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?