“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.