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Is There Progress in Philosophy? The Case for Taking History Seriously

  • Peter P. Slezak


In response to widespread doubts among professional philosophers (Russell, Horwich, Dietrich, McGinn, Chalmers), Stoljar argues for a ‘reasonable optimism’ about progress in philosophy. He defends the large and surprising claim that ‘there is progress on all or reasonably many of the big questions’. However, Stoljar's caveats and admitted avoidance of historical evidence permits overlooking persistent controversies in philosophy of mind and cognitive science that are essentially unchanged since the 17th Century. Stoljar suggests that his claims are commonplace in philosophy departments and, indeed, the evidence I adduce constitutes an indictment of the widely shared view among professional analytic philosophers.



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I am grateful to Daniel Stoljar and David Chalmers for very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Thanks also to Galen Strawson for helpful remarks on the themes of this paper.



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2 Stoljar, D., Philosophical Progress: In Defence of a Reasonable Optimism (Oxford University Press, 2017), 165.

3 Horwich, P., Wittgenstein's Metaphilosophy (Oxford University Press, 2012), 34.

4 Strawson, G., ‘Panpsychism?’ in Freeman, A. (ed.) Consciousness and its Place in Nature (Exeter: Imprint Academic Press, 2006), 184.

5 Rescher, N., Philosophical Progress and Other Philosophical Studies (De Gruyter, 2014).

6 Chalmers, D.J., ‘Why Isn't There More Progress in Philosophy?’, Philosophy 90 (2015): 331.

7 Dietrich, E., ‘There Is No Progress in Philosophy’, Essays in Philosophy 12/2 (2011): 329–44. To take a significant example, there is, after all, a wide ‘collective convergence’ among philosophers on Kripke's views of naming which are ‘as close to uncontroversial as any interesting views in analytic philosophy’ according to Christopher Hughes. Michael Devitt, too, notes ‘We can probably assume that nearly all philosophers of language agree with Kripkean intuitions’ on the conception of rigid designators taken to refute the Russell-Frege descriptivist account of names. See Hughes, C., Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), vii; Devitt, M., ‘Whither Experimental Semantics?Theoria 72 (2011): 536, 24. For a dissenting view, see Chomsky, N., ‘Language and Interpretation: Philosophical Reflections and Empirical Inquiry’ in Earman, J. (ed.) Inference, Explanation, and Other Frustrations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 99128; Chomsky, N., The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 28.

8 Kuhn, T.S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

9 Laudan, L., Progress and its Problems (University of California Press, 1977).

10 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 14.

11 Russell, B., The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1912/1967).

12 Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922), 5.

13 Schlick, M., ‘The Turning Point in Philosophy’ (1930), in Ayer, A.J. (ed.) Logical Positivism (The Free Press, 1959): 5359.

14 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), x.

15 I neglect consideration of Stoljar's apparatus of ‘boundary problems’, ‘constitutive’ and ‘successor’ problems since we may concede Stoljar's positive arguments for progress in certain narrowly specified respects. I am concerned to reveal what has been left out of account in judging the state of the discipline.

16 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), x.

17 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 77.

18 Chalmers op. cit. note 6 (2015), 25.

19 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 143.

20 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 147.

21 Gettier, E.L., ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’, Analysis 23 (1963): 121–3.

22 Nozick, R., ‘Newcomb's Problem and Two Principles of Choice’, in Rescher, N. et al. (eds) Essays in Honor of Carl G. Hempel (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969).

23 Quoted in Lycan, W.G., ‘On the Gettier Problem Problem’ in Hetherington, S. (ed.) Epistemology Futures, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 148.

24 On Gettier see Kirkham, R.L., ‘Does the Gettier Problem Rest on a Mistake?’, Mind 93 (1984): 501513; Zagzebski, L., ‘The Inescapability of Gettier Problems’, Philosophical Quarterly 44 (1994): 6573; and Hetherington, S., ‘The Gettier Illusion’, Synthese 188 (2012): 217230.

25 Curley, E.M., ‘Dialogues with the Dead’, Synthese 67 (1986): 3349, 37.

26 Quine, W.V.O., The Time of My Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), 194.

27 Gaukroger, S., Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 8.

28 Pasnau, R., Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 294.

29 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 125.

30 Quoted in E.M. Curley op. cit. note 24. See also Wilson, C., ‘Is the History of Philosophy Good for Philosophy?’ in Sorell, T. and Rogers, G.A.J. (eds) Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 75.

31 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 12, 58.

32 Levine, J., ‘Materialism and qualia: the explanatory gap’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1983): 354–61.

33 Fodor, J.A., ‘Don't bet the chicken coop’, London Review of Books 24 (2001): 2122.

34 McGinn, C., ‘Consciousness and Cosmology: Hyperdualism Ventilated’ in Davies, M. and Humphreys, G.W. (eds) Consciousness (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 157.

35 Strawson, G., Consciousness and its Place in Nature (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2006), 15.

36 Chalmers, D., The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), xi.

37 Sorell, T., ‘On Saying No to History of Philosophy’ in Sorell, T. and Rogers, G.A.J. (eds) Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon, 2005), 1.

38 Wilson, M.D., ‘History of Philosophy in Philosophy Today; and the Case of the Sensible Qualities’ in Ideas and Mechanisms: Essays on Early Modern Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 459.

39 Strawson op. cit. note 35 (2006), 201.

40 Nadler, S., ‘Reid, Arnauld and the Objects of Perception’, History of Philosophy Quarterly 3 (1986): 165173, 104.

41 Clarke, D.M., Descartes's Theory of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

42 Dennett, D.C., Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin, 1991).

43 Pylyshyn, Z., Seeing and Visualizing: It's Not What You Think (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Pylyshyn, Z., ‘Return of the mental image: are there really pictures in the brain?’, Trends in Cognitive Science 7 (2003): 113118.

44 Clarke, D. M., Descartes’ Philosophy of Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 2.

45 D. M. Clarke op. cit. note 41 (2003), 258.

46 Koyré, A., ‘Introduction’, Anscombe, E. & Geach, P.T. (eds) Descartes: Philosophical Writings (Middlesex: Thomas Nelson, 1954), vii.

47 For example, recent book-length treatments include: Sarkar, H., Descartes’ Cogito (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Broughton, J., Descartes's Method of Doubt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Baker, G. & Morris, K.J., Descartes’ Dualism (London: Routledge, 1996); Rozemond, M., Descartes's Dualism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

48 Smith, D. Woodruff, ‘The Cogito circa AD 2000’, Inquiry 36 (2000): 225–54.

49 Hintikka, J., ‘Cogito Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?’, The Philosophical Review 71 (1962): 332.

50 Frankfurt, H., Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes's Meditation (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970; republished by Princeton University Press, 2008), 15.

51 Cottingham, J., ‘Why Should Analytic Philosophers Do History of Philosophy’ in Sorell, T. and Rogers, G.A.J. (eds) Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), vii.

52 Chalmers op. cit. note 6 (2015).

53 Bar-Hillel, Y., ‘Indexical Expressions’, Aspects of Language (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1970), 199.

54 Slezak, P., ‘Descartes's Diagonal DeductionBritish Journal for the Philosophy of Science 34 (1983): 1336; Slezak, P., ‘Was Descartes a Liar? Diagonal Doubt Defended’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 39 (1988): 379388; Slezak, P, ‘Doubts about Descartes’ Indubitability: The Cogito as Intuition & Inference’, Philosophical Forum 41 (2010): 389412.

55 Hintikka, J., ‘René pense, donc Cartesius existeCahiers de philosophy de l'université de Caen 50 (2013): 107120. For acknowledgement of Hintikka's indebtedness, see Kieft, X., ‘Peter Slezak, interlocuteur anonyme de Jaakko Hintikka’, Bulletin cartésien XLIV, Archives de Philosophie 78 (2015): 157216.

56 Searle, J., ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (1980): 417424. See articles in Preston, J., and Bishop, M. (eds) Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

57 Descartes, R., Optics. The Writings on Descartes, Volume 1. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R. & Murdoch, Dugald, translators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 166.

58 Quoted in Yolton, J.W., Perceptual Acquaintance from Descartes to Reid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 28.

59 Tye, M., The Imagery Debate (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991).

60 Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 146.

61 Block, N., ‘Introduction: What is the issue?’ in Block, N. (ed.) Imagery. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), 1.

62 Pylyshyn op. cit. note 43 (2003).

63 Schmaltz, T.M., ‘Malebranche on Ideas and the Vision in God’ in Nadler, S. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 73.

64 Descartes op. cit. note 57, 165.

65 Jackson, F., ‘Epiphenomenal QualiaPhilosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127136; reprinted in Ludlow, P., Nagasawa, U. and Stoljar, D. (eds) There's Something About Mary, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).

66 Jackson, F., ‘The Knowledge Argument, Diaphanousness, Representationalism’ in Alter, T. and Walter, S. (eds) Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 54.

67 Schmaltz, T.M., Malebranche's Theory of the Soul: A Cartesian Interpretation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 85.

68 Malebranche, N., The Search After Truth (1674), translated by Lennon, T.M. and Olscamp, P.J., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 634. I am grateful to Tad Schmaltz for very helpful discussion of this issue.

69 Austin, J.L., Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 61.

70 Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) (ed.) Nidditch, P. H.. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 424.

71 Rorty op. cit. note 60 (1979).

72 Pasnau, R., Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5.

73 Levine op. cit. note 32 (1983).

74 Nagel, T., ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 435450.

75 Searle, J., The Mystery of Consciousness (London: Granta Books, 1997), 99.

76 Sherrington, C., Man On His Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1942).

77 Dennett, D.C., ‘Illusionism as the Obvious Default Theory of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 23 (2016): 6572, 70.

78 Place, U.T., ‘Is Consciousness a Brain Process?’, British Journal of Psychology 47 (1956): 4450. reprinted in Beakley, B. and Ludlow, P. (eds) The Philosophy of Mind: Classical Problems/Contemporary Issues (Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford/MIT Press, 1992), 3339.

79 McGinn, C., ‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?’, Mind 98 (1989): 349–66.

80 Quoted in Sutton, J., Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to Connectionism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 119.

81 Lycan, W.G., ‘Perspectival Representation and the Knowledge Argument’ in Smith, Q. and Jokic, A. (eds) Consciousness: New Philosophical Essays, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 384.

82 Rey, G., ‘Intentional Content and a Chomskian Linguistics’ in Barber, A. (ed.) Epistemology of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 140.

83 Cummins, R., Representations, Targets and Attitudes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 1.

84 Yolton, J.W., Perception and Reality: A History from Descartes to Kant, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 1.

85 Fodor, J.A., Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 157.

86 Yolton, J.W., Perceptual Acquaintance from Descartes to Reid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6.

87 Fodor op.cit. note 85 and Fodor, J.A., Hume Variations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

88 See Pasnau op cit. note 28 (1997).

89 Moreau, D., Malebranche (Paris: Vrin, 2004), 89.

90 Descartes, R., The Writings on Descartes, Volume II, Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R. & Murdoch, Dugald, translators (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 28.

91 Block, N., ‘Advertisement for a Semantics for PsychologyMidwest Studies in Philosophy, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). Reprinted in Stich, S. and Warfield, T.A. (eds) Mental Representation: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994): 81141.

92 Quoted in Watson, R.A., The Breakdown of Cartesian Metaphysics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 93.

93 Fodor, J.A., ‘Presentation to the National Science Foundation Workshop on Information and RepresentationPartee, B.H., Peters, S. and Thomason, R. (eds) Report of Workshop on Information and Representation, (Washington, D.C.: NSF System Development Foundation, 1985), 106117.

94 Fodor, J.A., ‘Tom Swift and his Procedural Grandmother’ in his Representations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1981), 207.

95 Searle op. cit. note 56 (1980).

96 Jackendoff, R., Languages of the Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford/MIT Press, 1992), 61.

97 Fodor complains against ‘internalist’ semantics in generative linguistics that it is ‘In effect, … a sort of idealism about meaning: all our ideas are about ideas’. See Fodor, J.A., ‘Semantics: an interview’, Revista Virtual de Estudios da Linguagem 5 (2007): 6. Elsewhere, too, Fodor remarks ‘I don't understand how a semantics can avoid lapsing into idealistic solipsism unless it recognizes some sort of symbol-world relation.’ Fodor, J.A., LOT2: The Language of Thought Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 53.

98 Locke, J. (1823), ‘An Examination of P. Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing All Things in God’, The Works of John Locke, A New Edition, Corrected, In Ten Volumes, Vol. IX. (London: Thomas Tegg; reprinted Amsterdam: Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1963).

99 Nadler, S., Malebranche and Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

100 Danto, A.C., Connections to the World: The Basic Concepts of Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), xi.

101 Arnauld, A., On True and False Ideas (1963), translated with Introductory Essay by Stephen Gaukroger (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 63.

102 See Tye, M., ‘The Adverbial Approach to Visual Experience’, The Philosophical Review 93 (1984): 195225.

103 Nadler op. cit. note 40 (1986), 166.

104 Van Cleve, J., Problems from Reid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 67.

105 Stoljar op. cit. note 2 (2017), 64.

106 von Eckardt, B., What Is Cognitive Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford/MIT Press, 1993).

107 von Eckardt op. cit. note 105, 145. See also Slezak, P., ‘The Tripartite Model of Representation’, Philosophical Psychology 15 (2002): 239270.

108 Bechtel, W., ‘Representations and Cognitive Explanations: Assessing the Dynamicists’ Challenge in Cognitive Science’ Cognitive Science 22 (1998): 295318, 299.

109 von Eckardt op. cit. note 106, 32.

110 Pylyshyn, Z., ‘The Imagery Debate: Analog Media versus Tacit Knowledge’, Psychological Review 88 (1981): 1645, reprinted in N. Block (ed.), Imagery (Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press, 1981); Pylyshyn, Z., Seeing and Visualizing: It's Not What You Think. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2003). See also Slezak, P., ‘The Imagery Debate: Déjà vu all over again? Commentary on Zenon Pylyshyn’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (2002): 209210.

111 Schmaltz op. cit. note 63 (2000), 73.

112 Arnauld op. cit. note 101 (1683), 77.

113 Gelder, T. van, ‘The Dynamical Hypothesis in Cognitive Science’, Behavioral & Brain Sciences 21 (1998): 615665; Bechtel op. cit. note 108 (1998).

114 See Clancey, W.J., ‘Situated Action’, Cognitive Science 17 (1993): 87116; Greeno, J.G., ‘Situations, Mental Models and Generative Knowledge’ in Klahr, D. and Kotovsky, K. (eds) Complex Information Processing: The Impact of Herbert A. Simon (New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1989).

115 Nadler, S., Arnauld and the Cartesian Philosophy of Ideas (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 6.

116 Fodor, J.A., ‘A Science of TuesdaysLondon Review of Books 22 (2000): 2122.

117 De Rosa, R., Descartes and the Puzzle of Sensory Representation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 13.

118 Arnauld op. cit. note 101 (1683), 77. See Nadler op. cit. note 115 (1989), 97.

119 Putnam, H., ‘Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An Inquiry Into the Powers of the Human Mind’, The Journal of Philosophy 41 (1994): 445517, reprinted as The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body and World, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

120 Fodor op. cit. note 116 (2000).

121 Copenhaver, R., ‘A Realism for Reid: Mediated But Direct’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 12 (2004): 6174, 62.

122 Reid, T. (1813), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, reproduced with Introduction by Brody, B. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969), 161.

123 Copenhaver op. cit. note 121 (2004), 72.

124 Fodor op. cit. note 87 (2003), 134.

125 Buckle, S., Hume's Enlightenment Tract (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 191.

126 T.M. Lennon, ‘Introduction to N. Malebranche The Search After Truth’, translated by T.M. Lennon and P.J. Olscamp, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xxii.

127 Quoted in Buckle op. cit. note 124 (2001), 136.

128 See Jolley, N., The Light of the Soul: Theories of ideas in Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 201.

129 Fodor op. cit. note 97 (2007).

130 Fodor, J.A., ‘Review Essay: Remnants of Meaning by Stephen Schiffer’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1989): 409423, 409.

131 Yolton op. cit. note 84 (1996), 28.

132 Fodor op. cit. note 87 (2003), 135.

133 Fodor op. cit. note 85 (1998), 10.

134 Fodor, J.A., The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and its Semantics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 9.

135 Fodor op. cit. note 87 (2003), 109.

136 Dretske, F., ‘Misrepresentation’ in Bogdan, R.J. (ed.) Belief: Form, Content and Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), reprinted in Stich, S. & Warfield, T. (eds) Mental Representation. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 157173. Fodor, J.A., Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987); Fodor op. cit. note 133 (1994).

137 Fodor op. cit. note 116 (2000), 21.

138 Malebranche op. cit. note 68 (1674), 217.

139 Malebranche op. cit. note 68 (1674), 217.

140 Fodor op. cit. note 134 (1994), 83.

141 Curley op. cit. note 25 (1986), 46.

142 Fodor op. cit. note 87 (2003), 73. Schneider notes that Fodor's use of the term ‘pragmatism’ is ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘unfortunate’ referring, not to the philosophical tradition of William James and John Dewey, but only to a theory of concept possession as a kind of ‘knowing how’ through abilities for recognition, classification and inference. See Schneider, S., The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), 160.

143 Cummins, R., The World in the Head (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 152173.

144 See Copenhaver op. cit. note 121 (2004), and van Cleve op. cit. note 104 (2015).

145 Wolterstorff, N., Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.

146 Lehrer, K., Thomas Reid (London: Routledge, 1989); Putnam op. cit. note 119 (1994).

147 Strawson, G., ‘What's So Good About Reid?’, London Review of Books 22 (1990): 1416.

148 McGinn, C., The Character of Mind: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), viii.

149 Rorty, R., ‘Blunder around for a while’, London Review of Books 13 (1991): 36.

150 Pasnau op. cit. note 28 (1997), 294.

I am grateful to Daniel Stoljar and David Chalmers for very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Thanks also to Galen Strawson for helpful remarks on the themes of this paper.


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