Philosophical progress  

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"What we call "Progress" is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance" --Havelock Ellis

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A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether philosophical progress occurs, and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible. It has even been disputed, most notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whether genuine philosophical problems actually exist. The opposite has also been claimed, most notably by Karl Popper, who held that such problems do exist, that they are solvable, and that he had actually found definite solutions to some of them.



Some philosophers believe that, unlike scientific or mathematical problems, no philosophical problem is truly solvable in the conventional sense, but rather problems in philosophy are often refined rather than solved. For example Bertrand Russell, in his 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy says: "Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves." Similarly, Søren Kierkegaard, in his 1843 book Fear and Trembling writes: "Whatever one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the previous generation. Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation."

However, this is not universally accepted amongst philosophers. For example Martin Cohen, in his 1999 iconoclastic account of philosophy, 101 Philosophy Problems, offers as the penultimate problem, the question of whether 'The problem with philosophy problems is that they don't have proper solutions'. He goes on to argue that there is a fundamental divide in philosophy between those who think philosophy is about clarification and those who think it is about recognising complexity.

According to Cohen, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Moritz Schlick illustrate this divide in views of the 'purpose of philosophy'. The former, writing in the eighteenth century, describes someone waking up from a deep sleep to find that they are in the middle of labyrinth together with some other people who are arguing over the general strategy and principles for trying to find the way out. What could appear more ridiculous! says Étienne, yet that, he says, is what philosophers are doing, concluding: "It is more important to find ourselves merely where we were at first than to believe prematurely that we are out of the labyrinth."

Cohen contrasts this with the approach of the logical positivist movement in the interwar years of the Twentieth Century who, in the spirit of David Hume, wished to consign unanswerable questions 'to the flames'. As the 'hub' of the Logical Positivist circle, Moritz Schlick put it in an article entitled 'Unanswerable Questions' for the journal The Philosopher:

"It is very easy to ask questions the answers to which, we have the strongest reasons to believe, will never be known to any Human being. What did Plato do at eight o'clock in the morning of his fiftieth birthday? How much did Homer weigh when he wrote the first line of the Iliad? Is there a piece of silver to be found on the other side of the moon, three inches long and shaped like a fish? Obviously, men will never know the answers to these questions, however hard they may try. But at the same time, we know that they would never try very hard. These problems, they will say, are of no importance, no philosopher would worry about them, and no historian or naturalist would care whether he knew the answers."

Argument for progress in philosophy

If it is conceded that philosophical claims are a function of the sophistication of conceptual distinctions, arguments, and logical tools, and if it is conceded that there has been progress in making conceptual distinctions, progress in our sophistication about the nature of philosophical arguments, and progress in logic, then clearly there is progress in philosophy.

Those who deny progress because of lack of agreement must take stock of the fact that agreements must be relativized to those who are taking part in the discussion. And, of course, there will be degrees of sophistication. For example, someone who lacks sophistication in symbolic logic is not in a position to discuss an argument presented in symbolic form. Or, suppose that one person accuses the other of "begging the question," and the other responds: "So what?" What is the significance of lack of consensus in this instance?

Argument for lack of progress in philosophy

It is often complained that philosophy has developed more slowly than the special sciences, and has not enjoyed the same sort of remarkable and definitive progress seen in chemistry or physics. It is nearly universally agreed (a remarkable feat, amongst philosophers) that this has something to do with the peculiar methods of philosophical inquiry. In particular, philosophy seems to lack the sort of developments that Thomas Kuhn called paradigms—achievements which, by their success, clearly determine which sort of questions are to be asked and what sort of considerations count as evidence for or against answers to those questions.

However, even if it is common to hear that, there is no consensus on the issue—some philosophers, such as Marx, Sartre, and Barthes, do consider that philosophy is historical, i.e. in step with society, a superstructure of it. This amounts to a consideration of the contribution of philosophers of the past as obsolete, or inadequate with respect to synchronic concerns.

Optimism, pessimism, and paradigms

But this is where the agreement ends; philosophers differ widely over the exact diagnosis of the situation, and the lesson to be taken from it. They differ, for example, over whether the lack of paradigms is an accidental or an essential feature of philosophy. We might call the former optimists about philosophical progress and the latter pessimists. (Note that being a pessimist about the prospects for philosophical progress is not the same as being a pessimist about philosophy. See below.)

The optimists (such as the early modern philosophers George Berkeley and David Hume) typically argue that philosophy has not made much progress because philosophers have historically used methods that are unsystematic, obscure, confused, or otherwise unsuccessful; but, citing the example of the revolutionary achievements in the natural sciences during the scientific revolution, they argue that philosophers could enjoy the same sort of progress, rather than endlessly recapitulating the same obscure debates, if only philosophers can find an appropriate paradigm and a clear method for their work. The introduction to David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature is a locus classicus of this view; Hume subtitled his book "Being An Attempt To Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning Into Moral Subjects."

Pessimists, on the other hand, take the lack of progress to be an essential feature--arguing that philosophy must remain without paradigms as long as it is remains philosophy rather than something else. One way of putting the worry might be this: for something to count as a paradigm just is for it to be the sort of achievement that cuts off certain sorts of foundational worries about the essential nature of the subject-matter and the validity of particular methods for studying it; but these sorts of foundational worries are quintessentially philosophical worries. In Kant's words, human reason can say nothing about noumena, things in themselves, but only about phenomena, how things appears to us. Human understanding and thus science doesn't concern itself with the foundations of science, but only of its workings. However, in Kant's mind, this only separated dogmatism from critique philosophy: neither sciences nor philosophy must answer questions about noumenons, since this superate their innate capacities. That doesn't mean that it is never worthwhile to set such questions to one side--you can't make any serious progress in physics, for example, while you are still arguing over whether it is coherent to talk about laws of nature. But it does mean that whatever it is you are doing, you are, in an important respect, ceasing to do philosophy. If this is correct, then there is no chance of achieving progress in philosophy by adopting a paradigm—adopting a paradigm can achieve progress in something else, but only by making it cease to be philosophy.

Pessimists may also make a historical point about the emergence of the various natural sciences from philosophy. In the ancient and medieval world, nearly all fields of study were considered to be parts of the discipline of philosophy. (This historical reality is still reflected in the institutions of the University, where the highest degree awarded in most academic fields is still the Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy.) The clearest point at which the natural sciences diverged from philosophy proper just was when they adopted paradigms for research--especially the work of Galileo and Newton in mechanics. The critical step here is for the pessimist to argue that the natural sciences separated from philosophy precisely because they adopted a paradigm--that it was in virtue of that change in their direction that they began engaging in scientific rather than philosophical studies.

There seems to be a persuasive case to be made for that point, but even if there is the consideration is not necessarily decisive. An optimist might very well accept everything that the pessimist says about the emergence of the natural sciences--and still disagree with the conclusion. The argument would go something like this: it might very well be that natural scientists stopped doing philosophy in virtue of their adoption of a paradigm during the Scientific Revolution. But that's because they adopted scientific paradigms--the achievements that set the course of their research programmes were experimental achievements. That doesn't mean that there cannot also be paradigms which are specifically philosophical achievements. (That is, an achievement which decisively settles certain foundational philosophical questions for the purposes of a research programme, but which leaves other distinctively philosophical questions open for further inquiry, and which addresses them through distinctively philosophical methods.) They might even point to historical examples of seminal philosophical works which have, to some degree or another, played a similar role to paradigm achievements in the natural sciences--landmark, tradition-establishing works such as those of Plato, or Immanuel Kant's three Critiques, or the ground-breaking Analytic works of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore.

It seems historically unquestionable that these works have played at least some of the roles that Kuhn attributed to paradigms. They did create coherent traditions of research--whether Platonist, Kantian, or Analytic. It also seems that (like scientific paradigms) they achieved this by (1) convincing enough philosophers that the work had decisively settled certain philosophical problems, and (2) redirecting subsequent philosophy into energetic work on a set of specialized questions that the seminal work had left open. Kant's Critical philosophy, for example, was widely understood to put a more or less final end to the debate between rationalism and empiricism by demonstrating that the debate was based on a false alternative. A great deal of post-Kantian philosophy abandoned such debates and redirected its focus toward specific concerns that arise from within the Critiques, such as the foundations of mathematics or the possibility of an intellectual intuition.

On the other hand, it is another question whether works such as these actually live up--and whether they could ever live up--to everything that Kuhn says about scientific paradigms. Kuhn argues that the history of science is a sort of punctuated equilibrium: when a long period of "normal science" eventually stagnates, and an established paradigm can no longer hold together a coherent tradition of research, progress depends on the establishment of a new paradigm, and a scientific revolution based on this paradigm shift. Once the old paradigm breaks down and the new one is established, there seems to be no going back: the old scientific paradigm is decisively repudiated, and simply becomes obsolete. But does such a picture capture the history of philosophy as well as the history of science? The waxing and waning of philosophical traditions seems to be far less decisive and far more cyclical; if this doesn't cast doubt on the notion of philosophical progress simpliciter, it does at least tend to suggest that lasting progress may be an illusory goal. Similarly, although the works pointed to by optimists have had remarkable impacts in setting research programmes, it's far from clear that the specialized inquiry they inspired plays quite the same role that "normal science" plays in Kuhn's understanding of scientific progress. J. G. Fichte and Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, are sharply differing writers who focused on questions raised by Kant; but Schopenhauer's doctrine of the will or Fichte's dialectical spin on transcendental idealism could hardly be seen as examples of inquiries that close off fundamental questions in order to consider technical problems of application. At most it seems that Kant's work encouraged these later philosophers to do fundamental work in different areas from those that he was taken to have shown fruitless.

Would it have been worth it, after all?

An answer to the question of whether philosophical progress is possible, however, is not the end of the story: it may still leave open the question of whether it is desirable. Those who are optimists about the prospect for philosophical progress have a pretty clear answer: it is, they could argue, just part of what we mean by "progress," that you ought to pursue it if you can get it. But the issue is somewhat trickier for pessimists. If philosophical progress is not possible, then there are two different lessons that could be, and have been, taken from that.

Philosophy as worthless

On the one hand, a pessimist might take the impossibility of progress in philosophy to be a sign that philosophy is a dead-end job—thus, a pessimist about philosophical progress might also be a pessimist about philosophy. The argument goes something like this: progress is what makes an intellectual effort worthwhile; but there is no hope for progress in philosophy; therefore there is no hope for philosophy to be worthwhile. On this view, philosophy is regarded as a sort of pseudoscience which aspires to progress, but which (by its very nature) can never achieve it; and so it is best abandoned in favor of empirical scientific inquiry. Needless to say, this is not a view that most professional philosophers are particularly fond of or comfortable with, but it does seem to have been the consensus of the Vienna Circle positivists towards more or less all traditional philosophical inquiry, although not necessarily to the use of philosophical method to get clear on the logical structure of empirical questions. It is, perhaps, much more popular with professional scientists (as some of the Vienna positivists were themselves), who are inclined to think of philosophy as airy speculation at best, sophistry at worst, that interferes with and retards the serious work of empirical science.

Philosophy as intrinsically worthy

However, this critique of metaphysics, carried on by the first Wittgenstein, in his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for example, has been in return criticized by philosophers, such as Heidegger in his 1927 Being and Time, as a form of positivism or, worse, scientism, which is accused of having decided to abandon the most important questions about humanity and the Being, under the pretext that no definitive answer can be brought to them.

Marxist Georg Lukács would also criticize, in his book History and Class Consciousness (1923), the Kantian abandon of knowledge of the concrete totality: according to Lukács, Kant's distinction between noumenons and phenomena led to the abandonment of the knowledge of the historical process, which could be only apprehended, in his eyes, by dialectical materialism. As Marxism is essentially concerned with the historical process and the possibility of a revolution, that is of superating capitalism, Marxist philosophy, from Marx and Engels to Althusser passing by Lukács, etc., has discussed at lengths the problems of possible historical progress of philosophy and what would that mean. Althusser, for example, considered the "epistemological break" (separating protosciences from sciences) to apply itself to philosophy itself: the discovery by Marx of a new "continent" of knowledge, History, provided the epistemological break between ancient metaphysics and modern dialectical materialism. However, if dialectical materialism was considered by Althusser as a "scientific theory", this does not mean it was permanently assured of its truth: it is a science, not a prophecy. In effect, Althusser stressed that the epistemological break was not an event, which could be chronologically located (in this or that book of Marx) and thus definitively separated science from ideology. Instead, this epistemological break was a process that had to be endlessly renewed, thus explaining revisionist tentatives to break away from this progress and renew with the old protoscientific (and "bourgeois") theory, which ignored the social and historical conditions which made human society what it is. Althusser's theory is interesting insofar as, contrary to Kuhn, it does not consider various paradigms to be incommensurable between themselves. In Kuhn's eyes, the Ancients' sciences simply can't be compared to modern science, and they have nothing in common. Althusser argues that this amounts to deny progress between modern sciences and ancient sciences, since the cumulative aspect of progress is ignored. However, the cumulative aspect of progress, both in philosophy and science, is not considered by Althusser as obtained "once for all": it is always a political struggle against ideology, which endlessly penetrates science and philosophy. This explains his famous statement about the existence of "class struggle inside the theory" itself. Although Althusser's Marxist philosophy may repel many people today, his criticisms of the notion of a "neutral science", which followed the Frankfurt School's criticisms of scientific and technical progress, and his conception of a cumulative although discontinuous "progress" of philosophy represents one of the toughest attempts to conceive a cumulative progress of sciences and philosophy (both subsumed under the term of "theory") without falling into a plain scientist optimism about a "continuous and linear necessary progress". As in any Marxist theory, ultimately theory is dependent on human praxis, and only the rebellion and continuous struggle against the dominant ideology that allows theory, whether scientific or philosophical, to be truly an objective theory.

Henceforth, one might draw the conclusion that pessimism about philosophical progress allows for a sort of liberation from the expectations for scientific progress, and thus for a reasoned optimism about philosophy. Philosophers in this camp argue that once we recognize that it makes no sense for philosophy to make scientific-technical progress, we ought to also realize that it makes no sense for philosophy to aspire to it either. In other words, philosophy is not science, and shouldn't imitate sciences. Rather than expect philosophy to prove its worth with scientific-technical progress, and then judge it worthless when it fails to, these philosophers argue that philosophical inquiry must be worthy in its own right. The perceived need for philosophy to prove itself in terms of some sort of scientific-technical progress is often diagnosed as a sort of creeping scientism, and repudiated as a drastic oversimplification of our intellectual life. This may have been the position of Wittgenstein against the Vienna positivists--although if Wittgenstein saw any intrinsic value in philosophical inquiry he certainly didn't think that most people could profit from it. In any case, it was certainly the position of latter Wittgensteinians such as Peter Winch, as well as other contemporary philosophers such as Heidegger. The view also, its proponents argue, represents a "return" to the conception of philosophy and its value found in ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

In What Is Philosophy? (1991), Deleuze and Guattari would argue that while science creates percepts and art affects, philosophy creates concepts. These concepts are not answers to existential questions, but a specific way of conceiving the problem. In other words, the accent is not, as in science, put on the answer or explanation given to a specific phenomenon, but on the way the problem itself is posed. An illustration of this may be given by Marx's critique of political economy: bourgeois political economy is denounced as concerning itself with only how the capitalism system works day-to-day, but doesn't poses the problem of how capitalism first appeared, what are the conditions of possibility of this appearance of capitalism and, finally, what are the conditions of its dissolving. Hence, while ordinary political economy is concerned by the so-called "laws of economics", presented as universal (i.e. valid in all times and places), Marxism attempts to demonstrate that these principles are only historical products of human history. A historian such as Fernand Braudel, for example, would be more interested in trying to answer the question of why capitalism appeared in Europe and not in China, exploring the historical conditions which made capitalism possible, than describing the "laws of economics".

Philosophy as instrumentally worthy

Nor do these alternatives exhaust the possibilities: one might agree with the optimists that philosophical inquiry has value, but agree with the pessimists that philosophical inquiry must justify itself in terms of scientific-technical progress to have any value. This may seem to conflict with the shared premise between progress-pessimists that there is no progress in philosophy, but the trick here is to argue that philosophical progress is not the only sort of progress to which philosophical inquiry might contribute. Philosophy is seen as being justified by progress — but not by progress in philosophy, but rather in providing useful tools for making progress in other fields. Since this view values philosophy as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, we might call it "instrumental optimism" about philosophy, as opposed to the "intrinsic optimism" already discussed. On this view, philosophy is seen neither as a sort of pseudoscience, nor as something radically distinct from the sciences, but rather as a sort of incubator for new sciencesprotosciences. While the intrinsic optimists draw on Plato and Aristotle's writings on the value of philosophical inquiry, the instrumental optimists can draw on another aspect of the Ancients' work: specifically, Aristotle was concerned both about "physics" (and biology) and "metaphysics". He didn't really make any distinction between these two fields. Actually, the name "meta-physics" was given by later scholars who meant by this word: what is "beyond" or "after" the study of "nature" (phusis - physics). Thus, "philosophy" ("love of wisdom" in Greek) at that time included both "physics" and "metaphysics". Instrumental optimists thus argue this non-distinction between physics and metaphysics, and point out the historical role that the Ancients' philosophical works played in the development of the natural sciences, and then later the social sciences. From this history, instrumental optimists might urge that speculative philosophy can have value as a place for proposing new sciences and new research programmes within the sciences, as well as a critical location for exposing and clearing away confusions that obstruct progress in the natural sciences. Philosophy, then, is seen as a sort of midwife: she does not give birth to any progress of her own, but proves her worth by making it possible for others to bring their progress into the world. Thus, whereas the value of mechanics or biology or psychology is taken to be internal to the practice (i.e., judged in terms of the progress of mechanical, biological, or psychological achievements), the value of philosophy is taken to be external (i.e., judged in terms of its effects on achievements in other fields, such as mechanics, biology, and psychology). This view is congenial to the conception of philosophy, most famously propounded by John Locke, as a sort of intellectual "underlabourer" to the sciences. It is also a view endorsed in various articles by Hilary Putnam, and may be the most popular view amongst contemporary Analytic philosophers--especially those with a naturalistic bent.

Instrumental optimism is, of course, not without its own difficulties. For example, there is hardly any reason to deny the truth of what the instrumental optimists say about the historical relationship between what some philosophers did and what natural scientists do today. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the ancient philosophers were doing philosophy when they did work that contributed to natural science. Of course, they might have called what they were doing "philosophy" ("φιλοσοφια"). But if so, that just means that they meant something more expansive by the word than what we mean by it today, and we might think that there are perfectly good reasons for sticking to the narrower conception of philosophical method. Moreover, whatever the status of their works that eventually contributed to natural science, and whatever the value of those contributions it is very difficult to make a case that the philosophical value is best captured by its contribution to scientific posterity. (Is the lasting value of Aristotle's work better exhibited by his Physics or by his Metaphysics? By his reflections on horse's teeth or on the good life for rational beings?)

Critics of this conception of philosophy as being essentially an epistemology (or philosophy of science) dedicated to exploring psychic or ideological blocks which prevent scientists from making specific hypothesis (such as in Gaston Bachelard's theory) argue that this only reverse the hierarchy between philosophy and science. Instead of philosophy being located on top of the pyramid of knowledge, as in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, it becomes a simple tool for rationalism and sciences. This view has been criticized by certain philosophers, such as Deleuze or Michel Foucault, who declared that Thought couldn't be identified to rationalism, and that irrationalism wasn't to be considered as the contrary of thought (i.e. as madness, which, as Foucault demonstrated, is the product of a historical conception and disciplinary technologies of power). Deleuze, for example, argued that thought, which could take the form of philosophy, arts or sciences, basically created new possibilities of thought and life, and therefore new modes of existence. This liberty of thought was, in the eyes of these French philosophers, the only real "use" of philosophy - although Deleuze mocked the utilitarian view which would assigned to philosophy a specific "use", which could, in his mind, only be ideologically assigned. This joins a critique of science often made, first of all by the Frankfurt School: scientific research only tries to resolve certain problems and exclude others. For example, tropical diseases are not subject to much research, as they are not considered profitable by the pharmaceutical industry. On the other side, fat or sex-issues are considered much more important, thus allowing for the huge investments necessary to the invention of Viagra. Henceforth, saying something is "useful" only extends the problem to the criteria of this "usefulness": science is often said "useful" because it has "practical effects", which "philosophy" doesn't seems to have. However, is science that ignores tropical diseases in order to concentrate itself on Viagra really useful? Does it help to have, as in Aristotle's views, a "good life"? This explains why Deleuze rejected the definition of philosophy as something "useful", and preferred it to be an "opening of possibles", something which made new possible worlds possible.

Nor, of course, does accepting the instrumental value of philosophy for other fields require one to abandon the view that philosophy also has intrinsic worth, nor the view that its intrinsic worth should be the primary reason to pursue philosophical inquiry. Some things are valued both for themselves and for their consequences; if the instrumental optimist wants (as some of them surely do) to insist not only on accepting the instrumental worth of philosophy, but also of accepting nothing but its instrumental worth, then she must support the stronger claim that philosophy could only have value in virtue of its contribution to scientific-technical progress in some field or another.

But, if philosophy is like a mother-lode for the nascent sciences, so too like a godmother, philosophy has traditions which can guide her godchildren past ethical and moral quagmires, into which they might stray, to the detriment of their progress.

See also

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