Hidden philosophical progress

Bertrand Russell:

If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences…this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called ‘the mathematical principles of natural philosophy’. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

I often hear this selection effect explanation for the apparently small number of resolved problems that philosophy can boast. I don’t think it necessarily lessens this criticism of philosophy however. It matters whether the methods that were successful at  providing insights in what were to become fields like psychology and astronomy – those which brought definite answers within reach – were methods presently included in philosophy. If they were not, then the fact that the word ‘philosophy’ has come to apply to a smaller set of methods which haven’t been successful does not particularly suggest that such methods will become  successful in that way*. If they were the same methods, then that is more promising.

I don’t know which of these is the case. I also don’t actually know how many resolved problems philosophy has. If you do, feel free to tell me. I start a PhD in philosophy in the Autumn, and haven’t officially studied it before, so I am curious about its merits.

*Note that collecting resolved problems is only one way philosophy might be valuable. Russell points out that philosophy has been productive at making us less certain about things we thought we knew, which is important information.

27 responses to “Hidden philosophical progress

  1. In some cases, philosophy continues to collaborate with, and inform, empirical research. One admirable example, IMO, is John Doris’s “Moral Psychology Research Group”.

  2. It seems you are just escalating the traditional criticism a single level, from content to methods, and that Russel’s answer still applies.

    If you are thinking about vague abstractions – whether some new one you’ve just thought of or an old one everyone takes for granted – you are doing philosophy. If the abstraction is formalized, you have graduated to mathematics, and if it makes concrete testable predictions about the world, that is science. But you always start with philosophy, even when its not being practiced by professional philosophers.

    • Right, if philosophy is something we all already to a sufficient degree and with sufficient quality, then we do not need philosophy as a separate subject no?

      Your answer seems to me what institutionalized philosophy would come up with: clever but ultimately missing the point.

  3. Did those topics become sciences with the help of philosophy? If so, then that could be credited as a success.

    Psychology is mostly philosophy anyway.

  4. Katja, it doesn’t seem as if you are taking your criticisms of philosophy seriously. You really shouldn’t be doing a philosophy PhD IMHO. Ironically enough, this seems to be what typically happens in philosophy, so you seem to have excellent preparation: arguments not taken seriously (and rightfully so too because they are so often wrong).

    • I should point out I’ll be at CMU, which is not a very traditional place. What do you think I should do instead?

      • Many smart people naturally gravitate to the hardest questions, and it can often seem philosophy best fits their needs. But this is really an effect of philosophy being an ‘other’ category.

        Different disciplines can be tackling the same subject matter, but with different methodology. Philosophy does seem to have a methodology, probably a social effect because the problems it tackles seem to warrant a much wider range of approaches than seems to exist.

        But as @Jordan said, everybody seems to have been doing philosophy at some point. Their difference with institutionalized philosophy though is that they usually do this in a context of concrete object-level problems they are trying to solve. This naturally grounds their pursuit.

        It would help I think to choose disciplines not based on what you are interested in studying, but in how you want to go about studying it. But what if you are interested in a philosophical problem which philosophy seems to tackle but not in the way you prefer?

        I’d say find a non-philosophical discipline which tries to tackle a closely related problem.

        The guys at CMU might be an especially effective group, but I wouldn’t know as I’m not too familiar with academia. If they are doing philosophy how you are doing it, or in ways that you find surprisingly effective then that would be good. Though the most interdisciplinary philosophers cannot match the groundedness of a working scientist doing careful philosophy.

  5. “Russell points out that philosophy has been productive at making us less certain about things we thought we knew, which is important information.”

    That’s right!!! But most scientist prefers working on research instead of losing time having endless debates about the meaning of their work. I don’t imagine Craig Venter ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Venter ) debating over the origin of humans (ancient philoshopical question) instead of sequencing human genome.

    Once upon a time when people believed in ether & vitalism, Linus Pauling applied physics concepts to study biology and understand life. That meant a huge philosophical step: considering possible a new conception of life (mechanicism) instead of the “élan vital” or the soul. Even tough, Pauling denied all his life any relationship with philosophy.

  6. I think the question reveals a conceptual confusion–philosophy (as it is practiced in the discipline of ‘philosophy’) is not about progress at all. Not directly, at least.

    In general, I think this is the case:

    At its worst, the philosophy department is a bullshit factory on a par with the majority of work produced by the various species of English departments out there.

    At its best, philosophy is the rigorous application of reason (largely, of logic) to claims and conclusions. As such, in this mode it’s the academy’s humility-pump and quality-control department. Practitioners in other fields necessarily operate with certain assumptions that typically go unexamined (progress demands as much).

    Sadly it’s more often the former than the latter. I think this is an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of academic specialization.

    There are important questions at the logical bedrock of other disciplines that go largely unengaged with because philosophers largely don’t have the expertise to contribute in a constructive way and practitioners in said disciplines are more interested with getting on with their research. (And they have to be, given the incentives involved: the fact that they have to whore themselves out for a doctorate, then for research money, then for tenure, etc. doesn’t exactly make it easy be reflective to the degree required of such foundational questions.)

  7. It has to be asked:

    Why on earth would you commit to a PhD program in a discipline you’re uncertain has value (or, to be more precise, whose “merits” you’re uncertain about)?

    And how could they admit you (given that it’s a fairly reputable program)?

    • ‘Curious about its merits’ does not mean I estimate them to be near zero, merely that I am uncertain within some range. And even if I did estimate the average value of philosophy to be near zero, I may still commit to studying it as long as I had information about some parts of it being more valuable.

      Why wouldn’t they admit me? If they think what they are doing is very valuable, then they should expect me to become convinced of that too when I am more familiar with it, assuming we have similar values.

      • Fair enough—my amazement stems from a misinterpretation then. I took your original statement differently (specifically, in a fuzzier, more qualitative sense of ‘merit’).

        I do think it’s debatable whether a quantitative notion of “merit” is really maximally useful in this kind of decision (choosing a graduate program), but that’s not for me to argue with.

        From what I can tell, the focus of CMU’s program seems to be on the varieties of philosophy I find valuable (see my previous post), so bonne chance to you :)

  8. Also, a clarification to my first post:

    There are important questions at the logical bedrock of other disciplines that go largely unengaged with because philosophers largely don’t have the *discipline-specific* expertise to contribute in a constructive way and practitioners in said disciplines, *in addition to not usually having the logical expertise*, are more interested with getting on with their research. (And they have to be, given the incentives involved: the fact that they have to whore themselves out for a doctorate, then for research money, then for tenure, etc. doesn’t exactly make it easy be reflective to the degree required of such foundational questions.)

  9. When problems in philosophy are solved, they stop being part of philosophy and start being science or mathematics. For example, physics was “natural philosophy”, psychology and cognitive science were “philosophy of mind”, and practically every social science was originally philosophy, including economics (Adam Smith was a philosopher) and political science (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) were also parts of philosophy.

    • What problem in philosophy has ever been solved, I wonder? Can you give an example? (That’s an honest question, not a claim disguised as a question, btw.)

      It seems more plausible to me that problems are only ever posed or dissolved in philosophy, not resolved. And the nature of posing or resolving a problem is such that an argument doing so is never definitive—it can always be contested.

      But I’m just pushing around intuitions here…

      • Pushing around intuitions is the business of philosophy! ;)

        It’s not clear to me that your distinction between problems being “dissolved” and “solved” is a meaningful one. Also, philosophy does on occasion prove something wrong, at least beyond reasonable doubt. The Divine Right of Kings used to be an accepted framework for justifying monarchy as a form of government. John Locke put that one to bed because it was a terrible piece of reasoning. You don’t hear about it now because it’s the approximate equivalent of Thomson’s “plum pudding model” of the atom – the field of political philosophy has moved on.

        Now, to echo an above poster’s question, is this the sort of conclusion that an engineer, or sociologist, or whoever, thinking rigorously about the problem could also reach? Sure, maybe. But physicists thinking rigorously about mathematics problems also sometimes produce interesting insights, and philosophers thinking rigorously about things like cosmology or artificial intelligence have also produced interesting insights. And vice versa, of course – some of the best philosophy pieces I’ve read have been written by people who would be shocked if you referred to them as philosophers.

        I hardly think that’s an indictment of philosophy as a whole, merely a demonstration that a lot of different disciplines boil down to “let’s apply a set of logical/mathematical rules to this issue and see what happens”.

        • You could certainly contest it, but the distinction between resolution and dissolution is an elementary one in the analytical tradition — see the preface of almost recent work on analytic philosophy.

          Similarly, you could certainly argue that John Locke “put to bed” divine right, but I find this argument implausible in the extreme. Loosely speaking (Loosely speaking, I said! :P), philosophers don’t change the world, people do—specifically, people with interests and the power to defend them. The notion that the principle of divine right is a fallacy *might* be a necessary condition for the death of the idea of divine right, but it’s not, I would contend, sufficient.

          More concretely (if just as loosely):
          If Locke “put to bed” divine right, it’s only because there exists a consensus that Locke was correct. That consensus only exists because of the workings of history, not the workings of Locke’s mind.

          I suspect this is necessarily the case with philosophical ideas and not the case with scientific, empirically verifiable, ones. (This latter bit I claim more provisionally, given the late unpleasantness regarding climate change and evolution.)

          I completely agree with your implicit distinction between philosophy as a discipline and philosophy as an activity, however.

  10. ” Why on earth would you commit to a PhD program in a discipline you’re uncertain has value (or, to be more precise, whose “merits” you’re uncertain about)? ”

    @ vince: intelligent people doubts and tends to ask themselves or some other people about their decisions. stupid people just sings up and wait until they finish the degree to see what happens =)

  11. @axa. You’re mostly spot-on, but allow me to make one slight correction to your schema:

    stupid people just sings up (?) and wait until they finish the degree to see what happens

    _sentient_ people doubt and tend to ask themselves or some other people about their decisions.

    Intelligent people look before they leap—particularly when ‘leaping’ entails a multi-year, exorbitantly expensive commitment, and when making said commitment amounts to taking one of a limited number of seats that could go to someone with more seriousness of purpose.

  12. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find four related references which give a unique Understanding of Reality, and which simultaneously describe the dismal meat-body reductionist limitations that mis-inform all conventional philosophy and theology/religion.
    http://www.dabase.org/s-atruth.htm Reality & the Middle
    http://global.adidam.org/books/transcendental-3.html
    http://global.adidam.org/books/radical-transcendentalism-2.html
    http://adidam.org/teaching/gnosticon/universal-scientism.html

    • Mitchell Porter

      Hi, I am from Australia too!

      Your comment raises a fascinating question. Normally, one would suppose that a manipulative master guru, an acid-taking ex-Scientologist who tried to name himself after a brand of shoe, and whose art is even more boring than his writing, is not the ideal person from whom to learn about nondualistic philosophy. Just the artless tedium of his exposition, to say nothing of his typically all-too-human cult, might be enough to repel any sensible person – whose own personal encounter with the ineffable Noneness of Oneness might therefore be delayed!

      But on further reflection, perhaps your approach is *exactly right* for this blog. Its readers are highly rationalistic and intellectual, and even if they did begin to appreciate nonduality, it would still be in a highly intellectual and compartmentalized way, when they need to have the Infinite flowing through every sector of their lives – financial and sexual, as well as intellectual. What better way for them to get in touch with the True Nature of Reality on a *practical* level, than to get caught up in the after-dregs of one of the best scam-cults since the Church of the SubGenius?

  13. I’m skeptical that all present are talking about the same thing.

    Can I get some examples of problems philosophy should have solved, or potentially solved, but haven’t?

  14. sorry vince, english is my 2nd language but you got the idea, thanks!

    @ alrenous, kinda weird spam, just ignore them. so, “problems philosophy should have solved, or potentially solved, but haven’t? I think philosophy is in higher level of knowledge compared to applied science or engineering. These ones are mostly devoted to problem solving. Problem is that pure science or pure engineering don’t tells us what problems solve. Most scientists and engineers I’ve met before talk about curiosity or passion as the drivers of their endeavors. Few of them appeal to rationality, I think philosophy nowadays can help with that. That tiny little problem, that meta-question, “what problem is worth to solve?”.

    • @ axa, What field would you say owns the study of methods to solve the problems worth solving? What about problems neither empirical nor functional – pure logical puzzles?

  15. Pingback: Mammoth Reads: Homeopathy, Philosophy, Monopoly » They Will Rise Again From the Tundra

  16. Owns…..I don’t think any field owns that kind of study. But philosophy can help. Philosophy (as we know it year 2011 as a university department) implies lots of reading about methods, history and critical thinking.

    I don’t get the question about empirical or functional problems. That classification depends entirely on your personal context. What may be empirical for you can be completely “pure logical puzzles” for me.

    • So does that mean you define philosophy as the set of non-philosophy fields studied at university by philosophy majors?

      Can you give me an example of an empirical question that is, to someone else, a logical puzzle, or vice-versa?

Comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s