What philosophers think

progressPhilosophy is often accused of “not making progress,” a statement usually accompanied by an implied — and sometimes overt — sharp contrast with science, which obviously makes progress.

In a forthcoming book for Chicago Press I suggest that it is actually significantly more difficult than one would think to make precise sense of the idea of progress even in science (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course!). But for now I have explored a specific aspect of the charge that philosophy doesn’t make progress, in two essays that appeared recently at The Philosophers’ Magazine online.

The suggestion put forth by critics of philosophical inquiry is that philosophers — unlike scientists — cannot agree on the answer to certain questions within their own field of expertise, which must mean that there is no answer to those questions, or at the very least that philosophers are incapable of settling on the best one.

But the model of progress in philosophy I put forth in the forthcoming Chicago volume is that philosophy (and math, and logic) work differently from science (and from each other) when it comes to the whole idea of “making progress.” Specifically, I suggest that philosophy is in the business of exploring a conceptual (as opposed to an empirical, as in the case of science) landscape whose parameters are determined by the specific question at hand. Within that landscape, “progress” can mean two things: either the discovery (or invention) of a new “peak,” corresponding to a good framework to think about the question under examination, or the refinement over time of an already discovered/invented peak.

This sounds pretty abstract, so let me give you a specific example. Suppose the question under examination is: what is the best way to think about ethics, or to resolve ethical issues? Progress here has been made by philosophers in both of the above senses: on the one hand, they have identified a number of possible coherent answers (“peaks” in the conceptual landscape defined by the question), including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, ethics of care, communitarianism, and a number of others. On the other hand, they have then refined their understanding of each of these peaks: in virtue ethics, we can be Aristotelian or Stoic, for instance; utilitarians can follow the early version proposed by Bentham, the more refined one put forth by Mill, or some of the more recent ones, such as Peter Singer’s. All of this, I submit, should count as progress.

But, and here is the rub as well as the point of the two TPM articles mentioned above, conceptual spaces can — and generally do — yield more than one viable peak, and sometimes (indeed, often) it just isn’t the case that one peak is “higher” (more fit, to use an evolutionary metaphor) than another one. And this is different from the case in science, where — presumably — there is just one world out there and therefore just one correct answer to how it works (regardless of whether our theories about and empirical access to that world are in fact good enough to find such an answer).

For instance, if the question is whether or not there are subatomic particles that make up atoms’ nuclei, then there is a definite and correct answer (yes, we call them quarks). But if the question is what is the best way to think about ethics, one can argue that virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism are all acceptable answers, each with its pros and cons. (And the same goes for sub-types within each peak: e.g., Aristotelian vs Stoic virtue ethics.)

Therefore, it is not surprising that philosophers hold a number of contrasting opinions on crucial issues regarding their field of expertise. But they don’t hold a large variety of opinions, nor are these opinions all weighed equally within the community — as one would expect if my model of progress in philosophy is correct.

The first TPM essay sets up the background just summarized above and then uses an interesting paper by David Bourget and David Chalmers that actually quantifies the agreement or lack thereof among professional philosophers on a number of philosophical questions. Here are some examples:

  • 71% of respondents thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so (the remainder falls under the usual heterogeneous category of “other”). There is a clear majority here, despite ongoing discussions on the subject.
  • One of the most lopsided outcomes of the survey concerns what epistemic attitude is more reasonable to hold about the existence and characteristics of the external world: 82% of respondents qualified themselves as realists, followed by only 5% skeptics and 4% idealists.
  • Physicalism is dominant in philosophy of mind (57%), while cognitivism seems to be the preferred way to go concerning moral judgment (66%).

The second essay uses the same Bourget-Chalmers paper to look at the correlation structure within the data, for instance:

  • If a philosopher is a moral realist, she is also likely to be an objectivist about aesthetic value. Interestingly, moral realists also tend to be realists in philosophy of science, and Platonists about abstract objects. It is perfectly sensible to reject moral realism in meta-ethics (44% of philosophers do), but — if one is a moral realist — then one probably should also consistently embrace realism in other areas of philosophy as well, which is exactly what happens according to the data.
  • In philosophy of science, realism (i.e., the idea that scientific theories describe ontologically “thick” unobservables out there, like electrons) beats anti-realism (i.e., the view that scientific theories are empirically adequate, but that they do not commit us to any strong ontology), by a large margin, 75% to 12%, which is consistent with my own view (I’m a philosopher of science!) that, although anti-realists do have good arguments, the preponderance of considerations clearly favors realism.
  • If a philosopher finds kinship with Aristotle, she is also probably a virtue ethicist, according to the data.
  • In political philosophy, if John Rawls is your guy, you are more likely to be a communitarian.

And so forth. So at the very least one can confidently conclude (empirical data in hand!) that  the popular view that when philosophers disagree on something, there will be n+1 opinions being put forth about whatever subject matter, where n is the number of philosophers opining about it, is simply false. And that’s because philosophers do make progress in rejecting bad ideas, keeping good ones, and then refining them as far as it is possible.

33 thoughts on “What philosophers think

  1. Philosopher Eric

    Hi David Ottlinger,

    It’s very good to hear that you’ve submitted such a piece, since this is a wonderful topic and I would indeed like to know where your beliefs lie. That your position contrasts somewhat with Massimo’s is not surprising, given that many do seem to look down on philosophers for their failure to reach consensuses about reality. This was certainly my own position when I began to earnestly follow Scientia Salon in May. I was informed however, that philosophers seek to understand something other that “reality,” and thus shouldn’t be measured from the same criteria.

    One given explanation was that philosophy plays a purely “critical” roll in the academy. Of course Coel found this stance humorous, since criticism of science is part and parcel of the scientific method itself. Nevertheless I find no true objection to raise in this respect, since if philosophers would like to consider themselves “critics,” there is indeed plenty of such work to do.

    From the post above I get the sense that Massimo uses a somewhat more ambitious definition for philosophy, and this was mentioned as a “conceptual” rather than “empirical” approach to any given question. Here we have either the discovery or refinement of a reasonable framework from which to address our questions. Thus philosophy has indeed shown progress given the existence of various conceptual approaches which have become refined over time, for example, in its branch of ethics.

    I can’t complain about this either, since if the ancient discipline of philosophy is bold enough to claim that it’s not “reality study,” then it’s surely off the hook for failing to develop such accepted understandings. (Of course some may claim that philosophers only take this position to bolster their own pride, and would actually love to provide the academy with various accepted understandings of reality if they could, but this is pure conjecture.) In practice Massimo does also seem to practice what he preaches. For example, while I personally am concerned about “instrumental” good/bad (as Massimo has termed it for me), or an aspect of reality that should thus be explored under the institution of science, virtually everyone else is concerned about “moral” good/bad, or standard beliefs regarding good/bad (given the effects of our “empathy” and “theory of mind,” I think). So in the end it’s not the philosopher that has failed us, but rather the scientist. We should actually be grateful that philosophers have had the nerve to ponder humanity’s most crucial questions, even if not in a “reality study” capacity. I must still conclude, however, that the psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, cognitive scientist, and so on, will need to achieve accepted understandings regarding such aspects of reality, or their fields will surely remain similar to physics before the rise of Sir Isaac Newton.

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  2. David Ottlinger (@DavidOttlinger)


    There’s a lot I could say here. I appreciate the comment but I’,m not going to hijack the thread. The piece will come out on Monday (hopefully) and we can chat there. Briefly I think that some areas of philosophy are not about reality. Ethics is about what we ought to do not what is (I don’t believe there are moral facts). Much of the rest of philosophy is in one sense about reality, but in a fairly strained sense. Following Quine I tend to think the truth of statements is dependent on the way the world is and the what are representations mean. All statements have import on the way the world is and the what words mean. “Bachelors are unmarried” has more import about the latter. “Brick houses are on Elm St” the former. I think philosophy typically deals with (or ought to deal with) statements more like “Bachelors are unmarried”. Arguments concerning such statements will largely be driven by the concepts and underdetermined by the facts.

    Also in brief while I think Massimo is right to emphasizes that philosophy accomplishes more than it is usually given credit for, the emphasis ought to be more on the fact that we all act on philosophical assumptions. Our choice is not between philosophy and no philosophy but between good philosophy and bad philosophy.

    Hope to see you at EA!

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  3. labnut

    I would guess non-Humean. And that would be a very interesting debate to have with a physicist. Know anyone who might be interested?

    The physicists I know are of the unreflective ‘shut up and calculate’ kind. The non-Humean concept of the Laws of Nature is for them a simple, convenient working assumption. Particles and fields behave as if there are exact, universal and unchanging laws of nature that prescribe their behaviour. Calling them ‘regularities’ would only make sense if they were not so exact, universal and unchanging.

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