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. Daniel Kaufman

    synred and others:

    Given that one cannot know something that is false, “knowledge” cannot be defined simply as justified belief.

    I can believe something false – – the moon is made of green cheese, for example. But I can’t know it. The common meaning of “knowledge” includes truth. Now, if you want to invent a technical term — shmolage — and stipulate that it doesn’t imply truth, that’s fine, but then you’re not talking about what everyone else is talking about.


    At least in standard logic, truth is governed by the principle of bivalence. So a proposition cannot be “approximately true.” In non-standard logics this may not be the case, but then, once again, you are not talking about what everyone else is talking about.


    The Gettier cases (which I just taught not a month or so ago, in my upper-division Knowledge and Reality course) ride on the fact that (a) justification and truth can come apart and (b) one can arrive at the truth by accident.

    The tripartite theory of knowledge, which the Gettier cases are meant to put pressure upon, *is* an effort to define ‘knowledge’. And it was the dominant view for millennia, until Gettier’s article.

    Far, then, from being some throwaway postmodern rubbish or some cheap stunt designed to get tenure, these are some of the most ingenious, significant counterexamples ever to be conceived in the history of philosophy.

    It so happens that I did a little piece on the Gettier cases and their significance for EA some time ago, for those who are interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. synred

    But questions like ‘what counts as knowledge?” don’t have answers.

    Best one can hope for is to clear away some rubbish and even on that there’s no consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. couvent2104

    I’m doing a Synred here … spreading my reaction over many comments …

    In other words: philosophers act as if knowledge is unproblematic when they’re analysing the idea that knowledge is problematic. This looks like a contradiction to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. synred

    I can believe something false – – the moon is made of green cheese, for example. But I can’t know it. The common meaning of “knowledge” includes truth. Now, if you want to invent a technical term — shmolage — and stipulate that it doesn’t imply truth, that’s fine, but then you’re not talking about what everyone else is talking about.

    Well even that doesn’t seem that complicated. Sometimes we’re wrong! It happens. Then what we thought was knowledge wasn’t knowledge alter all.


  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Then what we thought was knowledge wasn’t knowledge alter all.


    Correct. Which is why the KK issue has always been a tricky one — i.e. can one ever know whether or not one knows?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Semi-directly related to the matter at hand? Galen Strawson’s new piece in The Stone. Our understanding of consciousness in general still has room for lots of progress, but has already made a fair chunk of progress.

    I think Strawson illustrates, in a field besides knowledge, how the a-d points of Massimo can work.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. SocraticGadfly

    I must definitely disagree with Garth AND Coel.

    Philosophy is NOT a “gap-filler.” It deals with issues that, while they may be influenced by science, are not themselves science.

    And, while science may, or may not, help “illuminate” values, there is no guarantee that it can do that because, of course, once again, “is ≠ ought.”


  8. synred

    I’m doing a Synred here … spreading my reaction over many comments

    Short term memory problems, perhaps… ; __(


  9. couvent2104

    Mr. Kaufman,

    I’m not claiming that Gettier is “some throwaway postmodern rubbish or some cheap stunt”. It’s not up to me to judge these things. I’m looking in from the outside.

    I think Massimo has shown that just about everything is “theory-laden”. Therefore, it’s not immediately obvious why philosophers can analyse theoretical statements about knowledge (like Gettier) and at the same time know – in practice – what counts as knowledge and what not.

    I think he should explain more clearly which tools are allowed in philosophy. To put it very bluntly: if one has a ruler (a “tool”) and one has measured the length of one more thing, one can claim progress. One can also claim progress if one has build the ATLAS detector and discovered the Englert-Brout-Higgs. For me but that’s just me – progress is intrinsically linked to the tools one uses and developes. Measuring the length of one more thing is for me – but again, that’s just me – not the same thing as being able to discover the Englert-Brout-Higgs.

    And that’s the reason why I want to know more about the tools of philosophy, about the things that are allowed and the thing that aren’t (and why).

    Not because I think that Gettier wrote down some postmodern rubbish.

    I like the word “shmolage” by the way, although I personally use “zygomatopy” in similar circumstances.


  10. Massimo Post author


    # It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the presumptive Republican “values.” #

    Fair warning: this, or much else you have been posted recently, either has nothing to do with the topic at hand, or turns out to be incomprehensible (and not just to me, you’ve seen other people’s comments). You are this (picture a very short interval) close to another forced “cooling off” period.


  11. garthdaisy


    You don’t disagree with me you disagree with what you thought I said. It’s not gaps in science philosophy is filling, it’s gaps in knowledge that science can not fill.

    And yes we also agree that science can help illuminate ideas about values, it can not prescribe values. For that we need philosophy.


    “only humans can supply values.”

    Not without facts about the world and philosophy they can’t. You are right that neither science, nor philosophy, nor religion can give us values, but we have to come to them somehow, and a combination of science and philosophy seems the best we can do.


    “Correct. Which is why the KK issue has always been a tricky one — i.e. can one ever know whether or not one knows?”

    Back to my one liner epistemology. “We only know what seems to be so as far as we know.”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. synred

    It seems to me (subjectively) that self-consciousness has something to do with short term memory. That when I think about me hurting my toe, I’m remembering it.

    What’s some what baffling is why it has to hurt and be unpleasant. Couldn’t it just be a buzzer and light that tells you tot fix the equipment?

    Fixing something in a particle physics experiment can be quite a pleasant experience (If it goes well).

    An alarm goes off. You look up the code. You go down in the ‘pit’ and find the voltage one the calorimeter has tripped off. You push reset. The voltage resets. You go back to the control room and write a note in the logbook.

    A job well done! Even if a robot could do it!


  13. garthdaisy

    When I think about it, one way in which philosophy is very much like the natural sciences is reductionism. Take a sentence that most people understand and reduce it to something that may be valid, but actually makes the sentence totally confusing.

    Here I am agreeing with Dan that it mostly resembles linguistics, particularly semantics and pragmatism.. I think philosophical reductionism can be valuable, but it can also mess our heads up like QM.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. synred


    Dan is not blaming you for “some throwaway postmodern rubbish or some cheap stunt”.

    That was me. I apologize.


  15. Coel

    Hi garthdaisy,

    You are right that neither science, nor philosophy, nor religion can give us values, but we have to come to them somehow, and a combination of science and philosophy seems the best we can do.

    We can’t get values from anything external to ourselves; values are already part of us, part of our nature.

    Of course we ourselves, and thus our values, can be heavily influenced by external information, but I think we should still keep the distinction between information and values clear. (And, following Hume, oughts come from values, not from information.)

    None of science, philosophy or religion can supply values. Science doesn’t even pretend to. And, where philosophy or religion present value-laden frameworks such as moral systems, these are just a repository for the values of their advocates.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. synred

    Would saying “I think I saw a dog in the park” be better than “I saw a dog”

    My high school English teacher taught us not to use “I think” as it was redundant. If you say it, you’re saying what you think. On the other hand a person has pretty direct evidence for what they think and would “I think I saw a dog” would not be wrong even if the dog was a large cat in the distance, hologram setup by mischievous MIT students or a hallucination (just took LSD).

    And it’s even pretty likely the person did see a dog, so his friend who’s afraid of dogs might want to avoid the park – just in case there’s not some implausible alternative explanation for ‘seeing a dog.’

    How about “I probably saw a dog in the park”, is that knowledge? Maybe we need to stick with ‘information’ as ‘knowledge’ seems to be fraught with circularity and out of reach.

    In science if you give a number without an uncertainty that’s not considered science. Nothing is known.

    In real life you just say ‘there’s a dog in the park’ and your dog hating friend stays home.

    -Traruh Synred


  17. brodix


    “When I think about it, one way in which philosophy is very much like the natural sciences is reductionism. Take a sentence that most people understand and reduce it to something that may be valid, but actually makes the sentence totally confusing.”

    Keep in mind that’s the entire basis of the cognitive process. When you look at the room around you, there is enormous amounts of information and conceptual reductionism going on, or it would be whiteout on all sorts of levels. It would be like leaving the shutter open on a camera too long. Then when you get to larger societal issues, everything from culture to nationalism is about focusing the community and population in ways which allow it to function as a larger whole. It isn’t just about the details, but how they fit into and feedback with the bigger picture, as to what is retained and what is ignored. Though I better not expand on that, apparently.


    Reining it in.


  18. synred

    If I think about a piano, something in my thought picks out a piano. If I talk about cigars, something in my speech refers to cigars. This feature of thoughts and words, whereby they pick out, refer to, or are about things, is intentionality. In a word, intentionality is aboutness

    That seems an odd use of ‘intension’. I don’t feel I intend to think about a piano when, e.g., I see the word ‘piano’. It more like an association, it springs to mind automatically.

    If I decide to go over and pound on the keys (I can’t play), that is intentional or at least what I would call ‘intentional’


  19. brodix


    “Take a sentence that most people understand and reduce it to something that may be valid, but actually makes the sentence totally confusing.”

    Hopefully this passes the relevance test, but I thought it a very good example of how different points of view, even among people who converge politically, can still have significantly conflicting viewpoints;

    “as in the economic sphere, universalists and identity-centered activists ultimately have very different goals and so embrace very different tactics. Universalists want group identity to become less salient and consequential, and so resist tactics that highlight difference in order to promote intragroup solidarity and to sow open conflict with other groups. Identity-centered activists view solidarity and conflict as the best and perhaps only way to overcome identity-distributed oppression.”

    Which goes to the fact that perceptions often diverge and that convergence(the big picture) often requires editing detail, not expounding on it.

    This necessarily is a problem for philosophy, as it seeks convergence through ever greater examination of detail.


  20. Daniel Kaufman

    synred: Yes, I know. And it’s why it is very hard to just walk into philosophy — especially contemporary philosophy — without being pretty substantially educated in the field. There is a lot of terminology like this. For example, the distinction between intensional and extensional linguistic contexts is absolutely central to understanding much of what has gone on in the philosophy of language since the Second World War.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. garthdaisy


    “We can’t get values from anything external to ourselves”

    Nor can we get them without externals. Values require a world view. Values are not internal. Instincts are internal. Values are what we create from the meeting of our instincts with the phenomenal world. How we interpret that phenomenal world greatly affects the values we derive from our instincts.

    Another way to put it. Instincts themselves are not oughts. Oughts are derived from instinct meets worldview. You can not derive an ought without both internal instincts, and an external worldview. (is) So Hume was part right. You can not derive an ought from only an is, but you also can not derive an ought from only internal instinct. You need both. Oh and an if too. You need an instinct, an is, and an if to derive an ought. Or a God. 😉

    Could you, say, give an example of an ought, even a subjective personal ought, that is derived without an is?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. synred

    it sure seems that it seems read to me!

    What’s black and white and read all over?

    That is great!


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