Progress in Philosophy — I

philosophy[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“What is your aim in Philosophy?

To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

We finally get to the crux of the matter: how does philosophy make progress? By now we should have a more nuanced appreciation of a number of concepts of progress in what I think are the most closely allied disciplines to philosophy: the natural sciences, mathematics, and logic. I actually happen to think that other fields in the humanities also make progress, in the sense of developing by exploration of an internally generated conceptual space whose characteristics are “evoked” (see Introduction) once certain assumptions or starting parameters are in place. These include perhaps most obviously history, and more controversially literary and art criticism. But those fields are too far afield of my technical purview to treat in any detail here, so I will leave that task to others who are better suited to carrying it out.

I will proceed, as it has been the case during most of our discussion, by example, counting on the idea that the contours of the broader picture will emerge as we go along (a Wittgensteinian approach, if you will). As it should be clear by now, I think it is a mistake to tackle complex problems by providing sharp, necessary-and-sufficient type, definitions. Human intellectual endeavors are just too intricate and nuanced for that sort of approach. The examples I will draw on below are from areas of philosophy I am more familiar with — either because I actually worked on them or because they interest me in some special fashion. Which means that the selection of examples should not be taken as exhaustive, and is certainly only partially representative of the huge and highly diverse field of philosophy (Chapter 2). This very same chapter would have been written substantially differently by another philosopher with a different range of expertise and interests, but that should not affect the basic message that, I hope, will come through loud and clear.

Progress in conceptual space — which is the way I am thinking of progress in philosophy in general — can occur because of the discovery of new “peaks,” corresponding to new intellectual vistas to be explored and eventually refined; or because of the realization that some ideas are actually “valleys,” i.e. they need to be mapped so that we know they exist and what they look like, but then also discarded so not to impede further progress (recall our discussion of Rescher’s aporetic clusters in the Introduction). An objection that can be raised to my approach is that progress necessarily entails a teleonomic component, the idea that a field is “going somewhere,” so to speak, whereas I am defining progress in philosophy (and, similarly, in mathematics and logic) as the process of finding new places to go, largely in response to internally generated problems. As it should be clear by this point, however, I think that a teleological view of progress is only one of a number of possible conceptualizations of the idea of progress, one that fits particularly well the scientific context. Still, I doubt many people would deny that mathematics and logic also make progress, and yet these cases — I suggest — are not teleological. If so, the choice for the critic is either to maintain a narrow, necessarily teleological view of progress and deny that mathematics and logic make progress, or to accept that those fields make progress and so discard the teleological requirement as necessary (although it may be sufficient, in specific instances).

Now, we have already encountered a number of “valleys” in philosophy’s conceptual landscapes. Take, for instance, the most extreme postmodernist attacks on science (Chapters 1 and 2), Jerry Fodor’s misguided criticism of Darwinism (Chapter 1), and Thomas Nagel interesting but ultimately dead-ended challenge to naturalism (Chapter 1). And that list could be much, much longer. What follows, by contrast, is a series of sketches of how philosophers positively build (discover? Invent?) positive peaks within three areas of the vast landscape in which they move: epistemology, philosophy of science, and ethics. Once again, what we are about to embark on is nothing like an exhaustive survey of those fields of philosophical inquiry, and indeed I will only be in a position to comment briefly on each of the specific examples (despite the length of this chapter). The objective here is to provide a flavor of what it means to make progress in philosophy by sampling different areas of scholarship within its broader domain. Hopefully, others will be able to elaborate on this sketch and add many more such examples. It’s about time that philosophers stop shooting themselves in the foot (Chapter 1) and realize that they have nothing to envy to other fields in terms of rigor of their investigations and soundness of their results.

Progress in epistemology: knowledge from Plato to Gettier and beyond

“Knowledge” is a heterogeneous category: I may “know,” for instance, my friend Phil; or how to cook risotto; or that I am in pain. But as far as epistemology is concerned, we are talking about knowledge of propositions, something along the lines of “S knows that p” (Steup 2005). The traditional view in epistemology dates back to Plato and consists in the idea that knowledge requires three components, which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient: justification, truth, and belief (JTB, for short — though it isn’t exactly clear the extent to which Plato himself endorsed such view). During the second part of the 20th century, however, a family of non-traditional views began to be developed, stemming from a class of objections that show the JTB account of knowledge to be incomplete. These are known as Gettier (1963) cases.

The exploration of this particular peak (really, more like a mini-mountain range) in conceptual space began with the publication of a short paper (three pages) published by now retired University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Edmund Gettier back in 1963 (as it turns out, he wrote it in order to get tenure, and it is the only paper he published in his entire philosophical career — not exactly a pattern that fits with the contemporary bean counting obsession of university administrators). So to better follow this first example, and to properly visualize what I mean by conceptual space, I have drawn a concept map (Moon et al. 2011; Kinchin 2014) to help us along (Figure 4). Beginning on the left side of the concept map, we start with the “Platonic” definition of knowledge as Justified True Belief. This means that for something to count as knowledge, the epistemic agent’s belief about a certain matter has to be both true and (rationally) justified. For instance, let’s say you believe that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way. This belief is, as far as we can tell, true. But can you justify it? That is, if someone asked you why you hold that particular belief, can you actually give an account of it? If yes, congratulations, you can say that you know (in the Platonic sense) that the earth goes around the sun. Otherwise you are simply repeating something you heard or read somewhere else. (Which, of course, is fine from a pragmatic perspective. It just doesn’t count as knowledge.)

Gettier map-1

Now, the above approach was good enough for about two and a half millennia, until some people — e.g., Bertrand Russell — began questioning it and thinking about its limitations. But the big splash on the knowledge thing was the short paper by Gettier. Because the problem posed by Gettier may not sound that impressive the first (or even the second) time you encounter it, be sure to take some time to metabolize the issue, so to speak.

A typical “Gettier case” is a hypothetical situation that seems to be an exception to the JTB conception of knowledge. [1] Let’s say I see letters, copies of utilities bills and other documents from my friend Phil, and they all refer to a residence in New York City, state of New York. I would be justified in believing that Phil lives in New York City. If Phil lives in NYC, then it is also true that Phil lives in the State of New York, and consequently I believe that too. Turns out, however, that Phil actually lives on Long Island (he just likes to have his bills sent to New York City, to show off with his friends). So my first belief about Phil was simply wrong. This presents no problem for the JTB account, since my belief only satisfied one of the other two conditions (it was justified, but not true). The trouble comes when we assess my second belief, that Phil lives in the State of New York. I am correct, he does. That belief of mine is both true, and justified (logically, given the premise that Phil lives in NYC). But now we have a case of justified true belief that is actually based on false premises, since Phil does not, in fact, live in New York City.

Gettier cases have the general form of the example I just gave: they get off the ground because they are about inferring conclusions via a belief that is justified but not true. The problem they pose is not with the first belief (the one that is justified but not true) but with the second belief (the one that is inferred from the first one, and which happens to be true). Now what?

The first response — the first move in logical space after Gettier’s own — was for epistemologists to seize on the already noted fact that Gettier cases depend on the presence of false premises and simply amend the definition of knowledge to say that it is justified true belief that does not depend on false premises (the “no false lemma” solution, see concept map). As it turns out, however, one can easily defeat this move by introducing more sophisticated Gettier cases that do not seem to depend on false premises, so called general Gettier-style problems.

Here is one possible (if a bit contrived) scenario: I am walking through Central Park and I see a dog in the distance. I instantly form the belief that there is a dog in the park. This belief is justified by direct observation. It is also true, because as it happens there really is a dog in the park. Problem is, it’s not the one I saw! The latter was, in fact, a robotic dog unleashed by members of the engineering team from the Bronx High School of Science. So my belief is justified (it was formed by normally reliable visual inspection), true (there is indeed a dog in the park), and arrived at without relying on any false premise. And yet, we would be hard pressed to call this an instance of “knowledge.” It looks more like a lucky coincidence.

There is, however, a move that can be made by supporters of the no false lemma solution to repair their argument, which consists in adding that the epistemic agent needs to (consciously or even unconsciously) consider the possibility of both deception and self-deception, claiming knowledge only when those have been ruled out. The problem with that solution is that if we accept it then it turns out that we hold to a lot fewer justified beliefs than we think, perhaps even starting us on the road to complete skepticism.

A related, but distinct, move, is to say that Gettier cases are not exceptions to JTB because it does not make sense to say that one can justify something that is not true. That may be, but this moves the discussion away from the concept of knowledge and onto that of justification, which turns out to be just as interesting and complicated (we’ll get there in a bit).

A completely different take is adopted by philosophers who have tried to “dissolve” rather than resolve the Gettier problem (lower portion of the concept map). Here there are at least two areas of logical space that can be reasonably defended: the minimalist answer is to bite the bullet and agree that all cases of true belief, including accidental ones, count as knowledge. The good news is that we end up having much more knowledge than we thought; the bad news is that it seems we are now counting as “knowledge” the sort of lucky coincidences (see the dog example above) that are really hard to swallow for an epistemologist. A second way of dissolving the Gettier problem is to say that it gets wrong the concept of justification (again, thus shifting the focus of the discussion). For instance, one could say that justification depends not just on the internal state of the epistemic agent, but also on how it relates to the state of affairs in the external world (the dog is really a robot!). This means that we are now owed an account of why there may be a mis-alignment between internal and external states, or what makes a belief appropriate or inappropriate.

The upper-central portion of my concept map refers to two additional broad categories of replies (two peaks in this particular conceptual space), one that adopts the strategy of revising the JTB approach itself, the second that aims at expanding it with a further, “G” (for Gettier) condition. Let’s start with possible modifications of JTB. One option was suggested by Fred Dretske (1970) and separately by Robert Nozick (1981), and is known as the “truth tracking” account: it basically says that the epistemic agent shouldn’t believe proposition p if p were not true. This, however, immediately leads to the question of what accounts for agents having this or that belief. A second modification of JTB is known as Richard Kirkham’s skepticism, and it is an acknowledgment of the fact that there will always be cases were the available evidence does not logically necessitate a given belief. This move in turn leads to a split: on the one hand, one can simply embrace skepticism about knowledge and be done with it. On the other hand, one can adopt a fallibilist position and agree that a belief can be rational even though it doesn’t rise to the lofty level of knowledge.

We now move to explore the last area (lower-center) of logical space opened up (“evoked,” to use our by now familiar terminology) by discussions of Gettier problems: the so-called “fourth condition” family of approaches (detail in Figure 5). One is represented by Alvin Goldman’s causal theory of belief, which says that it is the truth of a given belief that causes the agent to hold to a belief in the proper manner (an improper manner would fall back into Gettier-style cases). This again raises the issue of how we account for the difference between appropriate and inappropriate beliefs, the very same question raised by one of the dissolution approaches, the one that says that Gettier cases involve a wrong concept of justification, as well as by the Dretske-Nozick response. Goldman himself was happy to proceed by invoking some form of reliabilism about justification.

Gettier map-2

Keith Lehrer and Thomas Paxson have advanced the possibility of defeasibility conditions: knowledge gets redefined as “undefeated” justified true belief. This is not the place to pursue it further, but the problem — as presented by some of Lehrer and Paxson’s critics — is that it is surprisingly hard to get a good grip on the concept of a defeater in a way that doesn’t rule out well established instances of a priori knowledge that we want to preserve, like logical and mathematical knowledge.

Finally, we have the pragmatic move: since truth is defined by pragmatists like Charles Sanders Peirce as the eventual opinion reached by qualified experts, we get that in most ordinary cases of “knowledge” we simply need to embrace a Socratic recognition of our own ongoing ignorance.

Now, you may be thinking: so, after all this, what is the answer to Gettier-style problems? What is the true account of knowledge? If so, you missed the point of the whole exercise. Unlike science (Chapter 4), where we seek answers to questions determined by empirical evidence and we do expect (eventually, approximately) to get the right one, philosophy is in the business of exploring logically coherent possibilities, not of finding the truth. There are often a number of such possibilities, since the constraints imposed by logic are weaker than those imposed by empirical facts. At the end of our discussion of knowledge and Gettier cases, however, we are left with the following: a) A much better appreciation for the complexities of the deceptively simple question: what is knowledge? b) An exploration of several possible alternative accounts of knowledge and related concepts (such as justification and belief); c) A number of options still standing, some of which may be more promising than others; and d) A number of possibilities that need to be discarded because they just don’t work when put under scrutiny. And that, I think, is how philosophy makes progress.


[1] However, a recent paper by Machery et al. (2015) shows that most non-philosophers do not consider Gettier cases to be instances of knowledge. Moreover, there seems to be no cross-cultural disagreement on this verdict.


Dretske, Fred. 1970. Epistemic Operators. The Journal of Philosophy 67:1007– 1023.

Gettier, E.L. (1963) Is justified true belief knowledge? Analysis 23:121-123.

Kinchin, I.M. (2014) Concept Mapping as a Learning Tool in Higher Education: A Critical Analysis of Recent Reviews. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education 62:39-49.

Machery, E., S. Stich, D. Rose, et al. (2015) Gettier across cultures. Noûs, online 13 August 2015, DOI: 10.1111/nous.12110.

Moon, B.M., Hoffman, R.R., Novak, J.D. and Cañas, A.J. (2011) Applied Concept Mapping: Capturing, Analyzing, and Organizing Knowledge. CRC Press.

Nozick, R. (1981) Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

Steup, M. (2005) Epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 26 June 2012).


72 thoughts on “Progress in Philosophy — I

  1. “No, the former saying wouldn’t be better:”

    I’m so glad, I think. That was one of the few useful things I learned in high school English. My senior year high school teacher taught ‘critical thinking’ and was much better than the idiot I had in college.

    These days she likely couldn’t teach that; it’s likely not on the exit examine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo–

    The big-picture flowchart graph of Gettier is terrific.

    “There are often a number of such possibilities, since the constraints imposed by logic are weaker than those imposed by empirical facts.”

    I for one have gravitated to the more pragmatic solution (and just more generally in my philosophical outlook, really). Not that I can say what constitutes the constraints of empirical facts beyond some plausible set of epistemic possibilities. How epistemic possibilities would properly constrain the “right” solution to Gettier cases I don’t exactly know, but my sense is that the constraint would be, in fact, pragmatic.

    I wish more philosophers more gifted than I would comment here.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Perhaps I’m technically considered “a skeptic,” though in a literal sense this classification seems far too pesimistic. I simply find it irritating to use terms like “truth” and “knowledge” in any ultimate regard, when I damn well know that I could instead use a term such as “believe.” Thus if philosophers were to severely restrict their use of ultimate terms in ultimate settings which they can’t truly be certain about, I for one would call this “progress.”

    That said however, there is one thing which I do claim to “know.” Can anyone guess what?

    Hi Garthdaisy,

    I’ve very much enjoyed your commentary so far, and thus wanted to formally welcome you. I’m actually trying to stay out of this series however, since it is my hope that Massimo’s new book does well for him, though I oppose its premise. (It’s certainly been educational for me regardless.)

    Beyond your “We only know what seems to be so as far as we know,” perhaps you’ll consider my own associated explanation? It runs about like this:

    There is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. It takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and uses this to assess what it’s not so sure about (theory). The more that a theory tends to stay consistent with evidence, the more that it tends to become accepted. I consider this to be common among scientists, philosophers, theologians, birds, rats, and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dan,

    # I was responding to this #

    Well, but in that quote I was labeling science as an allied field to philosophy, in line with a general “naturalistic” turn that is widely accepted by many contemporary philosophers. I wasn’t saying that philosophy is *like* science.

    As for critical theory, I understood you like Socratic did, hence my rather skeptical remark. Still, historically linguistics branched off of philosophy, hence my comment about reversing your analogy.


    # Wouldn’t it be fair to say that, were one to make a map of “scientia land”, philosophy would not be one contiguous region on the map, but a set of disjoint regions? #

    I don’t necessarily object to that, especially in light of my treatment, at the beginning of the book, of philosophy as a broad family resemblance set of activities and approaches. However, because historically all the other disciplines arose by differentiating from within philosophy, and because style of discorsive argumentation underlies them all, one could also see philosophy as the background to all the other peaks in the landscape. Look, metaphors have limits, especially spatial ones…


    # I’m a physicist and I don’t think it’s up to physicists to say which methods are allowed in philosophy. But a more thorough explanation would be welcome #

    It’s coming, last chapter of the book, next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi garthdaisy,

    I do agree that we need sense data for our values and desires to be about.

    As a thought experiment, if one tried developing a baby in a sensory deprivation tank, with absolutely no sense data, what would be the outcome? My guess is that it would not develop to have sentient thought and consciousness..

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Coel,

    That’s a bit binary for a more complex reality. Babies are presumably born sentient and without feedback, i.e.. food, among other things, they would quickly lose that, i.e. die.
    Yet with some input of energy, there would necessarily be input of information as well. So they would grow and both mentally and physically explore and push against boundaries, as we all do. Now the result might not be relatable to our experience, but then there are lots of people in this world we might have difficulty relating too, given their very different situations.


  7. Hi Massimo,

    However, because historically all the other disciplines arose by differentiating from within philosophy, and because style of discorsive argumentation underlies them all, one could also see philosophy as the background to all the other peaks in the landscape.

    One could indeed (though it seems dangerously close to my way of seeing a continuous ensemble, with subdivisions being useful but rather arbitrary). I suspect that we’re not that far apart, except on what aspects we choose to emphasize.


  8. Though one might consider that if philosophy is about 2500 years old and evolved as pushback against fairly established physical, social and cultural norms, it might be viewed as one more layer of feedback with the environment. As such, it’s not so much how the fly gets out of the flybottle, as to coming to terms with the flybottle.

    If there were no boundaries to explore, we would really be sensorially deprived.


  9. If we take up Unger’s challenge eg

    “the few correct offerings of recent mainstream philosophers have been, almost without exception, just so many, or so few, analytically correct ideas. So, quite fundamentally, virtually all (correct) recent mainstream philosophy is quite unlike mathematics…It should be clear what my target is, and what it is not: My target …[is] quite a bit of epistemology.”

    His thesis, I think, is that only a little of this is actually progress. For example,
    “minimalist” knowledge, where when I guess all the multiple choice questions correctly I have perfect knowledge, might be analytically consistent, but not concretely very useful. Ditto, any theory that does not specify what justification actually is operationally. The naturalised reliabilist theories coming out of decision and game theory seem fruitful, but they also overlap, I would think, quite substantially with mathematics and economics and theoretical computer science and cognitive science. Papers from Bayesian epistemologists look pretty similar to many papers from the probability and statistics literature.

    Jerry Coyne links to an interesting recent experimental study on whether ravens “have a theory of mind”, that is, do they have beliefs regarding the knowledge that other ravens might have:

    I’m guessing that many philosophers would argue they can’t have knowledge – they can’t know that that they know, they certainly can’t offer justifications for their beliefs (although behaviourally we might infer their credence for a particular hypothesis), etc. Ditto for bees watching the waggle dance. A question then is whether definitions of knowledge that exclude such interesting real life questions are “empty”.


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