In Which Areas of Philosophy Should We Expect Faster Progress?

On what we can call the answers model of philosophy, the primary aim of philosophy is to learn philosophical truths, and a primary form of philosophical progress is learning true answers to “the big questions of philosophy,” as David Chalmers (NYU) puts it.

Though the answers model says progress consists primarily in learning philosophical truths, it does not imply that the only form of progress is actually attaining such truths (as Chalmers happily acknowledges). Just as we can make progress towards building a house before putting up a single wall, so too could we make philosophical progress before coming close to converging on a correct answer to a big philosophical question. With both projects, there are many preliminary steps.

So the answers model does not imply that our lack of convergence on correct answers to big philosophical questions is thereby lack of philosophical progress. If we have taken some of the preliminary steps towards convergence on such answers, then that is a form of progress in philosophy.

One difficulty, of course, is that it is unclear whether we are taking the correct preliminary steps. We know that surveying the land, drawing up blueprints, pouring a foundation, etc., are steps towards the construction of a house. Good evidence for this comes from humans having had many experiences of successfully building houses. Our apparent lack of experience successfully answering big philosophical questions means that there’s a conspicuous gap in the evidence we could gather to show that the preliminary steps we’ve taken are steps in the right direction.

I think a defender of the answers model could reply: well, we do have experience unsuccessfully answering big philosophical questions, and failures can be a form of progress, too—we can learn what doesn’t work, and why.

Though I’m not a fan of the answers model, I do think there’s something to that reply, and I would imagine there is more that could be said in its defense. At the very least I think the answers model is worth exploring, and I’m about to ask for your help in that exploration.

Suppose the answers model is correct, that we have some reasons for thinking that at least some of the philosophical activities we engage in are proper preliminary steps towards answering big philosophical questions, and that taking such preliminary steps counts as progress in philosophy. Given these suppositions, in which areas of philosophy, or on what big questions of philosophy, should we expect faster progress?

One possible answer is “none”; that is, there’s no reason to think that some areas or questions of philosophy lend themselves to faster progress. But I suspect that relatively few philosophers have that view. There are a variety of topics and questions in philosophy, and I don’t see a strong reason for thinking that they are uniformly susceptible to our efforts.

Another possible answer might be: “in new areas or on new big questions.” The idea here would be that in any new area, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit and so a lot of progress can be made relatively quickly picking it. That may be the case, but it may be more interesting to put that aside and instead consider progress in subfields we no longer consider immature.

So what’s your view? In which parts of philosophy should we expect more progress sooner, and (at least briefly) why?


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21 days ago

I agree with the answer “in new areas or on new big questions.” This points to fields such as the philosophy of science and technology, bioethics, and AI ethics.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Stewie
21 days ago

Relatedly, I think there are old areas with old big questions for which new methods give access to new techniques, that could improve progress.

Progress in philosophy of language was surely helped by the past century or so of documentation of thousands of languages around the world, each with distinctive features, and it is surely being helped again with the development of new computer systems that work with language in a different way from how humans do. (Regardless of whether the interesting work is to analyze these systems and see how what they do is similar to what humans do with language, or to analyze these systems and see important distinctions between what they do and what humans do with language, it surely helps.)

Regardless of what one thinks of Searle’s “Chinese room” argument, or Jackson’s “knowledge argument” involving Mary the neuroscientist, the construction of real computer systems that fit the characterization of these systems is going to give us better-justified intuitions for these cases.

Matt L
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
21 days ago

I think there are old areas with old big questions for which new methods give access to new techniques, that could improve progress.

I’m sympathetic to this, and think there are certainly cases where it’s right, but it’s also the case that we can go wrong along similar lines. For no particular reason I happened to be reading some chapters in the Cambridge History of Political Philosphy volume on the British Idealists, and specifically read several papers on evolution and socialism, and it seems clear to me that reading and thinking about evolution pushed these people in the wrong direction, about socialism specifically, but about political philosophy more generally. Maybe that won’t happen w/ LLMs and language, but I think we also shouldn’t assume they will lead to real progress and similarly w/ other cases. (I’m not saying you’re assuming this, Kenny – just that I think it’s pretty easy to go wrong in these ways, too, even if it’s possible to go right as well.)

Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
18 days ago

I also think philosophy of language is going to see growth. In addition to the methodological advances you’ve noted, I also think that in a weird way losing its central status in analytic philosophy has freed philosophy of language to investigate language for its own sake, drawing on linguistics and work in other areas of philosophy.

Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
Reply to  Stewie
21 days ago

Agreed, in particular the imperative to distinguish — and hopefully integrate — generative AI (LLMs and similar, based on unfathomable neural networks of large dimension) and explainable AI (aka GOFAI, good old fashioned AI, symbolic AI).

Common Lisp, meet Python.

And say “hi” to Hy, a Pythonic Lisp that bridges both powerful playgrounds of symbolic AI and neural networks.

Experimental philosophy — open source, with reproducible results on shared data — has potentially great real-world consequences in terms assessing, possibly extending, reasonable limits of accountability and trust in our new AI overlords.

21 days ago

I don’t think that the rate of progress of a field is necessary inversely proportional to its age. Many areas of the history of philosophy, for example, have been around for centuries. Yet they remain comparatively neglected because of the tendency of historians of philosophy to specialize in those figures which are already frequently taught in the classroom. Medieval philosophy is a prime example of this — there remains much new work to be done on Islamic and Jewish philosophy in the medieval period precisely because “medieval philosophy” means “medieval Christian theology” by default to many. For that matter, other religions (not only Islam and Judaism, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, indigenous religions of the Americas, etc.) are treated as though they do not “count” as philosophy. As a consequence, many would-be historians of philosophy pursue advanced degrees in other disciplines because so many professional philosophers regard only Christian theology as philosophy. So, the history of philosophy is teeming with opportunities for progress (if only because philosophy has been the slowest of the humanities to diversify).

Reply to  Monumentalist
7 days ago

From what I have seen, that description is a bit unfair.Lots of people doing history of philosophy now focus on neglected figures–see interest in Anne Conway and other neglected female philosophers (as well as writings on relatively neglected areas. There seems to be more interest now in Islamic philosophy, though my view is influence by the prevalence of the wonderful Peter Adamson. That is not to say that there is not more work, esp work on Eastern philosophy by analytic philosophers–but even here there is more than there was 20 or 30 years ago.

Kevin Powell
19 days ago

If philosophical progress is measured in progress towards the truth, then can’t our acceptance of the fact that we may never find answers to a difficult question count as philosophical progress? After all, a statement like “We cannot make any progress towards a true answer to question or problem X” is truth-apt.

If so, then both the mind-body problem and the hard problem of consciousness are two areas in which philosophers are failing to make progress, because progress in these areas would require a stronger consensus that true solutions to these problems simply cannot be discovered (at least, that’s my view!). So given the above, I’m forced to conclude that the only way to make progress on these issues is to shrug our shoulders and abandon them.

Fortunately, I’m also inclined the doubt the answers model. Otherwise, a great deal of work by philosophers of mind since at least Descartes would be worthless, and that seems wrong.

Last edited 19 days ago by Kevin Powell