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Philosophy: Eternal topics, evolving questions

Philosophy: Eternal Topics, Evolving Questions

Philosophers are famous for disagreeing on the issues that interest them. Is morality objective? Is the mind identical to the body? Are our actions free or determined? Some professional Philosophers will say no to these questions—but an almost equal number will say yes.

Moreover, empirical data bears this out. In a widely publicized PhilPapers survey, conducted by David Bourget and David Chalmers, little or no consensus was found among contemporary philosophers on key philosophical theses. In the face of all this, does Philosophy make progress?

Surely the question answers itself. If philosophers can’t agree on their answers, the inevitable conclusion is: they make no progress. Or, at least, they make no progress, except on the meta-question of whether there is progress. On this there can be no disagreement.

But philosophers disagree on the meta-question, too! A recent exchange in the Times Literary Supplement will give you the flavour: On the optimistic side, David Papineau, a professor at Kings College London and The City University of New York, presents philosophy as concerned with a continuous set of questions from the ancient past to now. Philosophers have made progress on these questions, he says, but because the issues are so hard, pace is slow. For Papineau, progress exists—it’s just so glacial it’s easy to miss.

On the pessimistic side, Carlos Fraenkel, a professor at McGill, presents contemporary philosophers as concerned with a quite different set of questions from those of the past. In the light of this, he says, Papineau’s picture is unconvincing: no continuity, no progress.
What is to be done? Should we draw the paradoxical conclusion that, not only is there no progress in philosophy, there is no progress on whether there is progress?

I don’t think so. Drawing a key distinction through philosophy’s past allows us to see what’s right and what’s not in both optimism and pessimism. It also allows us to see that the case for optimism is much more robust than even Papineau thinks.

The key distinction, which is not always clear in the language we use, is between the topics of philosophy, and the questions people ask about these topics.

The topics of philosophy are those many of us are exposed to in intro classes, but are of course widely available from other sources: the relation between the mind and the body, the scope and nature of human knowledge, the objectivity of morality. Different people in different epochs and cultures have been interested in these topics.

But the questions raised about these topics are specific to particular epistemological circumstances, and so they vary over time. For example, contemporary discussions of mind and body are often heavily influenced by ideas from computer science, biology, linguistics, and logic; earlier ones were not.

Look again at the Papineau-Fraenkel exchange with this in mind. Papineau says that contemporary philosophy is concerned with the same issues as that of the past. Does he mean “same topics” or “same questions about those topics”? If the first, his claim is plausible. But if the second, it is false. Indeed, he himself points out areas of philosophy (for example, ethics) in which the questions have changed.

Likewise, Fraenkel says that contemporary philosophy is different from the past. If he means “different questions about philosophical topics” what he says is true, but if he means the topics themselves, what he says is implausible. On the contrary, he identifies various topics clearly, to show the difference between the Greeks and us.

Where does this leave the dispute between the pessimist and the optimist about philosophical progress? Should we declare both sides right and go home?

Of course philosophers disagree on the specific questions that interest them at the moment, but that is true in every field, so nothing follows about philosophy in particular.

Again, I don’t think so. Suppose philosophers at different times ask different questions about the topics that interest them. Then the fact of contemporary disagreement in philosophy—something amply demonstrated in the PhilPapers survey and elsewhere—loses its force. Of course philosophers disagree on the specific questions that interest them at the moment, but that is true in every field, so nothing follows about philosophy in particular.

Moreover, if philosophers at different times ask different questions, it becomes possible to identify earlier questions that have been solved In turn, it then becomes possible, contra Papineau, to see the pattern of success and failure in philosophy as similar to that of other fields.

Here are two examples, both of which have the benefit of involving “institutional memory.”

In 1960, in Word and Object, W.V.O. Quine asked a highly influential question about the place of semantic meaning in the natural world—a topic that is closely connected with the mind-body problem. He asked, in effect, how is meaning possible given (a) that meaning must be determined by behaviour, and yet (b) it is not determined by behaviour—something Quine illustrated with his well-known “Gavagai” example.

What happened to that question? It is now a consensus position in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and related fields that (a) is false; Quine’s behaviourism has been rejected. If so, his question has been solved. This is not to say that the topic Quine was interested in has gone away. Contemporary philosophers still ask questions about the place of meaning in the natural world. But these questions don’t take behaviourism as a premise and have a quite different shape.

At about the same time as Quine was writing, there was a large amount of literature on the philosophy of history, now often neglected; William Dray’s 1964 book Philosophy of History is a good example. One central question in that literature was: How is causation in history possible given (a) causes require strict laws and yet (b) there are no strict laws in history?

What happened to that question? Thanks to Donald Davidson and many others, we now have accounts of causation in which the connection between laws and causation is more remote than is suggested by (a), and so this question too has been resolved. Again, this does not mean that philosophers don’t now discuss the topic of history, but the interesting questions are quite different. Some are associated more with “continental” philosophy than the self-styled “analytic” philosophy of history of the past. And some concern ontological questions about historical entities similar in many respects to issues about the social construction of race and gender pursued by Sally Haslanger and others.

“If only we made all the distinctions that there are,” Jerry Fodor once wrote, “we should all be happy as kings.” I am not sure this is true in general, but something close to it is true when deliberating the case of philosophical progress.

Featured image credit: turkey-nature-landscape by kareni. CC0 public domain via Pixabay

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Philosophy: Eternal topics, evolving questions


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