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!