Philosophy and Progress

The other day, Chris Daly of the University of Manchester published a piece at Aeon under the headline “Why Doesn’t Philosophy Progress from Debate to Consensus?

Professor Daly first discusses Thomas Kuhn’s challenge to the idea that science makes progress, limiting himself to the qualified response that, whatever the limits of science, it certainly seems to have produced a great deal more consensus among its devotees than has philosophy. I do wish Professor Daly had gone into greater depth on this point. After all, even the most restrictive definition of philosophy would have to include Plato and a more or less continuous line of thinkers from Plato’s day to ours. That gives you an enterprise that was ongoing for over two thousand years before anyone had heard of the idea of progress. It seems likely that philosophy will persist for thousands of years after that idea is forgotten, unless the human race manages to liquidate itself in the meantime. Kuhn’s model, in fact, would seem to warrant a hope that science, like philosophy, will be compatible with an understanding that all that happens over time is that you get more of some things and less of others, and in any given era the set of things that are decreasing and the set of things that are increasing will both include a mix of good and bad. On Kuhn’s account, neither science nor philosophy is dependent on a belief that history goes in a specific direction and that that direction is a desirable one.

Professor Daly goes on to list five answers traditionally given to his question:

  1. “Challenge the pessimism” by giving examples of philosophical problems that have been solved. The example which Professor Daly gives, and about which he expresses reservation, is Noam Chomsky’s claim that Newton solved the mind-body problem by positing the Force of Gravity. For Descartes, two things could not interact with each other unless they had a point of contact, and they could not have a point of contact unless they were composed of the same substance. Since mind and body seem to be different in substance, he could not explain how they could interact. By describing gravity, Chomsky argues, Newton showed that objects could interact without contact. This not only sweeps aside the proposition that bodies cannot interact without contact, but shows that there are no bodies at all in Descartes’ sense. It thereby dissolves the problem.

    Professor Daly objects that this argument only defeats Descartes’ definition of body. Physical entities do in fact exist, and mental phenomena do in fact seem to be radically different from them. So there is still a mind-body problem, even if it is not logically equivalent to the problem Descartes described.

    I would also object that Chomsky’s proposal ignores the history of the question. Whether there can be interactions among entities that are made of such different stuff that they cannot touch each other was precisely the issue when the Stoics and Epicureans argued with each other about whether humans, who are made of atoms and are therefore mortal, and gods, who are immortal and must therefore be made of something altogether different from atomic matter, can affect each other. Against the Epicurean claim that a collection of atoms could never come into contact with whatever the gods would be made of, the Stoics appealed to the laws of nature as a medium through which gods and mortals could influence each other without contact. Newton’s triumph over figures like Descartes and Spinoza repeated a battle won sixteen centuries before by Posidonius and his associates.

    If I were to give an example of a problem that philosophers had managed to solve, I would probably mention Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. That some mathematicians nowadays claim that side of Gödel’s work as exclusively their own, insisting that it is separate from the philosophy of mathematics, points to another reason why it often seems that the problems of philosophy are all insoluble- solve one, and people in other fields try to make off with it.

2. Dismiss the issue, and indeed the whole of philosophy, by claiming that “philosophical problems aren’t real problems.” This one doesn’t give Professor Daly much trouble. If the problems were just word-play, it would be as easy to make them go away as it is to solve a crossword puzzle, yet none of the people who make that claim has managed to accomplish such a solution.

3. Claim that “philosophical problems are just much harder than science problems” and therefore take more time to solve. He’s unimpressed by this one, and deals with it in a couple of short sentences.

4. Claim that the classic problems of philosophy resist solution because solving them requires us to do things to which our brains are not suited. Professor Daly calls this an “interesting piece of speculation,” and notes that the limits of human understanding are in fact a topic of empirical research. But he also finds it rather too convenient to say that solving philosophical problems is beyond our ken while “everything else we do in philosophy… is open to us.”

5. Daly’s own position is somewhere to be found in his description of the final option, so I will quote it in its entirety:

The fifth diagnosis, the one I think explains the most, doesn’t single out any one factor to explain philosophy’s lack of progress. Instead, it takes this to be the interaction effect of a cluster of things. As we saw in the case of intuitions, there’s controversy not only about the theories that philosophers devise but also about many of the methods or kinds of data that they appeal to in support of their theories. Also, philosophical problems have ‘entangled’ natures: proposed solutions to one problem require contentious assumptions about other live problems. For example, there’s a problem in saying what morality is about – what it is for actions or people to be morally good or bad. But this problem is not compartmentalised. Accompanying this problem about the nature of morality, there’s a problem about why we should accept some moral views rather than others. And, as we’ve seen, there’s also a problem about why anyone should care about morality. So, we have a nest of problems here: a definitional problem (what is morality?), an epistemological problem (how can we tell what’s moral?), and a motivational problem (why does morality matter?). Solutions to these problems will make assumptions about reality and our minds that raise fresh problems of their own, and so the issues ramify.

I’m a bit leery of Professor Daly’s emphasis on ethical theory- I am inclined to think that ethics is acceptable only as a subfield of epistemology. Lose sight of what humans can know and how they can be said to know it, and you quickly drift into the realms of theodicy.

A good paragraph from the memoirs of John Buchan

A few weeks ago, a venue around the corner from our house hosted a book sale to benefit a local charity. Mrs Acilius and I donated about 200 books, 50 compact discs, and a dozen DVDs to it. We bought about 100 books, 2 compact discs, and no DVDs. Of the books, I managed to read three and donate them back before the sale ended, and of those I’ve finished since I’ve left three in the Little Free Library in our neighbor’s front yard. So on balance, we have reduced the weight of our possessions somewhat.

Among the books I left in the Little Free Library after reading it was The Last Empire, a collection of essays Gore Vidal published in the 1990s. Most of those appeared originally in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, or The Nation. Since I subscribed to all three of those publications during that decade, many of the pieces were familiar to me. I smiled several times when I found sentences that I still think about from time to time, more than twenty years later. But there was little chance I would want to read any of them a third time, so I didn’t hesitate to give the book away when I reached the end.

At one point in that book, Vidal mentions The Pilgrim’s Way, a memoir by John Buchan, published under Buchan’s aristocratic alias “Lord Tweedsmuir.” As it so happened, I had bought a copy of that book at the same book sale. The back cover shows a photograph of Buchan, then Governor-General of Canada, in a car with Franklin Roosevelt, and that led me to hope that there might be something in it that would shed light on US-British relations in the late 1930s, a topic in which I take some interest. In his reference to the book, Vidal says that it does in fact do this. That one book from the sale would mention another, and that other being so obscure, seemed like such a coincidence that I felt I had to put a priority on reading the book. Now, in other pieces in the same collection Vidal had spoken highly of Mary McCarthy and Iris Murdoch, and I had picked up books by each of them at the same sale. Further, they were both more likely to produce books I would find interesting than was Buchan. So, I read those first (they were McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Murdoch’s Henry and Cato, neither of which I will be giving away any time soon.) I then turned to Buchan.

Mrs Acilius said that “Lord Tweedsmuir” seemed to be the stuffiest name a person could possibly have, which of course it is. The tagline on the dust jacket does nothing to dispel the impression the name would tend to create: “Lord Tweedsmuir- novelist, poet, historian, fisherman, explorer, member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada; finest product of a great tradition, tells the story of his many-sided life reveals his intimate and reassuring philosophy.” It sounds like a book that would be so dull as to make you regret having learned to read. And indeed, most of it is pretty bad. Buchan keeps trailing off into eulogies of famous people he knew; some of those are moderately interesting, to a reader who is familiar with the person being eulogized, but the great majority of them describe individuals whose names mean little today, and these are virtually unreadable. In between the eulogies are all sorts of miscellaneous material- descriptions of rivers and streams in Scotland, generalizations about foreign affairs, alternating declarations that the law is the most intellectually stimulating of all professions and that practicing it bored him beyond endurance, an account of his preferred technique of shooting deer, dozens of glancing references to the American Civil War, and scores of Latin tags. He does not narrate the major events of his life at all- he tells us that he was married, that he and his wife are close companions and proud parents, and leaves it at that. He tells us that he was in indifferent health in the years 1912-1920, and that this limited his participation in the First World War; his chapter about that war is disjointed, and only perks up when he is detailing his maladies. But he was in uniform the whole time, and lets drop that he was on the front at the Somme for quite some time. All in all, it is a book that gives every appearance of not having been subjected to any form of editing. So I will be parting with it soon.

However, there is one paragraph I want to keep. It runs from the bottom of page 28 to the top of page 29 and describes his attitude towards philosophy as a subject:

My interests, as I have said, lay not in the search for a creed, but in the study of the patterns which different thinkers made out of the universe. I had a tidy mind, and liked to arrange things in compartments even when I did not take the arrangement too seriously. This meant that inevitably I missed much; quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis. My quest for truth, unlike Plato’s, wholly “lacked the warmth of desire.” It was a mental gymnastic, for I had neither the uneasiness nor the raptures of the true metaphysician. “Philosophy,” Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “is such an impertinently litigious lady that a man had as good be engaged in lawsuits as to have to do with her.” I loved the intricacies of argumentation. A proof is that while I am not conscious of ever having argued about religion, or about politics except professionally, I was always very ready to dispute about philosophy. I should have been puzzled to set down my views as to the nature of thought and reality, for they were constantly changing. I never considered it necessary to harmonize my conclusions in a system. Had I been a professed philosopher, I should have been forced to crystallize my thought, but as it was, I could afford to keep it, so to speak, in solution. “L’ineptie consiste a vouloir conclure.” I was of the opinion of the Scottish metaphysician that it is more important that a philosophy should be reasoned than that it should be true.

This does not reflect my attitude, but I find it a charming statement, and want to be able to find it again.