You might think that X is the default view, but X might be popular for contingent circumstances; or maybe people don’t arrive at X independently; or maybe X isn’t even the default view; you might just see X because of confirmation bias or because of how search engines work.

Second, even philosophers find their attention spans fractured, or possibly even shortened, by our “ecosystem of interruption technologies” (as Cory Doctorow put it). In other words, you can easily find the newest translation of Plato, but you can also find a really great TikTok or fall down a YouTube K-hole.

Third, general education has probably gotten better, but has it gotten better at the highest levels, at least from a humanistic perspective? I get the sense that many more English-speaking scholars of the past were fluent in Latin, Greek, French, and German than today, not to mention had read more of the classical canon than today. Of course, my sense could be wrong, but looking at the 1869 Harvard entrance exam gives me the impression that my sense is right. Report

David Macauley
David Macauley
7 months ago

Regarding the suggestion (above) that advances in technology somehow improve philosophical quality, I would encourage the commenter to familiarize himself with some of the critical work in philosophy of technology and,. more specifically, critiques of developments in writing. Shakespeare’s (or Nietzsche’s) writing and work would not have been better had they access to and use of a computer, for example. (Nietzsche actually did use a typewriter for a short period of time.). You seem to be engaging in what we might provocatively call “technological fundamentalism” and the belief that “progress” somehow mysteriously and inevitably occurs with technological change. Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
7 months ago

If you don’t know what David Macauley is talking about, see this helpful article: https://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-author-signal-nietzsches-typewriter.html. If you want a tl;dr, see this quote from Kittler: “Using the typewriter, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”Report

Philosophy is Worse Now
Philosophy is Worse Now
7 months ago

Philosophy is worse now. In the past, most philosophers would have widespread interdisciplinary understanding. Now philosophy is largely siloed off, and although there have been attempts in recent decades to erode that, they are nowhere near comparable to the kinds of integration that was going on between philosophy and neighbouring disciplines before the early 20thC.Report

David Macauley
David Macauley
7 months ago

Yes, thanks for the link Robert A Gressis. It’s an interesting article great point by Kittler. Report