Is There Progress in Philosophy?

The question of whether there is progress in philosophy (as there is in science) is often debated. Here, I will offer my opinion on what constitutes such progress without getting too technical. So, broadly speaking, my answer to the aforementioned question is yes – depending on what we mean by ‘progress’!

The first distinction that I want to point out is the one between knowledge and understanding. By knowledge, I mean grasping a fact, such as that the spin of a photon is 1 or that World War II began in 1939. By understanding, I mean grasping how facts or ideas interrelate, such as understanding how elementary particles interact or what lead to World War II and what its effects on the future of Europe were. So, appealing to common intuition, knowledge means grasping some particular fact or set of facts while understanding means grasping how things are related.

While science gives us both knowledge and understanding by discovering sets of facts and how they relate, it is less clear whether philosophy does the same. However, before delving into that, I want to introduce another distinction, that between theoretical and practical philosophy. By the former, I mean philosophy dealing with more abstract issues, specifically philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language, logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, etc. By the latter, I mean philosophy dealing with more concrete issues, such as politics, morality, behaviour, decision-making, etc.

When it comes to theoretical philosophy, I think that most of its contributions are based on offering us greater understanding of theories, of how they are related, which are more viable than others, what they imply, what possibilities there are with regards to conceptualising reality, etc. It could be argued that some of its contributions are (close to being) facts or that they end up motivating consensus on certain issues. For example, most (non-religious) philosophers of mind nowadays reject Cartesian or substance dualism because they see the problem of interaction between two radically distinct substances as insurmountable (or at least as a good reason to prefer other theories). A further example is Edmund Gettier’s self-titled Gettier problem, a difficult challenge to the claim that knowledge means having justified true beliefs, which has also influenced sociological experiments. Finally, some laws of logic (such as the law of identity) possibly come close to the status of (abstract) facts. Since it is so difficult to find examples of facts that come from theoretical philosophy, I contend that most of its contributions are in the form of offering us new understanding of theories and possibilities.

When it comes to practical philosophy, I still think that most of its contributions are based on greater understanding, though the results of such philosophical thinking are certainly concrete as well. Looking at the development of political and moral thought historically, for instance, it is intuitive to argue that (at least some) progress has been made: from slavery to abolitionism, oligarchy to democracy, female oppression to feminism, etc. Certainly, political and moral philosophical thinking is tied up with other disciplines, especially the social sciences, though that hardly diminishes its importance. But are these feats of progress based on us gaining more knowledge or more understanding? The answer might depend on whether one is a moral realist or a moral relativist, for example, though that seems to imply that the answer also depends on gaining some form of understanding. My opinion is thus that the contributions of practical philosophy are also mostly based on providing us with greater understanding.

To conclude, I think that progress in philosophy should be measured not by the amount of hard facts that we discover while doing it but by how many new theories, arguments and possibilities it introduces us to. In other words, I see philosophy as an undertaking which provides us with greater understanding, such as grasping models of reality, the human condition, and how to interpret facts and ideas. Considering that some readers will probably disagree with the examples that I have mentioned, that also suggests that philosophy is first and foremost a discipline dealing with understanding.


P.S. I realise that this post is less formal than my other posts and not on the topics I usually write about, but it concerns philosophy in general, so I thought it would be good if I offered my opinion. Hopefully, what I wrote here vindicates the topics that I usually write about on the blog as well!

P.P.S. If anyone is interested in the distinction between knowledge and understanding, check out David Weberman’s syllabus for the course ‘Understanding and Explanation’ here!

11 thoughts on “Is There Progress in Philosophy?

  1. Hi Nino, thanks for the post! I’m broadly sympathetic to your approach. I think your point is that philosophy progresses, not in the sense that philosophers are converging towards the same (true) philosophical theories / worldview, but in the sense that we acquire a better understanding of what may be called the ‘coherential’ properties of such theories / worldviews — whether theory T is consistent with theory T’, and if not, which auxiliary assumptions are needed to make T ‘fit’ with T’, which theories entail and are entailed by T, etc.

    If I interpret you correctly, though I largely agree, I have a terminological quibble: you say that philosophy does not usually progress by giving us increasing knowledge of ‘facts’. But, that, say, T is not coherent with T’ unless we add auxiliary assumption A is, arguably, a fact (about T). So if this is the sort of knowledge that philosophy gives us more and more of, then it appears that philosophy does progress by giving us more and more facts.

    Perhaps it would be better to distinguish between different kinds of fact, and identify those kinds of facts that philosophy *does* give us more and more of. Here’s an idea: philosophy progresses in that philosophers acquire more and more knowledge of ‘coherential’ facts, but not in that philosophers acquire more and more knowledge of ‘alethic’ facts (facts about which theories / worldviews are true).

    1. Hey Chris, thanks for your comment! I was definitely unclear on what I meant by ‘fact’, seeing how I used it for both the spin of a photon, when WWII began, and perhaps even for some laws of logic. I very much like your distinction between coherential and alethic facts and I think that it is useful here. In fact, your approach might even strengthen the claim that philosophy progresses if it is said that it discovers a kind of facts, so I definitely agree and appreciate your contribution. I would just add that the mere discovery of new theories is something that I see as progress in and of itself as well.

  2. In order to think about what it means to say that there can be progress in philosophy, we need to first explore what philosophy itself does, and what its subject-matter is. Philosophy is always indirectly attuned to the thing it’s concerned with, because it engages not with x, but with thoughts about x. For example: it is misleading to suppose that philosophy of language is directly concerned with language qua language; rather, it is an exploration of a field of thinking, a moving around within this field, which is not identical with the activity of language (though, to be clear, it is still engaged with the same reality as the thing it is thinking about, so it is not wholly isolated from it). Unlike empirical science, which can be spoken of as being directly concerned with the physical world, philosophy is a mediation.

    Taking this into account, what does it mean to say that there can be ‘progress’ in philosophy? I’m going to take progress to mean revealing something new (whether a new idea, or a new detail within an existing idea, or a new methodology with which to explore ideas etc.). I don’t think that we need to bother with ‘knowedge’ or ‘understanding’ in order to recognise progress in philosophy. That’s not to say that either of these are necessarily antithetical to progress (though there are ways in which ‘understanding’ can be, especially if taken to refer to coherential facts), but only that neither are themselves required for us to make sense of what it is for there to be progress in philosophy.

    In large part, philosophy is about exploring apparently clear ideas in order to find possible distinctions. For example: when we do philosophy of ethics, or of morality (I see the two as related, but tenuously) we are trying to work out how we can think about these fields; however, we’re also trying to look for ways to clarify them by asking whether further distinctions can be made (such as the deontology/conseqentialist distinction, or the act/rule utilitarianism one). In this way, we are attempting to clarify. Understanding plays a part, inasmuch as we will need to see how what has already been accomplished is relevant to what we’re trying to do, and perhaps also to show that our own contributions are themselves relevant to the discussion.

    How can we see whether progress has been made? By looking at the range of distinctions that have been discovered. We make progress by making further distinctions, which fulfil the purpose of philosophy, which is clarification of ideas (or, to be more precise, of idea-processes, as ideas by themselves are impossible to conceive of; idea-processes are a range of related ideas, each leading from and implying some – though not all – of the others).

    Put simply: in philosophy, which is concerned with clarification of idea-processes, we can recognise progress in terms of new distinctions.

    Put really simply: whenever a philosopher manages to show that what we thought was true isn’t true after all, progress has been made!

    1. Hey Alastair, thank you for your comment! What you wrote is excellent and could be a blog post in its own right, though I don’t understand how we can understand idea processes if we can’t conceive of the ideas that make them up? What did you mean? As for philosophy making progress through refining distinctions, I agree but I fail to see why that simply isn’t a form of understanding (if understanding is defined as ‘grasping sets of facts or ideas and how they are related’).

      1. We can still think about ideas, but we can’t isolate them from each other. For example: if I want to clarify the ways in which we can think about justice, I’m going to be led through a field of related ideas, such as equality, morality, legality (etc.); from there, each of these can be thought about, and related back to the others, along with to new ideas. It’s similar to the phenomenological practice of bracketing; we bring something into the foreground, but in doing so we recognise that it is part of a complex network of epistemological associations.

        As for your question about understanding, I don’t think that it has no part to play in philosophical activity, but I simply think that we don’t need to consider it when asking the question about how philosophy progresses. I need to be careful here, because I could easily fall into the trap of disagreeing over how a word should be used, which isn’t what philosophy should do. However, I think that your definition of understanding, and what it means to understand something, relies on contextualisation, and not merely on seeing how things relate to each other. For example: if I feel ill, and then I take a tablet, and about thirty minutes later I feel better, I can’t say that I understand what has happened. I need to know about physiology, medicine and pathology to really understand it (though I’d accept that there might be degrees of understanding, such that someone doesn’t necessarily need expert knowledge in order to see what is happening when they take a pill; it’s still the case that merely taking the pill and having the experience is insufficient). It’s not just that theory x is consistent with theory x1, but that we can set this relationship within a larger context.

        My problem with referring to this as ‘understanding’ is multifarious. Firstly, it obscures the fact that we’re seeing something, and telling a story about it. We have a tendency to prefer a more complex and detailed account of an idea or event, but this is nothing more than saying that we want a richer story. It brings to my mind Zizek’s claim that we cannot live without ideology, because ‘the real’ is too brutal for us, and we cannot help but give it content through our ideas (this is like a politically charged version of Kant’s epistemology, I think). To say that we understand something is to say that we have the correct story, but we have no means of ever knowing if any one story is correct and that the others are incorrect. The most we can say is that one story appears to suit our purposes better than any alternative.

        Secondly, there is the problem that even to emphasise one story over another and recognise that it’s a story is to obscure everything except for the preferred story. One of the ideas in levinas’ ‘Totality & Infinity’ is that to understand something is to reduce it to our own language, and to prevent it from being ‘itself’ (i.e. to de-other it), and Adorno has a passage in ‘Subject & Object’ where he conceives of world peace as being a state in which differences are allowed to be different, rather than homogenised through acts of understanding).

        Taking these into account, we need to think about how philosophy can make progress without relying on ‘understanding’ as a lens without which we cannot make sense of it. When we explore idea-processes (relations of ideas) in order to try and find new distinctions, we don’t need to have understanding of what we’re looking at, and we can be creative in the way we look at the relations. Understanding could even hold us back, as philosophers, because it limits the ways in which we can explore. We can still give ourselves rules that orientate our exploration, such as whether certain ideas are consistent with others, but these are always conditional (e.g. given the principle of non-contradiction, idea x cannot be true if idea y is itself taken to be true) and needn’t bind us.

        Basically, we can look at something and think about it without having any understanding of what it is. We will probably need to contextualise it in some way, and we will also probably need to set ourselves some limits that direct our thinking, but neither of these imply any kind of understanding, because they are hypothetical/speculative (the contextualisation) and instrumental (the limiting-directing).

        1. Okay, I think I understand what you mean – no pun intended! I see no reason to object to philosophical progress being based on the exploration of idea-processes or relations of ideas (in fact, it might be very similar to what I thought when I said ‘understanding = grasping how ideas/facts interrelate’). If we introduce degrees of understanding, we might avoid Zizek’s problem (by not claiming that we have the full, correct story). This brings me back to Chris’s notion of progress-as-refinement-of-distinctions if that can be understood as progress via gaining a higher degree of understanding. Whether or not the term ‘understanding’ itself is useful relies heavily on how we define in it the first place, so a more serious paper or book might start from that.

  3. On the one hand, we might classify questions.
    Besides questions that arise in day to day life ( e.g. how can we find cooking fuel, how much might such-and-such thing cost four months from now), there are questions such as: how can I know anything apart from hearing about it from parents or through myths and cultural narratives, especially since I acquire language from a milieu… in other words, how can I develop a means of exploring metaphysical knowledge that is less dependent on tradition and conventions?
    Whatever answers we hit upon or not, if our enquiries are progressing, we must deem ourselves to make progress. Questions are as you say, theoretical too whereas problems are practical and we can evaluate answers. Speculative questions are pursued for themselves, and like theoretical science, we have no advance assurance that they will prove valuable.

    1. Thank you for your comment Balakrishnan! Your view on progress in philosophy (and I presume theoretical disciplines in general) is very interesting, especially this: ‘Whatever answers we hit upon or not, if our enquiries are progressing, we must deem ourselves to make progress.’ Though I find that approach a bit defeatist, I can see the appeal. But surely, at least in the realm of practical philosophy, we have made *some* progress, have we not? What do you think?

  4. There is development in society due to economic, technological and other factors which in turn lead to changed ( often improved ) conditions for people ( some of who may have been deprived earlier of vital resources). In turn, this may lead to formalisation of greater rights/privileges through legislation, remedial measures etc.

    Journalists, politicians and others may also comment, even campaign and so it may not be so much due to philosophers/philosophy professors that such progress is achieved. However, formal/specialist writers in Ethics/Justice may exert influence, contribute arguments to the debate, and help in various ways.
    Philosophers could try to both advance theory in their sub-domain as well as organise to support useful social change – it’s true that these different types of progress will have varying priority in a given decade of a country’s history.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I was more focused on whether there is progress within philosophy itself, not about whether philosophy affects societal progress (though I’d be inclined to say that it does).

  5. By progress in practical philosophy, you would mean that a set of ideas is being brought to bear ( get applied) on some actual state of affairs, and the extent to which it helps achieve a desired outcome is what would be called progress?? As in, practical philosophy progresses to the very extent that progress is achieved in a social issue…

    The unfolding and elaboration of ideas which were earlier known only dimly, can be called progress – though usually one calls this fuller theoretical development or even completion.

    Another approach is to use the idea of Point A and Point B to illustrate progress. Thus, one chooses a particular theory from a historical era as Point A, studies how it evolved over time until Point B…yet somehow all such accounts depend on a later social order and circumstance. It is not only another mind cogitating on the same questions centuries later.

    We believe that the mind of four hundred years later cannot be a simple continuation but if philosophy seems to be progressing, it is because the later mind is equipped differently ( i.e. to say the 23rd c. philosopher is more ‘advanced’ for about the same reasons as the 23rd c. civil engineer or opthalmic surgeon).

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