Does Philosophy make Progress?

“Philosophy never makes progress, unlike science. Philosophers are still thinking now about the same problems they were 2,000 years ago.”

I’ve come across this sentiment or something like it quite a few times, and I think it’s actually not true. So why not blog on the subject?

It does seem, at times, that philosophy is sort of ‘stuck’. Obviously it changes, in what positions are fashionable, and who’s quoting whom at whom regarding what, but does it make substantive progress? Can we point to ‘advances’ that philosophy has demonstrably made, contributions it has made to human knowledge which aren’t just a trading-in of old prejudices for new ones?

The first and most concrete thing that comes to mind is, unimpressive as it may seem, a collection of instructive failures. Its history is filled with bold experiments, and the records of what went wrong – each of which tell us something significant.

For example, we now know that if we suppose all knowledge and all concepts to be derived from experience, we will find it very very hard to justify even simple reasoning procedures like “if it hurt every time I did it so far, it will probably hurt next time as well”. We know that because incredibly smart people committed to that very supposition have spent their lives trying to do so, with little success. And I don’t think that this was known in the same way in centuries before that, because the problem hadn’t been raised and considered in the same way.

Of course not everyone agrees, and people will always have a new attempt to revive apparently dead options – but there is at least a consensus that certain positions face certain, apparently serious, problems.

I think the 20th century in particular has been a major source of such ‘experiments’ in the philosophy of mind. ‘Behaviourism’, for instance, the belief that all apparently ‘mental’ talk was really a way of describing people’s observable behaviour, was popular in various forms around the early 20th century, but is very little defended nowadays, because it encountered certain problems and never quite presented a coherent response. (Hopefully, the same will soon be said of its frequent ‘successor’, functionalism)

And this isn’t just despair and failure. I would suggest that a lot of clarity and precision about what consciousness is, and what it is not, and what we can do with it conceptually, has been gained from the attempts to attack or defend theories like functionalism and behaviourism. We have a richer ‘feel’ for the issue now than if none of that had happened.

Perhaps the example of this that is of most immediate interest to non-philosophers is the existence of God. I’m going to stick my neck out, and say that, granting that we are always dealing with 90%s and not 100%s, it has been pretty well established that there is no convincing theoretical reason to believe in God. The arguments for theism are either logically confused (most notably the ‘ontological argument’, that’s God definition requires Him to exist, on pain of not being God) or to actually prove very little (e.g. the ‘cosmological argument’ that the universe requires some original founding origin – which might as well be a mindless singularity as an intelligent creator). And we can conclude this because incredibly smart people have spent their lives, over the course of hundreds of years, trying to provide the best case they could.

Of course, lots of people still believe in God, so it looks like philosophical progress hasn’t done much. I believe, for what it’s worth, that this illustrates that social and psychological factors are more important in determining religious beliefs, on the whole. But this nicely introduces the second major point that I think needs to be understood. Progress in philosophy cannot be separated from progress in the rest of society and the other intellectual disciplines.

To use the biggest and most obvious example: “natural philosophy” has made such astounding progress that it was able to buy its own house and move out, taking the new name “natural science”. The “human sciences” are hoping to do the same, though still dropping by every now and again for advice. “Logic”, always considered a part of philosophy, has pretty much moved in with “maths”, which itself split off from philosophy only a few millenia ago.

In short, philosophy may appear to make little progress, because whenever it does make progress, it stops being philosophy. By definition, philosophical problems are the ones we don’t really know how to solve – once we’ve worked out how to solve them, that method then defines a new discipline. Philosophy is ‘self-transcending’, like a good parent.

One way to express this, which I’ve used so far, is to present philosophy as active, as ‘making progress’ and in so doing defining the contours of the broader ‘intellectual culture’. The other way is to present philosophy as passive: it reflects and expresses the intellectual culture of its time. Current philosophy, for example, is deeply marked by the prominence of natural science; ancient or medieval philosophy reflected a different science, and also a different order of prominence among disciplines. Similarly, philosophy expresses the social and ethical situation, and does so differently in different historical situations (though not completely differently, which is important).

In that sense, philosophy might not ‘make’ progress in the sense of driving society’s changes by its own power, but it would be unreasonable to expect it to, since that’s not its job. Whatever view you take about the overall determinants of history, philosophy is making as much progress as anything else.

Or maybe that last claim should be qualified. The thing is, there are different sorts of progress. In, say, technology, we see a very strong form of progress, where ‘more advanced’ technology can replicate pretty much any virtue of past technology. It’s exceptional for there to be a technological feat that was within the capacity of, say, Sumerian technology, but not ours. In this sense technological progress is entirely positive – only gaining, never losing.

Social progress, on the other hand, is quite different: there may be virtues and advantages in 12th-century society that 19th-century society lacks, and can’t replicate. Urbanisation, for example, brings defects and problems as well as benefits. If we still think that there is ‘progress’, it’s because we think what is gained is greater than what is lost, not because we think nothing is lost.

Philosophical progress, obviously, is much more like social progress (or, say, progress in art, if there is such a thing) rather than technological progress. For instance, in many respects I think that 20th century philosophy was worse than 19th century philosophy; nevertheless, I’m optimistic that what’s good about 19th-century stuff can be renewed and combined with what’s good about 20th-century stuff.

(Indeed, the belief that social progress, or the philosophical progress that it connects with, is like technological progress, and involves only gain, is a discernible andvery political sort of attitude, and arguably one disposed to violence – the sort of attitude that can, for example, categorically dismiss the greivances or desires of a certain group of people on the grounds of their ‘primitiveness’.

At the same time, believing that there can be something to learn from either the past, or from cultures that have developed in different ways, or haven’t developed in industrial (or even literate) ways, need not stop us from believing that distinct progress – social and philosophical – has been made by ‘western’ societies.)

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