top of page
  • Richard Farr

Progress about ‘progress in philosophy’

Philosophers are still reading Aristotle, and still arguing about whether there is free will: ergo, philosophy is useless. It has always been a popular sneer from the philosophically ignorant, from Stephen Hawking on down. But those who actually bother to do some philosophy know that there’s something wrong with the picture. In a recent blog post, Agnes Callard eloquently explains why:

Here’s a nice taster:

Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago?  The answer is: certainly…. … The more we respond to one another, the better materials we hand down to our descendants for thinking with.  For example, nowadays if you want to go ahead and assert, in a philosophical context, that there aren’t any true contradictions or that what didn’t but could’ve happened is unreal, or that you are sometimes morally responsible for some of the things you do, there are philosophers who have made it hard for you to do that.  Graham Priest and David Lewis and Galen Strawson have, respectively, raised the cost of saying what you’re reflexively inclined to say.   They’ve made you work for it—made you think for it.

An irony she doesn’t explore here, in responding to those who think we only need science, is that these philosophers are doing exactly what scientists are supposed to do: holding the feet of sloppy theories to the fire of closely examined consequences. Priest, Lewis, and Strawson are simply picking up popular, ill-examined theories about how things work, examining them, and saying: “Ah, you think that? Well, no, probably you only think you think that – because look, here are two or three bizarre, uncomfortable, or improbable consequences of thinking that, which you hadn’t bothered to notice. And now you’re going to have to re-assess what you’re committed to.”

This is just what the Phil 101 professor is doing for the first year student, in a million-times repeated exchange:

“The idea of objectively true values is an oppressive colonialist myth! What’s true for people in one culture is just true for people in that culture!”

“So you’re a relativist.”

“Of course!”

“So you’re like, totally down with Nazis, so long as there are enough of them?”

Philosophy isn’t a program, with problems that we can expect to solve. It’s a set of tools for trying to think more clearly, and help / force non-philosophers to think more clearly, about all beliefs whatsoever. (Philosophers are not immune from the need. Far from it! That’s why they find so many opportunities to attack each other.) This is work that will never be completed. But it doesn’t follow – more sloppy thinking – that there’s no progress. The questions getting asked get better. And some new questions both arise out of philosophy and then fall away, answered, in large part because of it.

Here’s a question that was never asked in the ancient world, because the answer was so obviously Yes, and got asked eventually because of philosophy, and is never asked now because the answer is so obviously No:

“Is it OK to make slaves of my defeated enemies?”

Philosophy makes ancient good uncouth, as  James Russell Lowell almost said.

As Callard says, philosophy always will have a bad public relations problem. What makes the story of Socrates so iconic is that when a barefooted stranger takes your own most succulent beliefs and turns them to ashes in your mouth, the taste is bitter. Easiest just to get rid of the troublemaker … or claim he / she is wasting your time.

It occurs to me that much of Callard’s argument – and the philistine dismissal it’s ranged against – is like the attempt to persuade the illiterate that literary fiction might be something more than an attempt to be clever and unreadable – that it might be part of the same struggle to find ways to think more clearly. The mistake nearly all English teachers make is to tell kids that the Great Books of stylistic revolutionaries like Chaucer, Dostoievski, or Joyce are good reading – with the implication that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t “shriek with delight” (Orwell) and prefer them to those silly Marvel comics. They aren’t good reading – not until after you’ve done a lot of work to get over both the anachronisms and the inherent difficulties (otherwise known as density and precision of thought). That work’s not for everyone, any more than reading dead philosophers is for everyone. But here’s the rub: great and original literary authors are just like Spinoza or Nietzsche or Mill (or, as I think it may be, in time, Derek Parfit) in that they change forever the way we think, and see, and make judgements.

That the scale of their achievement is now invisible to most ‘educated’ people is the mark of its vastness: we live within it, and you have to do some digging and imagining to glimpse what it might have been like back in the world of before.

For more on this, see under “A unified and complete explanation of the world” in the notes to my Ghosts in the Machine:


bottom of page