Philosophical progress?

progressDavid Chalmers recently addressed the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge, and he jokingly announced at the beginning that everything he was about to say was not to leave the room. Of course, there are links to the talk everywhere now, and here is another one. His joke makes sense as a joke because of the general assumption in higher ed that each and every faculty member at a research university is in the business of making piecemeal contributions to an ongoing project of construction and discovery. That’s progress. Faculty members are routinely evaluated on the impact they make upon their profession, or the ways in which they advance their discipline, and that is measured by frequent publications that get cited frequently in other publications. Now if a professional academic like Chalmers comes forward and asks, “How come none of this is getting us anywhere?”, he invites the people who fund higher ed, or the administrators of those funds, to pull the plug on that discipline. That’s why he asked that his remarks not leave the room – knowing full well they would, and that it really wouldn’t matter, as the people with plug-pulling powers do not routinely take into consideration remarks made to the Moral Sciences Club.

Three blah-blah points before going on to say what I want to say. First, yes, there are many sense in which philosophy does indeed make piecemeal progress in the way that bug-collecting and star counting do … blah blah blah. Second, higher ed administrators are generally more sensible than the caricatures faculty make of them, and they make allowances for poets and sculptors and so on … blah blah blah. Third, even with what I’m going to say, I really have no problem with a group of philosophers who like seeing what they do along the same lines as bug collecting and star counting; there’s room in our garden for everything … blah blah blah.

Okay, on to business. What bothers me is that Chalmers, and almost all of the discussion I have read in response to his talk (see comments on Leiter’s blog here), accept this paradigm of progress, and then set to work on explaining why philosophy isn’t advancing as robustly as the marvelous advances in polymers, or microchips. The basic theme of Chalmers talk is this: if we could see that philosophers were all smoothly gravitating over time to the same answers to the big questions, then we would know that there has been progress in philosophy; but that isn’t happening; so how can we explain why it isn’t? Why aren’t philosophers as successful as cell phone engineers?

It seems to me a decent and rational response to this paradigm is, “Are you out of your focking mind?” The fact that there are irresolvably deep differences over the biggest philosophical questions is not something to hide and apologize for. On the contrary: no educated person would expect philosophers as a corporate bunch to settle these questions, as their unsettlement is itself the value of studying philosophy. Understanding how and why Aquinas and Hume could argue for all eternity and never agree is the beginning of a philosophical education. The step after that is for individuals to make some decisions on their own – about Aquinas and Hume, about the nature of the controversy, and about how that understanding will inform their lives. The clearest progress in philosophy is at the level of individuals, in the details of their philosophical biographies and in the evolution of their minds.

Chalmers might agree to all this – at least as possibly true – but then point out that the question he raises is still worth asking: why isn’t there greater convergence on the big philosophical questions over time? But now my answer would be: because individuals make different decisions in their responses to philosophical controversies.

Now I also must admit that becoming a philosopher – learning the material, developing insight, and making your own decisions – might require the “corporate progress model” at least as a heuristic. Philosophers hold one another accountable by raising objections to arguments and responding to them. If we all merely asked one another, “How is your own personal voyage of discovery working out?”, that would certainly be annoying, and the death of philosophy. We need to argue, and we can’t argue unless we take ourselves to be getting somewhere. How one can employ this heuristic while at the same time recognizing the truth of what I have said about decisions is itself an interesting philosophical question: “To what extent must a philosopher be forgetful?” or “Can philosophy take itself seriously?” are questions Nietzsche might have asked. But they also are questions too important and too serious to be raised in the company of those in charge of higher ed.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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1 Response to Philosophical progress?

  1. HermioneRon4evr (@HermioneRon4evr) says:

    Yup. I would argue that the implicit goal (the reduction of disagreement) is tied up with an attempt to take humanity out of philosophy, to try to transcend the fact that we are studying and interpreting ourselves (and not the natural world). To borrow an old phrase, the concepts we study are “essentially contestable”: we ultimately determine what we are to say about knowledge, truth, goodness, etc., and the universe doesn’t make that decision for us (as it does when an engineer decides to ignore the laws of thermodynamics in constructing an airplane). This doesn’t mean that there are not better and worse answers to philosophical questions, it’s just that those standards come from from us.

    That’s all very vague, of course.


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