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Why Isn't There More Progress in Philosophy?1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 November 2014


Is there progress in philosophy? A glass-half-full view is that there is some progress in philosophy. A glass-half-empty view is that there is not as much as we would like. I articulate a version of the glass-half-empty view, argue for it, and then address the crucial question of what explains it.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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I first gave a brief version of this paper at the Harvard-Australia conference on Progress in Philosophy at Harvard University in 2011. I thank that audience and those on subsequent occasions in Arizona, Cambridge, Fordham, Liverpool, Oslo, Rio, Santiago, and at the Royal Institute for Philosophy lecture in London. I am also grateful to participants in a number of useful Internet discussions. For comments on the written version, thanks to Russell Blackford, Melissa Ebbers, Alan Hájek, Robin Hanson, John Keller, Mark Lance, Seth Lazar, Christian List, Luke Muehlhauser, Rick Repetti, and Joshua Weisberg.


2 E.g. Dietrich, E.There is no progress in philosophy’, Essays in Philosophy 12 (2010): 329–44Google Scholar; Nielsen, K.Can there be progress in philosophy?’, Metaphilosophy 18 (1987): 130CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McGinn, C.Problems in Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

3 E.g. Stoljar, D. Philosophical Progress: In Defense of a Reasonable Optimism (forthcoming).

4 Van Inwagen, P.Freedom to break the laws’ in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 28 (2004): 332CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 I leave open the question of just what measure of agreement is best for present purposes. One useful measure is Krippendorff's alpha (Krippendorff, K.Content Analysis: An Introduction to its Methodology, 3rd edition (Sage Publishing, 2013), 221–50Google Scholar), equal to 1−(Do/De), where Do is the observed incidence of disagreement between respondents (summed over all pairs of respondents and all questions) and De is the expected incidence through chance alone. This measure can be applied to communities of different sizes (not all of whose members need have a view on a given issue) and to questions whose answers have many different sorts of structure. Disagreement is weighted by a measure of ‘distance’ between any two answers, which makes alpha particularly helpful in comparing questions with different numbers of answers. With such a metric in hand, one can use a version of alpha to measure communal degree of agreement with a specific answer. For our purposes some rescaling may be useful (e.g. imposing a lower bound of zero and then squaring).

For the purposes above, what is needed is a variant on Krippendorff's alpha that measures communal degree of agreement with a specific answer. Some rescaling may be useful (e.g. imposing a lower bound of zero and then squaring).

6 Thanks to Hedda Hassel Mørch and Rory Madden for pointing out ways in which the bridging premise could turn out to be false.

7 Bourget, D. and Chalmers, D. J.What do philosophers believe?’, Philosophical Studies (2013, Online First)Google Scholar.

8 Hilbert, D.Mathematical problems’, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 8 (1902): 437–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yandell, B.H.The Honors Class: Hilbert's Problems and their Solvers (A.K. Peters, 2002)Google Scholar.

9 Thanks to Jeremy Goodman for suggesting the Hilbert/Russell comparison.

10 Williamson, T.Must do better’, in Truth and Realism (eds) Greenough, P. & Lynch, M. (Oxford University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

11 Russell, B.The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’, The Monist 28 (1918): 295527CrossRefGoogle Scholar (Reprinted as The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (Taylor and Francis, 2009)Google Scholar).

12 To gather data here, I ran an informal Internet survey of philosophers, asking for arguments that are near-universally regarded by philosophers as establishing their conclusions. Further candidates included the forcible-organ donation argument against simple versions of utilitarianism, Kripke's argument that necessity comes apart from apriority, Gödel's argument against versions of mathematical formalism, the argument from evil against theism, the model-theoretic argument against global descriptivism, the perfect actor argument against logical behaviorism, the multiple-realizability argument against the identity theory, Goodman's argument against purely formal inductive logic, arguments from relativity against presentism, Frankfurt's argument that moral responsibility does not require the ability to do otherwise, Hart's argument against Austin's command theory of laws, Russell's refutation of Frege's Basic Law V, Moore's open question argument against analytic naturalism, Putnam's argument for externalism about meaning, Descartes' cogito, and many others.

It is striking that the great majority of these arguments are naturally regarded as arguments for negative conclusions, in that they are arguments against fairly specific views. Of course the negative/positive distinction is not entirely clear, but we have a reasonable intuitive grasp on it. A few conclusions have a positive flavor: one's existence (the cogito), externalism (Putnam), and perhaps the necessary a posteriori (Kripke) and atheism (the argument from evil). But the first three are at best marginal candidates for answers to big questions, and the survey data suggests that the second and fourth are at best marginal cases of near-universal agreement. All this reinforces the point that decisive arguments in philosophy are rare, that decisive arguments for positive views are even rarer, and decisive arguments for positive answers to the big questions are so rare as to be almost nonexistent.

13 Van Inwagen, P.The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures (Oxford University Press, 2006).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Rawls, J.Afterword’ in Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, (eds) Floyd, J. & Shieh, S. (Oxford University Press, 2001).Google Scholar

15 To indulge in autobiography: I have the sense that my arguments with Andy Clark for the extended mind thesis (an area where prior commitments were relatively weak) may have brought more people around than my arguments against physicalism or for two-dimensional semantics (areas where prior commitments are strong). Even there I suspect that the thesis and the framework have brought around as many people as the arguments. Perhaps most effective of all has been the argument in ‘The Matrix as Metaphysics’, which brings many people around to the view that if we are in a matrix scenario or that if we are brains in vats, most of our beliefs are true. (At least it does this in lecture presentations and informal discussions; there has been relatively little discussion of the argument in print.) Although people find this view initially counterintuitive, it turns out that their antecedent commitment was weak.

16 Then there are many other methods that I am not competent to discuss. For example, Nielsen, (‘Can There Be Progress in Philosophy?Metaphilosophy 18 (1987): 130)CrossRefGoogle Scholar suggests that the one hope for progress in philosophy is critical theory.

17 For my take on the power and limits of experimental and linguistic philosophy, see and respectively.

18 Chalmers, D. J.Verbal disputes’ in Philosophical Review 120 (2011): 515–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 It is also worth noting (as Larry Solum suggested to me) that the social sciences have much less convergence than the hard sciences despite being less remote from data than philosophy. An interesting general question is whether the lack of convergence in social sciences and in philosophy should receive different explanations or a uniform explanation. My suspicion is the former: for example, the complexity and messiness of social systems seems especially relevant in the social sciences but less relevant in philosophy.

20 McGinn, C.Problems in Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

21 McGinn, C.Problems in Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

22 Van Inwagen, P.Metaphysics, Third Edition (Westview Press, 2009).Google Scholar