UCSB Philosophy Blog

Members of the UCSB Department of Philosophy and anyone else are welcome to talk philosophy with us. Bring your own brain.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Progress in Philosophy

Hi all. I'm not sure if this blog is dead, or if anyone still checks this thing, but I have something that might be interesting to discuss:

I've been thinking about progress in philosophy. I don't like that philosophy is often perceived, especially by undergrads, as just "a bunch of philosophers throwing ideas around." I get the impression that many of them think that philosophy is subjective in some god-awful sense---that, unlike the empirical sciences, we don't (or can't?) seek truth. Of course, that is quite a misperception of the facts. But what causes this?

Of course, part of the problem is that this is somewhat the way that philosophy is portrayed in pop-culture. Another problem is that undergrads are probably too quick to judge without being exposed to much philosophy. But are we not in part to blame? Or is there not something we can do to help?

I see some potential ways in which we might be contributing to this problem ourselves, primarily with the way philosophy is taught. First, "Philosophy of X" courses are often taught by merely providing what major philosophers have said about X throughout history. I think this often gives students the impression that there is no fact of the matter. Although, it is, I think, actually a great method of teaching philosophy. It often helps to touch on the historical background of an issue in order to understand where we stand now with respect to that issue, etc. But, this is problematic if there are no morals or conclusions drawn in the course with respect to issue X. I take it that philosophy professors are often worried about drawing any conclusions with respect to X and teaching them as fact since, so it is often assumed, "everything is controversial in philosophy" and they don't want to be accused of teaching in a "biased" manner.

But is this right? I don't really see why philosophy is any different in this respect from any empirical science (e.g., chemistry). In chemistry, students are taught some history of the field and then told what "the facts" are. But, then, five years later, those are no longer "the facts," they are replaced by something else. That is, science classes are allowed to teach certain opinion as fact, but allowed to modify it later, change their minds in light of new evidence and considerations.

Now I think this practice is all fine and good (since it's of course backed up by research, data, rational thought, and other things that warrant attributing progress to such disciplines). My question is: why can't we do it? The scientific community too is often in disagreement about things. Now, one might retort: "But, there is not as large of a portion of the philosophical community that agrees about anything." But, first of all, I'm not sure that's true. Second, even if it is true, so what? There's still a fact of the matter regardless of whether over 50% of the philosophical community agrees on some claim (excluding, of course, especially weird cases dealing with, say, vagueness or something).

But let's concede that point. Perhaps we do need to keep our professors on some sort of leash. Perhaps they should only teach what's not significantly controversial (how "significantly" is cached out, I'm not sure). This is probably the case. But is it not true that there are some things that the majority of philosophers agree on? That is, isn't there progress in philosophy that's at least somewhat similar to the progress in any other academic discipline that seeks truth (which surely we do, contrary to popular undergraduate belief)?

Now we can finally get to what I wanted to ask the readers of this blog:

(*) What sort of progress has been made in philosophy?

Imagine you are teaching an Intro to Philosophy course and you want to teach it like an Intro to Chemistry course. What are the main sorts of morals, conclusions, or generally agreed-upon points of progress that have occurred in philosophy? Answers of course could be quite general or specific.

Allow me to throw out some suggestions. I'm thinking that some answers would be something like:

(1) The development of modern propositional logic with quantification over categorical logic.

Perhaps one might also include:

(2) Since the 20th century people have tended more to realize the proper differences between the necessary, the a priori, and the analytic, and don't consider them to be obviously extensionally equivalent.

Is that the end of the list? Is that even a good list?

Help, save our discipline from subjectivity! :)