The Nature of Philosophy video series

As readers may remember, this past Spring we went through a long series of posts (27, to be exact) that presented in serialized form my book, The Nature of Philosophy: How Philosophy Makes Progress and Why It Matters.

Over the past few months, Dan Kaufman and yours truly have taped a series of video conversations that present the main ideas of the book to a broader public, and the series is now completed and available for viewing or downloading at my YouTube channel (as well as on the Sofia channel at

The first video provides a general introduction to the book, beginning with a discussion of two different ways to conceive “progress,” one which I think applies to science (and other endeavors), the other that applies to philosophy (and other things).

Since a crucial part of my argument depends on comparing (and differentiating) philosophy vs mathematics and logic, Dan and I move on to discuss the nature of those two (related) fields of inquiry.

We then tackle the dependence of physics from mathematics, and use Lee Smolin’s useful (in my mind) classification of real, fictional and constructed notions to find a middle way between mathematical Platonism and mathematical constructivism. We end by addressing the question of why mathematics describes so well the real world, even when one abandons a Platonic perspective. (And yes, in case you are wondering, this is all very pertinent to the question of the nature of philosophy…)

In the second installment, we resume our discussion of the book, tackling what I think is the distinctive way in which philosophy makes progress, i.e., by exploring a number of conceptual landscapes, discovering “peaks” within them (which I refer to as “philosophical accounts”) and then refining the peaks themselves through a continuous practice of reflective equilibrium.

Pushed by Dan’s friendly skepticism, we talk about the possibility that philosophy may be more like art than, say, like science or mathematics. I think that there are some similarities between philosophy and art, but overall lean toward a conceptualization of philosophy as a hybrid field with characteristics borrowed from both mathematics (in terms of the application of logical discourse) and science (because philosophers are, after all, concerned with the real world out there, and so need to come to terms with empirical evidence about such world).

Near the end we debate whether philosophy has gotten “better” over the past centuries or millennia, despite the fact that modern philosophers still debate, say, Plato or Aristotle. Dan is somewhat skeptical of the notion, while I defend it.

In the final episode, we begin with a lively discussion of whether a “theory of everything” is possible (nope, we don’t think so, pace the physicists who get billions of dollars pursuing it — of course much hinges on exactly what one means by that phrase!). We move on to recap the arguments so far, including a second take on whether philosophy has gotten better over time.

The central part of the conversation is organized around three of my examples of progress in philosophy: the realism-antirealism debate in philosophy of science, the evolution of utilitarianism in ethics, and the post-Gettier debates in epistemology, concerning the concept of knowledge. Along the way we also take a look at the question of why — in our minds — science has gotten more and more fragmented over time, rather than unified (again, pace some vocal physicists’ contention to the contrary).

The video, and the series, ends with a bit about why philosophy still is, and likely will always be, relevant to society and to intellectual discourse.

86 thoughts on “The Nature of Philosophy video series

  1. Robin Herbert

    The problem is, of course, that when we are expressing a moral view there really is no other basis for it than how we feel.

    I can’t give virtue as a reason since, as I have often said, I find no virtue in myself, nor any particular desire to seek it. I can’t talk about maximising benefit or happiness since my own actions consistently fail to match that ideal and I can see no particular reason why I should try to want to do that.

    So all I have is that this is how I feel, that anti gay prejudice is a pointless, wasteful emotion that hurts people and has no useful outcome. Anyone who expresses it, pushes it or encourages it is being pointlessly hateful and I can’t imagine myself liking someone like that.

    And perhaps it is tautologically true that one ought to like ones friends.


  2. Daniel Kaufman

    I’m afraid I don’t hold the views on friendship or family that I do on the basis of a theory or arguments, so I will honor your request and simply keep them to myself, form here on in.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    OK on the name/slogan, Massimo, and that’s good enough for me.

    On the nature of friendship, and blood NOT being thicker than water? I have no problem admitting I was, indeed, arguing for something.

    Well put on describing something like multivalued logic. I do think it’s for the betterment of philosophy, whatever Wittgensteinian word, or “wort,” we use.


  4. garthdaisy

    I think you need to respect someone in order to be friends with them, don’t you? Does anyone have any good friends whom they don’t respect? When you lose total respect for someone does the friendship not die? We don’t need to go as far as someone becoming a Nazi to find an example of good reason for losing respect and therefore ending a friendship. Voting for Trump is a good enough litmus test for respect and therefore for friendship in my view. If I found out a friend was voting for Trump, I’d do my best to set them straight, and if that didn’t work, I honestly don’t know how I could continue the friendship as I would lose total respect for them.

    This doesn’t apply to Republicans in general of course. Trump is a special case. I have many conservative friends. We battle over capitalism vs socialism all the time and can remain friends. I lost a little respect for my friend, Lou, when I found out he became a holy roller but the friendship stayed in tact for quite some time after that. It wasn’t until the “gay people are sinners” issue arose that our friendship ended. The loss of respect was too great at that point to continue the friendship. So far I am not aware of any friends who support Trump but if I discovered that I have such a friend, I would have to seriously consider ending the friendship due to total loss of respect. I can be friends with conservatives, but not with Trump fans, that’s just asking too much.

    Now I must go and deal with the sadness of finding out that Dan and I are totally not alike at all. Devastating news.


  5. garthdaisy

    One way I’d like to see philosophy progress is in popularity. Currently way more people in our world turn to religion for answers to the questions that philosophy deals in. This is why it bothers me to see philosophy and science battling each other when the common rival of both is clearly religion. Science and philosophy are great places to find answers. Religion not so much IMO.


  6. Massimo Post author


    “Now I must go and deal with the sadness of finding out that Dan and I are totally not alike at all. Devastating news.”

    I find that sort of sarcasm to be entirely unhelpful to maintaining a congenial place for discussion. Please refrain from it in the future. Thanks.


  7. Robin Herbert

    I hold my views of friendship and family on the basis of both reason and feeling. I don’t see any reason to put these things into a different compartment. I think they need to be examined like anything else.

    But the argument I am making here is that we differ, not on a view of friendship, but the threshhold at which we would terminate a friendship.

    That threshhold says more about how we view those issues over which we would terminate a friendship, rather than our views of friendship itself.

    I would not terminate a friendship over support for Donald Trump (or the Australian equivalent, Pauline Hanson) – I can even sort of get why people would do that, (something about not doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. brodix

    Sort of missing this one as I’m on vacation and don’t have the time or bandwidth to watch the videos, though the debate whether scientists and philosophers are better now, or just have more shoulders of giants to stand on raises interesting ideas. One of which being how much specialization might both promote a more exact knowledge, but limit a broader knowledge.
    As for homophobia, I have a number of friends who are gay, but it is limited by the fact that I don’t find the premise particularly appealing. Friendship, like all of life, is not ultimately stable, because it is not inert.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. dbholmes

    Hi Massimo & Dan, I enjoyed the series and I thought there were two highlights in particular.

    One is as Dan noted the part where he brought up Hume, and Massimo set up three types of issues that philosophy confronts… Massimo’s trident ala Hume’s fork?

    The second and I would argue most important is the final part of the whole series, where (regardless if one accepts the “progress” argument or not) it is made clear that philosophy is not inherently engaged in the hairsplitting or nonsensical activity that people like Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, or Neil deGrasse Tyson claim. Not only does the discussion seem genuine and unplanned, it ends on a very positive note. Philosophy at its best is a project that relates to human concerns and common sense, as opposed to mystification and ivory tower nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Robin Herbert

    An interesting point in one of the videos was that overthinking Gettier cases was an example of doing chmess.

    That is likely true, but Gettier cases hinge on things the appear to be justifications that don’t turn out to be justifications at all, although the thing they appeared to justify is the case. The interesting thing is not the question of what is knowledge, but of what is a justification.

    Jill believes a certain thing, say P and believes it on the basis of some justification, say A1, and claims that A1 demonstrates that P is true to a certain level of confidence that she might accept P.

    John believes some other thing Q which would imply that P is false, and he believes it on the basis of some justification, say A2 and claims that A2 demonstrates that Q is true to the same level of confidence, and hence that P is false.

    Jill is convinced that A1 really does justify a belief in P. John is convinced that A2 really does justify a belief in Q and since P and Q are incompatible one of them is wrong.

    No matter how much they discuss it they can’t make any progress. This is not an uncommon occurrence and sometimes the issues at stake are important.

    So do we throw up our hands and say there is nothing to be done? Or are there ways in which we can increase our confidence that a justification for something really is a justification for something?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Robin Herbert

    If we could sort that out, then we could just fix the justified true belief definition of knowledge by adding the rider that the justification was a valid justification for the belief.


  12. Robin Herbert

    I can’t help feeling that “premise” is not the right word there. It is quite common for men to find the idea of sex with other men unappealing, or women to find the idea of sex with other women appealing.

    It is a condition, I believe, that is called “heterosexuality”.


  13. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: The justifications in Gettier cases remain justifications, in that they remain good reasons for believing something. It’s just that sometimes a good reason can still come apart from the truth.


  14. brodix

    I think that ultimately we are connected at levels much deeper than the hip and that sex is extremely elemental in many different ways, so it is a subject which only causes conflicts and confusion to paint with too broad a brush.
    We all have subjective and complex views on it.


  15. Robin Herbert

    Note my conditional clause “If we could sort that out …”. It seems to me that you couldn’t state for sure that there was ever any fact of the matter “A is a good reason for believing P” for any A and P. All you can see is that “A seems to be a good reason for believing P”.

    I type a command into a session on a computer. I believe that I am on a test computer using test data because the title on my window says so and the prompt on my screen says so. But I did not know that someone had previously set up a job to automatically open up a session to another server (which is transparent to me) and that yet another person had incorrectly set the prompt on that other server which coincidentally showed the name of the server I thought I was on.

    So I believe I am on a test server.

    So I type a command which would be disastrous on a production server. From the results of the command it becomes obvious that I am not on the server that I think I am on. Checking I find that I am on another test server, so no big problem.

    But do I still say that the reasons I had for believing I was on a test server were good reasons for believing that? No, because I was wrong. I could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a good reason, but I now know that it is was not a good reason.

    And, yes, it has happened to me. And yes, I am never entirely happy now in typing a command that could be disastrous if my session was not to the computer I think it is to.


  16. Philosopher Eric

    So do we throw up our hands and say there is nothing to be done? Or are there ways in which we can increase our confidence that a justification for something really is a justification for something?

    Excellent question Robin! I believe that there are some things that can be done to at least deal with these natural constraints more effectively. Please indulge me:

    The most simple suggestion I have, would be for absolute terms such as “knowledge” and “truth” to be highly avoided when making formal claims about reality. There is only one exception that I’m aware of — I do know that I think! For all other formal claims, I suspect that the term “belief” would serve academia far more effectively. Shouldn’t accurate terminology be more helpful in such an environment, than that which simply isn’t?

    Then a more complex suggestion would be to move on to my own non-normative two principals of epistemology.

    P1: There are no “true” definitions, but only those which are more and less “useful” regarding associated arguments. Thus we’d unreservedly accept both explicitly and implicitly provided definitions, in the attempt to understand associated arguments.

    P2: 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). As theory continues to remain consistent with evidence, it naturally tends to become accepted.


  17. Philosopher Eric

    I’d also like to point over to an enjoyable recent post by Daniel Kaufman, since I do find it relevant to the position of my initial comment for this edition.

    Here Dan argued that prescriptions lose their prescriptivity, when consequences do not exist. Thus no “ought to help the poor” is theorized in cases where the poor do not affect the rich. This is something which I find quite sensible, given that I don’t believe in the existence of “prescriptive oughts” — instead I use my amoral subjective total utilitarianism to potentially “describe” what’s good and what’s bad. Dan has separate reasons for his position, though I believe that it will take this sort of radical thinking in order for philosophy to finally achieve its own generally accepted understandings about reality.

    (This is not to deny, of course, the separate sort of progress which Massimo has documented so well in the book and interviews that we’re now discussing!)


  18. Robin Herbert

    I have only just finished listening to the last of the videos.

    Excellent contributions from both, I will be using this and Massimo’s book next time I have to defend the value of philosophy and not attempt the task myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. jbonnicerenoreg

    Perhaps you would entertain a different view since natural philosophy simply took on another name as physical science, which really doesn’t explain anything.
    Philosophy is like a practise of law where instead of a person being judged innocent or guilty, an idea is judged true or false. Instead of a lawyer marshalling evidence, the philosopher marshalls reasons for and against.
    In this way philosophy can make progress as the reasons can become more complete, or more extensive or more insightful e.g. using a thought experiment.
    Sciences drop off from philosophy as it becomes clear that the reasons can be formed into wholes whether a priori or a posteriori.


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