I come to philosophy from the natural sciences, where the idea that my former academic field (evolutionary biology) makes progress is taken for granted, and where one would receive amused or puzzled looks by simply asking the question of what constitutes progress. And yet, philosophers of science have convincingly argued that it is much more difficult than one might think to provide a good account of how, precisely, science makes progress. When it comes to philosophy, however, it is philosophers themselves who often deny that the field makes progress, no matter how one understands “progress.” Which is puzzling, because the obvious question, then, is why on earth would they bother spending their lives contributing to an area of inquiry that reliably goes nowhere?
This essay is a shortened version of a full paper that appeared in a volume edited by Russell Blackford and Damien Broderick, entitled Philosophy’s Future: The Problem of Philosophical Progress (if you are an “Aurelian” subscriber to this site you can download it for free).
Part of the problem is that “progress” is itself not at all easy to define, with the term taking on different meanings in the natural sciences and, for instance, in mathematics. I suggest that a reasonable approach to this issue is to “go Wittgensteinian,” so to speak, and argue that “progress” is a family resemblance concept. Wittgenstein’s own famous example of this type of concept was the idea of “game,” which does not admit of a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions in order to be defined, and yet this does not seem to preclude us from distinguishing games from not-games, at least most of the time. Progress, in a sense, could then be thought to be like pornography, to paraphrase the famous quip by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.”
I submit that progress in science is a teleonomic (i.e., goal oriented) process, where the goal is to increase our knowledge and understanding of the natural world in terms of the simplest possible set of general principles. By contrast, progress in mathematics, logic, and – with some important qualification – philosophy, could be described as an advancement toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition, a definition that does not imply any final goal to be achieved.
Consider first mathematics and logic: I do not think it is tenable to understand them as teleonomic disciplines because there is an infinite number of logical-mathematical objects to discover and theorems to prove, so that mathematics and logic look like ever expanding disciplines, not converging toward any “theory of everything” as is (allegedly) the case for science. So I do think of mathematics and logic as advancing toward a better, more complete position, “better” in the sense that the process both opens up new lines of internally generated inquiry (the solution of mathematical and logical problems generates new problems, and so forth) and “more complete” in the sense that mathematicians and logicians are best thought of as engaged in the exploration of a space of conceptual (as distinct from empirical) possibilities.
At this point in the paper I discuss in detail the concept of “evoking,” as distinct from discovering or inventing, new notions in the space of conceptual possibilities pertinent to, respectively, mathematics, logic, and philosophy. It’s a rather technical topic, inspired by Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin’s treatment of mathematical Platonism in their excellent The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy. The interested reader can find a summary of it here. The basic notion, though, is simple. Consider the game of chess. It is clearly a human invention, i.e., the rules of chess are not independent of the human mind. Yet, once invented, the game has “evoked” (i.e., brought into existence) a number of objectively provable statements about it, including some that can be proven mathematically. Keeping this in mind, let’s now go back to how philosophy makes progress.
Current discussions on progress in philosophy have a number of precedents, although it is actually surprising how few scholarly papers have been devoted to the topic. One that I think is particularly important to discuss is Moody’s distinction among three concepts of progress, first published in 1986. What he calls progress-1 takes place when there is a specifiable goal about which people can agree that it has been achieved, or what counts toward achieving it. If you are on a diet, for instance, and decide to lose ten pounds, you have a measurable specific goal, and you can be said to make progress insofar your weight goes down and approaches the specific target. Progress-2 occurs when one cannot so clearly specify a goal to be reached, and yet an individual or an external observer can competently judge that progress has occurred when comparing the situation at time t with the situation at time t+1, even though the criteria by which to make that judgment are subjective. Moody thinks, for example, that composers guided by an inner sense of when they are “getting it right” would be making this sort of progress while composing. Finally, progress-3 is a hybrid animal, instantiated by situations where there are intermediate but not overarching goals.
Interestingly, Moody says that mathematics makes progress-3, insofar as there is no overall goal of mathematical scholarship, and yet mathematicians do set intermediate goals for themselves, and the achievement of these goals (like the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem) is recognized as such by the mathematical community.
Moody’s next step is to assume provisionally that philosophy is a type of inquiry, and then ask whether any of his three categories of progress applies to it. The first obstacle is that philosophy does not appear to have consensus-generating procedures such as those found in the natural sciences or in technological fields like engineering. Moody claims that “the only thing that philosophers are likely to agree about with enthusiasm is the abysmal inadequacy of a particular theory.” While I think this is actually a bit of a caricature, I do not share Moody’s pessimistic assessment of that observation even if true: negative progress, that is, the elimination of bad ideas, is progress nonetheless.
Moody concludes that philosophy does not make progress-1 or progress-3, because its history has not yielded a trail of solved problems. What about progress-2? He takes up the possibility that perhaps philosophy is not a type of inquiry after all, and analyzes in some detail two alternative conceptions: Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy as “therapy,” and Richard Rorty’s so-called “conversational model” of philosophy. As Moody summarizes:
“Wittgenstein believed that philosophical problems are somehow spurious and that the activity of philosophy … should terminate with the withdrawal, or deconstruction, of philosophical questions.”
On this view, then, there is progress, of sorts, in philosophy, but is the sort of “terminus” brought about by committing seppuku. As Moody rather drily comments, while nobody can argue that Wittgenstein’s ideas have not been taken seriously, it is equally undeniable that philosophy has gone forward largely as if the therapeutic approach had never been articulated. If a proposed account of the nature of philosophy has so blatantly been ignored by the relevant epistemic community, we can safely file it away.
Rorty’s starting point is what he took to be the (disputable, in my opinion) observation that philosophy has failed at its self-appointed task of analysis and criticism. Moody quotes him as saying: “The attempts of both analytic philosophers and phenomenologists to ‘ground’ this and ‘criticize’ that were shrugged off by those whose activities were purportedly being grounded and criticized.” Rorty arrived at this because of his rejection of what he sees as philosophy’s “hangover” from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when philosophers were attempting to set their inquiry within a framework that allowed a priori truths to be discovered, even though David Hume dealt that framework a fatal blow during the eighteenth century.
While Moody finds much of Rorty’s analysis on target, I must confess that I don’t. For instance, the fact that other disciplines (like science) marched on while refusing to be grounded or criticized by philosophy is neither entirely true (lots of scientists have paid and still pay attention to philosophy of science, for example), nor necessarily apt as the ultimate test of the value of philosophy even if true: creationists and climate change deniers, after all, shrug off any criticism of their positions, but that doesn’t make such criticism invalid, or futile for that matter (since others are responding to it).
Yet there is something to be said for thinking of philosophy as a “conversation” more than an inquiry, as Rorty did. The problem is that this and other dichotomies presented to us by Rorty are, as Moody himself comments, false: “We do not have to choose between ‘saying something,’ itself a rather empty notion that manages to say virtually nothing, and inquiring, or between ‘conversing’ and ‘interacting with nonhuman reality,’” Indeed we don’t.
What account, then, can we turn to in order to make sense of progress in philosophy, according to Moody? I recommend that the interested reader check Moody’s discussion of Robert Nozick’s “explanational model” of philosophy, as well as John Kekes’ “perennial problems” approach, but my own treatment here will jump to Nicholas Rescher’s 1978 proposal of the concept of “aporetic clusters,” which is one path that supports the conclusion that philosophy does make progress, and it is a type-2 progress.
Rescher thinks that it is unrealistic to expect consensus in philosophy, and yet does not see this as a problem, but rather as an organic outcome of the nature of philosophical inquiry:
“In philosophy, supportive argumentation is never alternative-precluding. Thus the fact that a good case can be made out for giving one particular answer to a philosophical question is never considered as constituting a valid reason for denying that an equally good case can be produced for some other incompatible answers to this question.”
In fact, Rescher thinks that philosophers come up with “families” of alternative solutions to any given philosophical problem, which he labels aporetic clusters. According to this view, some philosophical accounts are eliminated, while others are retained and refined. The keepers become philosophical classics, like “virtue ethics,” “utilitarianism,” or “Kantian deontology” in ethics, or “constructive empiricism” and “structural realism” in philosophy of science. Rescher’s view is not at all incompatible with my idea of philosophy as evoking (in the sense briefly described above), and then exploring and refining, peaks in conceptual landscapes. As Moody aptly summarizes it: “That there are ‘aporetic clusters’ is evidence of a kind of progress. That the necronology of failed arguments is so long is further evidence.”
(next: empirical examples of progress in philosophy)