Monday, October 25, 2021

Philosophical Progress Causes The Illusion That There Is No Philosophical Progress


The claim that “there is no progress in philosophy” may be a self-verifying one: the longer we debate it, the more evidence we have for it. So it is with some apprehension that I bring this topic up, since it strikes me as incredibly obvious that this claim is false: not only does philosophy make progress, it is hard to even imagine the discipline without it. If my argument is convincing, it will also prove self-verifying, in that we can progress beyond this debate.

Those who argue that there is no progress in philosophy (and there are many) tend to base their argument on a comparison with the natural sciences. Physics, biology, and chemistry are all much younger than philosophy, but they have all made undeniable progress. They have built a clear professional consensus around previously disputed issues, such as Pasteur's germ theory of disease, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Philosophy, by contrast, is still actively debating many of the same questions that birthed the discipline, such as whether or not humans have free will, what the meaning nature of morality is, and what the source and foundation of knowledge is. We even debate if framing these questions this way is the best way to investigate these topics or not.


Perhaps even more embarrassing, according to skeptics of philosophical progress, is the fact that science appears to have resolved several debates that once dumbfounded philosophers. Ancient Greek philosophers traded speculations about the nature of matter, space, and time. 2,000 years later, physicists from John Dalton to Albert Einstein swept all such speculative disputes away and settled these issues (to a high degree of approximation, at least.) Neuroscience has put to bed age-old disputes about the nature of the mind, perception and consciousness. And so on.


Looking at these skeptical arguments one might be tempted to ask what the point of doing philosophy even is. If real progress only happens in the sciences why not simply abandon philosophy as a discipline and put all our resources into science. Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V.O. Quine both imagined a future where our intellectual resources would migrate away from philosophy and towards more constructive disciplines. 


But nearly all of these anti-progressive arguments rest on a number of dubious assumptions about the nature of philosophy, science, and progress. For starters, they assume that science is distinct from philosophy, rather than part and parcel of it. Galileo, Descartes, and Newton saw no need to draw a categorical distinction between ‘natural philosophy’ (what we today call ‘science’) and it's more general superset. There is still considerable overlap between the theoretical branches of physics, biology and neuroscience and the philosophers who specialize in these areas. While it may make sense from a university administration perspective to divide up science departments from the philosophy department, substantively such divisions amount to little more than a useful academic fiction. In the words of Robert Cummins, “Science is just philosophy that worked.”


When we turn to examine the conception of ‘progress’ at play in the above arguments, the case against stagnation in philosophy cuts even deeper. It is perhaps debatable whether or not science makes ‘progress towards truth’ (‘truth’ being one of those tenacious, stagnating philosophical problems). But there are two senses in which science seems to make undeniable progress: practical applications and consensus building. Whether or not General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are ‘true,’ they are both incredibly useful in developing technologies like GPS navigation and microprocessors. And likewise, while there are still unresolved debates in science, the generally accepted methods of science drive nearly all practitioners towards agreement over time.


But, as others have argued before me[1], on both of these metrics of progress philosophy has made real, undeniable progress as well. Philosophers used to have major debates over topics like the suitability of women to hold political power, the moral relevance of pain in non-human animals, and whether or not homosexual relationships deserve the same social and legal recognition as heterosexual relationships. These issues are not debated anymore in philosophy journals or at philosophy conferences, save for a very small number of fringe thinkers engaged in post-hoc rationalizing, or pedantic hairsplitting.[2] We have reached a near-universal consensus as a discipline on these issues. And that consensus has clear practical applications in law, politics, and civil society. Philosophy has made so much progress, in fact, that we seem to have forgotten that these were ever issues that concerned us in the first place. Progress in philosophy is hidden by the fact that disagreement is so integral to the discipline that when consensus is reached, we don’t consider the erstwhile dispute to be philosophy anymore.


Moreover, there are no good reasons to limit our conception of progress to consensus building and practical applications. These are plenty of other ways that a discipline can make progress: by proposing/developing novel theories; by connecting previously disparate areas of thought; by introducing new questions; by dissolving illusory problems that arose through conceptual confusion; by amplifying the perspectives of previously ignored groups; by developing new methods for investigating old questions; by drawing attention to the assumptions made by popular approaches to problems, and so on. For all of the arguments made against progress in philosophy, I don’t believe I have ever seen anyone argue that philosophy has never (or even rarely) made progress in any of these respects. 


Yet, for some unargued reason, many assume that if philosophy doesn’t make progress in the same way that science does, that ‘progress’ doesn’t count. It seems like a humble ambition to insist that an argument is required to justify this metric, and to exclude all others. And if such an argument is presented, such an argument itself would seem to be an example of progress in philosophy, which would in turn, be proof that progress in some sense at least, is possible.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1] See, for example, Tim Maudlin.

[2] It is worth noting that the sciences also have their fringe contrarians, too. There are a small, but non-negligible number of figures with advanced degrees in science from respectable universities that deny the theory of evolution, the germ theory of disease, and anthropogenic climate change. If we don’t gainsay the notion of progress in science because of such outliers then should we not follow suit in philosophy?


  1. Hi Garret, nice piece. It won't surprise you that I tend to agree with most of this, but:

    1. There are still plenty of philosophers who do see philosophy as a distinct academic discipline, and I think you can make a good case that these folks have a hard time pointing to unequivocal examples of progress. You note the fact that philosophers today no longer debate a variety of moral questions, but I think that's weak evidence that philosophers actually answered these questions to most people's satisfaction and I bet you do too. There is a strong case to be made that the questions just went out of fashion because of various political and technological changes. It is easy to imagine futures in which they return.

    2. I think it's important to note that for the last 100 years or so most of the really important philosophical contributions to science tend to come from philosophically inclined scientists, not people who call themselves philosophers.

    3. Someone who holds the skeptical view can make a pretty impressive case that there are loads of philosophical questions that philosophers have been debating since the dawn of philosophy. In fact, introductory philosophy courses tend to focus on these questions, and to characterize them as perennial. What is knowledge? What is free will? What is the good life? What is the self? What is real? Some account of the enduring nature of this questions is owed. Otherwise people are within their rights to conclude that we aren't very good at solving problems.

    4. I think it's a weak move to start talking about different types of progress. It's best to identify the one that seems to be at issue and stick with it. There is a separate question whether philosophy has value that we would not necessarily call progress.

  2. I agree with much of the content in this article and the criticisms laid out thus far.

    That being said, I would say there has been undeniable progress in philosophy. If not in what answers and approaches can be considered right, then at least in which answers and approaches are likely wrong. This may sound trivial but it’s not. Wrong answers and bad reasoning are not only a waste of time but have proven to be historically dangerous.