On the Question of Progress in Philosophy
Before asking what kind of progress is possible in philosophy, we must first consider if progress is possible at all in philosophy. A common argument against philosophical progress generally goes as follows: philosophy seems to be predominantly armchair-driven, that most of philosophical work is done through arduous pondering. However, it seems as though just sitting on an armchair and thinking cannot possibly reveal new truths, and therefore relying on the armchair method cannot make any progress. Thus, by this reasoning, most philosophy is incapable of progress.
Beyond this straw man argument, two leading opposing grounds against philosophical progress are represented by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Penelope Maddy. Wittgenstein claims that philosophical problems are rooted in conceptual or linguistic confusions. For him, philosophy does not offer any useful revelations about the real world. Maddy’s view is a bit less extreme; she regards those branches of philosophy that are closer to the natural sciences as the only parts of philosophy that can make progress. Both Wittgenstein and Maddy seem to limit philosophy’s capabilities to a certain set of truths, implying that philosophy cannot make much real progress.
Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, claims that the problems in philosophy arise from conceptual confusion in language. In particular, he argues against the various ways we might define language from our common usage, called language games, eventually arriving at the conclusion that we cannot adequately and comprehensively outline our system of language and meanings of words. As an analogy, he puts forth that, while mathematics is an academic subject, it is also an activity. So it’s unclear whether the statement ‘two plus two is five’ is incorrect because it is objectively false or because it is an exception to what we do.1placeholder If this kind of confusion arises from mathematics, a subject known for its certainty and clarity from its established axioms, what happens when there is no universal agreement or a guideline, such as judging whether an expression of feeling is genuine? It seems clear that “if the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, [we] should be interested, not in grammar, but rather in nature which is the basis of grammar”.2placeholder Since Wittgenstein establishes that we cannot explain the formation of concepts by examining the facts of nature, we are left with the conclusion that explaining the formation of concepts would be better accomplished by exploring the use of concepts in our language rather than some material reference in nature. Thus, for Wittgenstein, the correct methodology and goal of philosophy is to examine and explain the conceptual confusions in our language; philosophy has no access to valuable knowledge of the real world.
To this linguistic argument against philosophical progress, Timothy Williamson responds that philosophers invoking thought and language are no different from other professions using linguistic knowledge. If Smith is on trial for killing Jones, the judge has to discern who is telling the truth. Though the judge establishes veracity through processing largely linguistic information, the case still hinges on the act of murder and punishment.3placeholder Similarly, when historians evaluate the credibility of a source, they ask “who produced them, when and why?”, but again, historians’ evaluations through invoking knowledge of thought and language doesn’t change the fact that their main point and purpose of inquiry is about history.4placeholder In the same way, the goal of philosophy should not be confused with one of many methods of achieving that goal. Thus, Wittgenstein’s picture provides a wrong view of philosophical progress.
Less radical than the Wittgenstein picture, Maddy presents the scientist’s argument against philosophy making great progress. She believes that philosophy exists to answer the questions that arise from natural sciences that those subjects cannot answer, and consequently, parts of philosophy unrelated to science are not capable of making progress. In describing the proper methodology for philosophy, Maddy says, “the Second Philosopher conducts her metaphysical inquiry as she does every other inquiry, beginning with observation, experimentation, theory formation and testing, revising and refining as she goes”.5placeholder In other words, the parts of philosophy that have little to no empirical connections are either not philosophy or useless. Clearly, the picture is driven by empiricism, even bordering on scientism.
Maddy’s criticism of non-empirical evidence and reasoning is not a statement on all forms of non-empirical inquiry; indeed, philosophy of science itself continues to involve significant armchair reasoning. Instead, Maddy’s distinction between parts of philosophy that can and cannot make progress concerns the foundations of the form of philosophical inquiry in question. For her, if a philosophical inquiry finds its base in the sciences, the ensuing philosophical reasoning is capable of making progress despite its reliance on armchair methods. All philosophers end up in the armchair, but Maddy’s second philosopher starts from the lab, whereas other philosophers start from the armchair.
Although Maddy’s belief in science seems reasonable, she is unable to provide a consistent line of argument for evaluating the progress of philosophy. Maddy is highly critical of Descartes’ foundationalism at the start of her Second Philosophy, yet, in her methodology, by regarding empirical observations and scientific beliefs as a privileged form of knowledge, she invokes a belief akin to foundationalism, implying that some beliefs are more reliable than others because they derive from more successful disciplines. Maddy construes this deference to successful science as a judgement made outside of philosophy, but in fact her estimation of a discipline’s success already presupposes philosophical beliefs that stipulate empirical science as the paragon of rational inquiry. The problem here is not exactly that foundationalism is an impossible epistemological strategy, and that therefore Maddy’s privileging of science is likewise implausible. Rather, Maddy herself seems deeply, if implicitly, committed to a form of philosophical judgement about which she is officially quite skeptical. In addition to making this mistake, by trying to categorize an initial set of beliefs and observations, Maddy seems to neglect Quine’s well-known, and highly convincing, demonstration that observational sentences are not easily distinguished from non-empirical sentences. Maddy’s supposedly anti-foundationalist, but largely self-undermining, deference to science, together with the more familiar problems associated with distinguishing observation sentences, cast considerable doubt on her vision of philosophical progress.
Considerations from the history of science, and from scientific methodology, equally undermine Maddy’s bias towards empirical foundations. Despite using empirical justifications, natural sciences such as physics could not have made the progress that they have made without purely non-empirical thought experiments, as evidenced in the works of Galileo and Einstein.6placeholder These thought experiments in natural sciences were often later confirmed by physical experiments, but the point still remains that these thought experiments began in the armchair, instead of being started in the lab, and confirmation is often a long time in coming. In the same way, philosophy based on non-empirical reasoning can be as useful as philosophy based on empirical observations. Thus, the goal towards which philosophy progresses cannot be limited to solely aiding natural sciences as Maddy suggests.
Since both Wittgenstein’s and Maddy’s arguments provide an inadequate picture of philosophical progress, we are left to consider what philosophical methodology as such could be. One of the most plausible recent accounts of philosophical methodology, including its armchair practices, is precisely Williamson’s. Both skeptical of philosophical progress, Wittgenstein believes that philosophy can only solve essentially trivial problems of its own creation, and Maddy maintains that philosophy is only capable of revealing second-order truths parasitic on the natural sciences. In contrast, Williamson believes that philosophy, unaided, discovers direct truths about the world, that it is a real truth-generating inquiry. In his eyes, philosophy is as much a science as mathematics is a science: no matter how much one discredits the armchair thinking characteristic of philosophy, if mathematics, a purely non-empirical subject, were to be accepted as disclosing real truths about the world, the “common assumption of philosophical exceptionalism” should be rejected.7placeholder In addition, just as scientific experiments can be relevant but are not essential to mathematics, philosophy may also utilize empirical experiments, though they are not necessary for philosophical progress.8placeholder
Although philosophy is a real truth-generating inquiry, Williamson’s rejection of philosophical exceptionalism is certainly questionable. Philosophical exceptionalism exists, not because of its extensive use of armchair thought experiments as Williamson suggests, but rather for its connections and applicability to a unique variety of other disciplines. The methodological parallel that Williamson draws between mathematics and philosophy breaks down when examining the nature of their relations with other subjects. Mathematics, while in contact with an equally wide array of subjects as philosophy, is generally confined in its influence to narrowly instrumental quantitative techniques. In subjects such as political science, numbers and mathematical theorems provide for more accurate and relevant empirical data, but these data often do not impinge on core beliefs in political science itself. As opposed to the relatively shallow, purely instrumental contact mathematics makes with other subjects, philosophy often has substantial influence on the core beliefs held within other disciplines. Employing different philosophical knowledge and values drastically changes the deepest, most fundamental beliefs we hold in other subjects, in ways that the superficial influences of mathematics cannot.
Since philosophy makes such meaningful contact with all other kinds of knowledge, philosophical progress should not be judged internally, but rather should be judged with respect to other inquiries that have achieved different levels of progress. Thus, the correct judgement of philosophical progress takes into account Maddy’s scientism, Williamson’s defense of armchair methodology, and philosophical exceptionalism. Philosophical inquiry related to the natural sciences has made the most progress, as evidenced by the spectacular pace of scientific progress, while non-empirical philosophical inquiry has made less progress, particularly in the supposed quagmires of ethical and political reflection. Nevertheless, we have no reason to suppose that philosophical progress is impossible; on the contrary, several consequences follow from these considerations that suggest exactly otherwise.
Following this line of argument, it is not unreasonable to foresee that a skeptic may ask for a definitive evidence showing a direct causal relationship between philosophical contributions to other disciplines and the progress of those disciplines. Again the Quinean point casts doubt on the possibility of consistently distinguishing philosophical from non-philosophical content within the webs of our beliefs. Even in other inquiries where we agree that they have made progress, such as physics, it is extremely difficult to narrow down which parts of that discipline directly caused progress in other parts of the discipline. To do this with philosophy would present an even greater challenge, particularly given the global and abstract character of its influence, difficult to localize.
Another layer to this difficulty is that philosophy at its best often branches off into a different subject. Following the progress of what started as the philosophy of the mind in the study of human behavior and its causes, when philosophy of the mind was the most organized with its empirical methodology and goals, psychology became its own discipline. Likewise, logic and physics to some sense derive their origins from philosophy. Although philosophy still continues to influence psychology, logic, and physics at their roots, this overlap between advanced philosophy and different disciplines makes finding evidence for direct causal relations even more difficult.
Another skeptic may suggest that this version of epistemological holism is no different from Maddy’s holism. However, a strong point of contrast is that Maddy’s holism fails to attribute significance to completely non-empirical aspects of philosophy. In adopting Williamson’s belief in the armchair method, the new epistemological holism this paper proposes is a more complete picture of our knowledge and philosophical progress. Thus, because this new form of epistemological holism accepts Williamson’s position that progress and useful knowledge are possible even in the domains of philosophy most removed from empirical observation, the mere existence of some probability to make progress in the purely non-empirical parts of philosophy makes it rational to pursue the same kind of philosophical inquiry as we have been, even if there are no guarantees that such philosophical inquiry will arrive at a definitive and objective truth.
Maddy, Penelope. Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Quine, Willard V. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review 60 (January 1951): 20–43. Accessed June 3, 2018.
Quine, Willard V., and J. S. Ullian. The Web of Belief. 2nd ed. N.p.: McGraw-Hill Education, 1978.
Williamson, Timothy. The Philosophy of Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by Elizabeth Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 227.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 230.
Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 42.
Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 42.
Penelope Maddy, Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 411.
Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 179.
Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 3.
Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 6.