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! :)


  • At 6:08 AM, Blogger testtube said…

    I too agree that it is not the case that "not as large of a portion of the philosophical community that agrees about anything." Note, though, that science courses are usually taught in a very different manner. Science teachers do not teach students established theories by comparing them with rival theories and going through the arguments for both sides. Rather, it is almost always the case that the presently accepted theory is presented on its own, with axioms to be blindly accepted and no mention of why other theories were more inadequate. (I personally think this is not how science should be taught, but sadly that's how things are.) In philosophy, what makes a certain philosophical stance interesting is how it is better than other stances. So to teach philosophy in any meaningful way, one has to go through old arguments for already established philosophical stances, thus giving the students the impression that everything can be argued over. Contrast with how science is presented in the classroom, as facts set in stone, with nary a mention of the disputes that raged in history over the equations being presented as immutable principles. To summarise, the root of the disparity between public perception of philosophy and science is that in science teaching, the emphasis is on the content of a certain theory as opposed to the justification for it, whereas philosophy teaching (rightly) focuses on the justification of the stances being presented.

  • At 4:34 PM, Blogger Eugene said…

    The primary problem for philosophy is the idea that it can develop undeniable truth. The work of philosophy is greatly needed. People act based upon beliefs as to right and wrong. Philosophy essentially proves religion correct and therefore philosophy should proceed with the free endorsement of all religions.

  • At 6:57 PM, Blogger ElimiSTeve said…

    I sat in on a Quantum Mechanics lecture during Winter quarter. Of course, the students were being taught the very-popular-amongst-physicists (and ill-defined, if not incoherent) Copenhagen interpretation of QM as The Truth. He explained what's 'actually' going on behind the math using this interpretation. (I doubt he knows there is even a debate between various interpretations.)

    The professor said something to the effect of, if not identical to: "I know it's weird but this is reality". NOBODY HAS ANY IDEA WHAT REALITY 'ACTUALLY' IS, nor that it even makes sense to speak this way!

    I don't want philosophy to be like this. Without Relativity, we wouldn't have GPS, and without quantum, we wouldn't have computers. Thanks, physics, but I don't want philosophy to be like you in the slightest.

    I know that people who don't know what philosophy is don't respect it very much, but I really don't care what the herd respects.

  • At 7:22 PM, Blogger ElimiSTeve said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 7:24 PM, Blogger ElimiSTeve said…

    My friend is a physics major, has taken two philosophy courses, and has liked them both. But he had a complaint -- "all we ever talk about are unsolved problems. I want to learn about a case where, sure, there was disagreement at first, but someone made a breakthrough and the problem was solved because of it." He wants a conclusion -- an answer, The Truth -- not a sequence of possible answers, none of which, ultimately, seem to work very well.

    Where else do we encounter this type of discourse? In matters of opinion. People disagree, and no problem is solved. This may explain their feelings of subjectivity. "Objective" sciences don't have to deal with such things, at least apparently. They investigate, find the answer, and the problem is solved.

    It doesn't help that some philosophy majors -- some undergrads, some grad students -- think this is true of ethics, for example. "It really is just your opinion." As interesting and valid such a view may be (especially when it's argued and not simply claimed), this does not add to our credibility.

    I also get the feeling that many philosophy people -- undergrads, but also PROFESSORS -- are not very proud to be associated with philosophy. This comes from jokes about either not learning anything in philosophy classes or embarrassed comparisons to science. Multiple times have I heard something like, "it's not like we're Physics, or even science, but at least we're better than Sociology... right?"

    Here are two excerpts from conversations I've had, and if I worried about what these types of people think, I'd be in agreement with the undergraduates you're referring to, Josh.

    "What's your major?"
    "Math and Philosophy."
    "Wow -- math!"

    "So, how's the physics?! Solving the mysteries of the universe?!"
    "Actually, I'm studying Math and Philosophy, and I'm going to pursue Philosophy."
    "Well, it's not about the money. It's about doing what you love. If that's what you want to do, great; there's nothing wrong with that. That's all that matters."

    They just don't get it.

  • At 6:04 PM, Blogger J.May said…

    I think ElimiSteve's worry that it's not a good thing to emulate the empirical sciences may be something to consider. It's true that the empirical sciences are often a little too quick to teach things as fact, and aren't really clear about what that means. I too wish they would be more clear about how they are simply basing their conclusions on evidence and that there is, of course, the possibility of being wrong, etc. That, of course, doesn't mean we have to be skeptical or anti-realist about; rather, just clear how the whole process generally works.

    However, two things:

    (1) I wasn't necessarily suggesting that philosophy professors do that (i.e., teach all their beliefs as fact). I was mostly just suggesting that philosophy professors emphasize some sort of progress in philosophy. This brings me to my second point.

    (2) No one has really answered my main question. What I'm really hoping to get is some discussion about what we should count as the major points of progress in philosophy.

    Any takers?

  • At 6:03 AM, Blogger Kevin Schutte said…

    I think I would state your point #2 differently, or, perhaps, I'm suggesting a different point. I would say that progress in philosophy has come with the reduction or elimination of metaphorical talk and/or analogical reasoning in favor of strict literal truth, a trend that isn't necessarily found in other disciplines (such as, say, the cognitive sciences). A good comparison is between the things said in How many people are in my head? by professor of medicine John C. W. Edwards vs. what is said in Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by Bennett and Hacker.

    If I were to make the point in the manner that you make it, I would add a few more disjuncts to make the case clearer that this is real progress. We haven't just distinguished those few things. We've made distinct each of the following abstract ideas (and others not given here), yet they are all ways of saying that a notion is secure in some way: a priori claims, adequate definitions, analytic propositions, apparent propositions, atomic facts, axiomatic expressions, certain facts, clear and distinct ideas, credible claims, indefeasible beliefs, indubitable propositions, innate ideas, justified beliefs, necessary truths, obvious facts, provable sentences, self-evident truths, tautological sentences, transparent thoughts, undeniable claims, universally believed statements, and so on.

  • At 6:13 AM, Blogger Kevin Schutte said…

    I should clarify my previous comment. I think it is not so important that we eliminate what I call "illustrations", including things like: allegories, analogies, demonstrations, dialogues, paradigmatic examples, thought experiments, proofs, and diagrams (such as Euler diagrams and Venn diagrams). Rather, the importance is that philosophers increasingly recognize that these don't function in the same manner that assertions function, and aren't candidates for truth in the same way (though they might be candidates for a similar notion, e.g., pragmatic goodness).

  • At 3:43 PM, Blogger nif said…

    Ok, I realize that you're asking about what we could claim as progress in philosophy but I want to write about how it's presented as well. I think that there is something to be learned from the sciences. Outdated ideas in the sciences are presented as wrong from the outset, and in philosophy we tend to present outdated ideas as if they are right and then we show how they are wrong. For example, in cosmology, the Ptolemeic idea that the earth is the center of the universe is presented as almost ridiculous. Then we get the later and better but still wrong idea that the sun is the center of the universe. Then we get the currently accepted relativistic idea that, well, both of the previous accounts are actually right and wrong... At no time are the earlier ideas presented as correct. It's always "people used to think..." I think this might be a good approach for philosophers as well.
    Now onto the progress. I'll focus on political philosophy and ethics since that's what I know best. Here are a few off the top of my head.
    1. We now know that slavery, oppression based on race, and oppression of women are not morally acceptable. (Contrast to Aristotle or Kant for example.)
    2. We know that scripture cannot be the sole guide to morality.
    3. We know that justice is a feature of institutions.

    As for the undergrads, philosophy is not presented in the way they are used to facts being presented. It's not measured, it's not tested, it's not predictive... I don't think it fits their "truth paradigm". So, I think if we want them to think of philosophical ideas as potentially true we need to explain how that is possible, maybe by comparisons with mathematical ideas. At the same time, I think people in general are starting to doubt truth altogether. They hear so many versions of different things that they give up hope of ever finding the truth. For some reason this leads them to conclude that there is no truth. I have futily tried to address this in my ethics classes and I'm not sure it's even worth it. I have experienced that presenting the arguments for and against concepts is much more effective than discussing how it is possible for them to be true. I have also tried presenting some modern theories at the end of my class as examples of more viable philosophical theories, with almost no positive effect. What they have by far responded the best to is learning how to reason about the concepts, and to me this is really the value of philosophy anyway.

  • At 2:02 AM, Blogger s said…

    Philosophy is an activity rather than a body of knowledge. The product tends to be negative: we end up unconfused, rather than confused. That's often a pretty unimpressive outcome. Confusion is usually so much more colourful than plain speaking. I agree with Kevin Schutte. How many people are in my head? None - not even I am in my head (I'm in my office). But that sounds like so much cold water poured on a fascinating non-question. Such is the philosopher's lot.

  • At 2:13 AM, Blogger Sean said…

    This is an excellent topic.

    Isn't comparing philosophy to chemistry a bit of a stretch? As far as I know chemistry is a complete or mature science. All that remains is working out the details: how this or that protein or carbon chain can do such-and-such and reacts in this manner when exposed to so-and-so. The big issues have been settled for some time: we know how electrons are shared between atoms in molecules and what the effects of heat on molecules are, etc... Isn't the general theory of chemistry essentially settled? Chemistry, as a discipline, as far as I know, is not subject to the frequency or magnitude of revision that microphysics or cosmology currently are subject to. I think there's a case for seeing those two aspects of physics as a bit more analogous to philosophy than chemistry is. And note that the "empirical" status of their claims is also a bit less, how shall we say, amenable to easy observation than are the reactions of chemistry.

    Plus, we might do well to remember that philosophy is one of the oldest of disciplines that exists in academia. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Part of the life of the philosophic tradition lies in asking questions (and being very careful about how to answer them). It’s also in a big way about evaluating perspectives about the most difficult and general aspects of the situation we find ourselves in.

    How do you measure progress, exactly for philosophy?

    The cynical side of me would think that success in philosophy would be evident in fewer people enrolling to study it (they developed an immunization for the disease, perhaps).

    The more realistic side of me understands that philosophy is far from a unified scientific endeavor (though of course, scientific practice and truth is of considerable interest to many philosophers).

    There are many facets to philosophy, and probably as many ways to evaluate progress. How do you measure progress in the study of Spinoza or the philosophy of law? How would one begin to measure progress in aesthetics, political philosophy, or the philosophy of science? How does one even measure progress something like the philosophy of language?

    These are questions that are uniquely suited to philosophers to consider. If the glove fits...

    As a philosopher, what is the work you want to spend you time doing? Perhaps the sort of criteria that you'd use to evaluate your own work might be one of the best standards to consider in relation to this question. How do you evaluate own your choice to pursue philosophy to this level?

  • At 2:16 PM, Blogger WILMOT said…

    EINSTEIN replaced Newton but Newton is still valid from one point of view---this point of view was changed by the observations of the michelson-morely experiment and Einstein filled the gap.
    Don't need the designations right and wrong for Einstein and Newton respectively, --can just say that each accounts for certain observations.
    From the quantum point of view--from the area of its concern-- relativity is not too relevant, and
    from relativity's view quantum is a poor explainer.
    Given that relativity, and any other theory, might not explain some future observations, one can assert that all theories may be held tentative.
    ON the other hand the
    heliocentric Ptolemaic theory can still predict eclipses well enough--despite its awkward complexity.
    We may all agree (or not) that something or other is the case---that we assert something
    as the actual state of affairs until it arises that we hold the state of affairs to have changed.
    Ultimately, one could say, we must all agree that there is something that is the case---and that we can state what that is. And this is undoubtedly a premise---a starting point--and not a thing that can be shown by experiment. Unshowable also is sciences' assertion that processes confirmed by experiment obtain throughout the universe or at least the solar system or some such, and at all times rather than intermittently and so on--see Hume on this topic.
    Is there anything indubitable?
    If I say I doubt that there is writing going on here--the reply may be that I don't understand the definition of the term or understanding the term-- I don't know how to apply it--but then we could thereafter argue endlessly the terms "apply" and "definition" and others.
    One could take the tack that
    behavior indicates belief and so that I am writing shows I do not doubt that writing is happening. But this again is dubitable.
    We could end up simply agreeing to disagree--or agreeing that our conflicting assumptions forestall substantive agreement between us.

    One may be perversely contrary and doubt that we can know anything--including the assertion that we can doubt that we can or can't know anything.
    It might be replied that such contrariness is absurd and contradictory---but the rejoinder: what is absurd is debatable.
    On the other hand,one may say that it is the case that that there is some assertion that something is the case---actually the case--and not just hypothetically so: If I make the statement that all assertions that something is the case are assertions that are hypothetical--well, to counter it, it may be said that that statement itself is not hypothetical--but is asserted as the case--and the statement is rather a contradiction; kind of like saying that the relativist assertion that truth is relative is not itself relative---that is not relative at all--it is instead asserted as the actual state of affairs--as the case.
    It seems that to make a statement is to assert that something is the state of affairs--or is supported by some assertion that something is the case--- not hypothetically the case, but actually.
    And consequently, from this view
    truth is really truth--is the case--until it is changed or forgotten or repudiated or some such. In other words, truth is not an unchanging monolith but rather a serial phenomenon--one truth after the other--and while held, each truth is really true--really is the state of affairs.
    And each truth may be in conflict with someone else's.
    If we say that an assertion has been replaced and therefore could not have been the truth after all, well, this applies equally to its replacement---since the replacement could be replaced in future-- So , either nothing is the truth or what we hold to be the case now is the truth, and is the case (from its own point of view)--but is subject to replacement by something else, which then becomes the actual truth.

    I mean, what else have we got except the assertion that something is the case?

    Maybe from this view, the only thing to say is that there really is something called truth (what all assertions have in common)--but that there are different forms of the truth--of something that is the case--and that the forms may change.
    One assertion may be replaced by another, or forgotten or abandoned
    or repudiated or some such---
    But then this too is dubitable--
    right? So, this is what keeps philosophy so busy.
    Such fundamental questions science rarely deals with---and this is why
    we need philosophy, and not just as the "handmaiden to science" as Russell asserted--but as a searcher into the bases of existence.
    This is what I found exciting about philosophy as an undergraduate and what still

  • At 7:25 PM, Blogger radical_logic said…

    Hey guys,
    Sorry for this tagent to the discussion.

    I've written a paper on the problem of induction, arguing that it can be resolved using Buddhist metaphysics (particularly the doctrine of emptiness.) Specifically, I argue that the problem rests on a mistaken view of reality - that there are essences and intrinsic natures.

    I'm looking for some feedback on my paper. Would anyone be willing to read it? If so, please send me an e-mail at spencelo@gmail.com; I look forward to some good discussions!

  • At 9:42 AM, Blogger Jason Shepard said…

    I think this is a much needed discussion and is very much appreciated. Let me briefly interject a few quick thoughts.

    (1) Progress. It is a great idea to stress tangible progress that has come out of the realm of philosophy, but these progresses need to be related to concrete, applied examples in order for the average student to really begin to get an idea of how much philosophical progress has really been made (and further, specifically how this progress has impacted our lives in meaningul, concrete ways).

    (2)Truth. Philosophers debate fundamental, abstract issues that lie at the root of X. So, in many ways philosophy is not like science. For the most part, philosophy is not concerned with superficial "truths" but is a search of more basic facts. I think it would be wrong to teach philosophy as if it were a science in this regard. Again, I think the explicit mention of practical and pervasive applications of philosophical progress would help alleviate some of the views that philosophy is a sort of really bad, very relativistic, non-truth seeking subject.

    (3) Philosophy presented in other subjects. As someone who majored in philosophy and psychology as an undergraduate, I noticed that philosophical ideas were explicitly mentioned in most of my psychology courses. However, these glosses were dangerously innaccurate and tended to paint philosophy in somewhat of a negative light. It is this widespread misrepresentation of philosophy in other academic classes, and not just popular folk beliefs about philosophy, that fuel these misconceptions even among the educated and curious.

  • At 1:47 AM, Blogger Joe said…

    Perry & Kaplan's treatment of demonstratives

    Benacerraf's clarification of the essential problem of phil. of mathematics

    Looking at what is "natural" for things (a la Aristotle, Aquinas) is thoroughly unhelpful

    Quine-Duhem Thesis

  • At 2:56 PM, Blogger Brandon Baranowski said…

    I realize this is an older thread, but I read the blog and found it interesting none-the-less. If there is a chance to still in put on the topic then I would like to attempt. I think the problem with comparing philosophers to scientists is that philosophers are conscious enough to not assume the fact. Nothing in existence can be proven 100% true 100% of the time. That is the problem with defining the world through subjective minds. I'm also not sure if removing the koan cliche from philosophy won't change the premise of philosophy itself. Philosophy is about subjectivity and I think that philosophy works best hand-in-hand with another field, such as Physics. Whether meta, quantum, or other, with out the debate theories of Philosophy I don't feel it's possible to reach any form of conclusion on anything. Look at how much the scientific field has benefited from taking philosophical or "magical" ideas and defining or experimenting with these ideals. However, I think we could write some rules on philosophy from man's point of view, but just like all philosophies, sciences, and theorems, it will of course be open to subjectivity, so once again I return to the beginning point that philosophers are too aware, or "think too much" to limit themselves in this sense. Thank you much for your time!

  • At 12:49 PM, Blogger the-philosopher said…

    I find it assuming that pop culture has portrayed philosophy as a subjective, cul-de-sac discipline. If it is the case that philosophy does not 'progress' then it is also the case that the scientific disciplines do not 'progress' because they require a philosophical foundation- namely that we can know things about our environment from inference and induction.

    I think Philosophy, however, has progressed through Wittgenstein's movement towards a demystification of philosophical quandaries into language games and thus a limit to explanation.

    Philosophy does not pretend to explain everything. However, it undoubtedly must set the limits of explanation and I think philosophers have attempted to do this fairly successfully over the last couple thousand years.

    I still regard philosophy as a young discipline. Perhaps in a couple thousand more years we will be able to provide an absolute refutation of scepticism. Now wouldn't that be progress! I think the Brain in a Vat hypothesis and the Evil Demon from Descartes' meditations still threatens philosophy's quest for progress tho

  • At 12:00 AM, Blogger Robert said…

    As an avid philosopher I can't think of a better question to get stuck into.

    Would love your thoughts!

    In Bob Versus The Meaning of Life I got 5 other unsual opinions. Do you agree with any of their answers?


  • At 9:17 PM, Blogger rashida said…

    I love this article. Its always engaging and thought provoking. Basically philosophy works out which questions should be answered, and more importantly how to answer them, then the scientists go off and do it. Thank you Tony for all your dedication to excellence.


  • At 12:05 PM, Blogger isel p. said…

    you probably don't remember me, but I was in your round table discussion, for Plato's crito.I was actually thinking in majoring in philosophy. I think that philosophy can yield to extraordinary insights.


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