About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
5-minute Philosopher video: Does philosophy make progress?
Simplicio: What a nice day Hypatia!
Hypatia: Hello Simplicio, it is a fine day indeed.
S: Yes, and one that brings me to ask you a new question about philosophy, my dear friend.
H: Always glad to oblige your curiosity, Simplicio. What would you like to talk about?
S: Well, recently I have been wondering whether it can be said that philosophy makes progress. You know, science clearly does progress. Scientists discover new things, but philosophers often disagree for centuries on a particular issue, and there doesn't seem to be a way to settle the matter.
H: Yes, that is a good question indeed. I submit to you that philosophy does make progress, but in a way that is very different from science, and that in fact reflects fundamental differences between the two disciplines.
S: Really? I cannot begin to imagine what you mean, Hypatia.
H: You see, Simplicio, philosophy is not about finding out facts about the world. We have science for that, and it works very well. Philosophy is rather about critical and logical analysis of concepts, so progress is made not by discovering new things, but by making increasingly clear the way we think about things.
S: I'm not sure I understand. Could you perhaps give me an example of progress in philosophy?
H: Certainly. Take ethics, for instance, about which we have already talked in the past.
S: You mean when we discussed Sam Harris' book suggesting that science can answer moral questions?
H: Right. We did agree that ethics is not a science, but we also agreed that it can provide logical analyses of moral questions.
S: Yes, but how did ethics, as a branch of philosophy, make progress?
H: Consider one of the most common modern approaches to ethical reasoning, utilitarianism.
S: You mean the doctrine that what matters in ethical judgment are the consequences of one's action, and in particular whether they maximize happiness for the greatest number of people?
H: Right, that is the rough idea. Now, the first philosopher to propose utilitarianism as an ethical theory was Jeremy Bentham, in his book The Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1789.
S: Yes, but if I remember correctly, his pupil, John Stuart Mill, published a different book on utilitarianism in 1863.
H: That is very good, Simplicio! The important point is that Mill's book was a better version of utilitarianism compared to the one that Bentham had produced. Bentham had been criticized by other philosophers because of some rather simplistic aspects of utilitarianism, and Mill took those criticisms into account and produced a better version of the theory.
S: I get it! So, that one is the theory that philosophers accept today?
H: Oh no. Many other criticisms have been raised also against John Stuart Mill's version of utilitarianism, and as a result utilitarians have fine tuned their ideas even more. For instance, one of the most prominent utilitarians today is the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer.
S: Ah, yes, a major figure of the animal rights movement, right?
H: Yes, Singer wrote an influential book back in 1975 entitled Animal Liberation, which applies utilitarianism to the defense of the rights of animals. Singer's version of utilitarianism is much more sophisticated than both Bentham's and Mill's, which is an example of the fact that philosophy makes progress.
S: But will moral philosophers ever reach a final conclusions on these matters?
H: I do not think that is likely, but even science itself often does not reach final conclusions on the big questions. Scientific theories are always tentative and open to revision, and so are philosophical ideas. Truth, my dear Simplicio, simply is not something that human beings can easily achieve.
S: Are there other examples of progress in philosophy, outside of ethics?
H: Of course. In the past we have discussed philosophy of science, and we have seen that some of the original ideas, like those of the logical positivists, or of Karl Popper, were rather simplistic.
S: Right, I remember now. More recent views in philosophy of science, like David Hull's idea that science works as an evolutionary process, or the idea that science is a Bayesian mechanism, are certainly more sophisticated and probably closer to understanding how science works.
H: That is exactly right, Simplicio. And we could go on and talk about progress in philosophy of mind, for instance, or in philosophy of language, and even, perhaps, in metaphysics!
S: It sounds to me like you are somewhat skeptical of metaphysics, my friend! Actually, to a point, so am I, but perhaps we should leave that to another discussion.