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  • Elizabeth Brake (a1)

The debate over whether philosophy makes progress has focused on its failure to answer a core set of “big” questions. I argue that there are other kinds of philosophical progress which are equally important yet underappreciated: the creative development of new “philosophical devices” which increase our ability to think about the world, and the broadening of philosophical topics to ever greater adequacy to what matters. The conception of philosophy as defined by a narrow “core” set of questions is responsible for skepticism about progress, as well as for philosophy’s “marketing problem” — its failure to reach the general public. I argue for abandoning the distinction between “core” and “marginal” questions. The greater openness of philosophy to methodological diversity and diversity in topics, especially applied topics, will make a distinct kind of progress: in the breadth and completeness of the questions asked, phenomena investigated, and theories generated. Such openness may also make philosophy more hospitable to more diverse practitioners. This would also be conducive to progress, in the sense of reaching true answers to philosophical questions: greater diversity of philosophical practitioners has epistemic benefits, such as increasing objectivity.

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1 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2010), 7.

2 Eric Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” Essays in Philosophy 12 (2010): 329–44, at 342. Dietrich discusses two other prominent doubters, Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn.

3 Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 334.

4 Professor John Haldane made this analogy in a philosophy lecture at St. Andrews in the 1990s.

5 Thanks to Simon Hope for this point.

6 See John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 54–58.

7 A feature noted by Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 91.

8 Rebecca Goldstein, “How Philosophy Makes Progress,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/14/14, <>.

9 See for example Chalmers, David, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” Philosophy 90, no. 1 (2015): 331; Williamson, Timothy, The Philosophy of Philosophy (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

10 Thanks to Orlando Samões for this phrase.

11 Goldstein (ibid.) cites physicist Lawrence Krauss as one high-profile critic of philosophy as obsolete; the recent film God’s Not Dead showcases the stereotype of the atheist philosophy professor, while much recent discussion has addressed the homogeneity of professional philosophy. In September 2013, for example, The New York Times devoted 5 columns to discussing the lack of women in philosophy (beginning with Sally Haslanger, “Women in Philosophy? Do the Math,” 9/2/13, <>), and more recently it published a column criticizing American academic philosophy for its Eurocentric focus (Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is,” 5/11/16, <>).

12 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 14.

13 Plato, The Republic, trans. Lee, Desmond (New York: Penguin, 2003), 198204.

14 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 5. Bertrand Russell gives a similar list, Problems of Philosophy, 90.

15 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 4, and compare Mill, Utilitarianism, 8, Russell, Problems of Philosophy, 90, and Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 329–33.

16 Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 331–32.

17 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy? 7–9. See Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” for similar points.

18 Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy, 280. See Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 12–16, and Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 340–41.

19 Goldstein, “How Philosophy Makes Progress.”

20 By Adrian Wellington, Ralph Wedgwood, and David Boonin, respectively, according to a search on; sincere apologies if I have missed any earlier work.

21 Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 332.

22 Mill, Utilitarianism, 8. Thought experiments might be thought a counterexample to this point; but their use must be limited to prevent question-begging.

23 Russell, Problems of Philosophy, 90; and see Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 30–31, on this point.

24 Nagel’s view, discussed by Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 337–38.

25 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 27–28.

26 Ibid., 9.

27 Cf. Daniel Austin Green and Roberta Q. Herzberg, “Progress and Regress,” in the present volume, p. 175.

28 Thanks to Simon Hope for this point.

29 Goldstein, “How Philosophy Makes Progress.”

30 Russell, Problems of Philosophy, 89–90.

31 Ibid., 90.

32 Ibid., 90–91.

33 The views in this paragraph were suggested, almost verbatim, by Agnes Callard in conversation. Many thanks to her!

34 Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?” 14.

35 Goldstein, “How Philosophy Makes Progress.”

36 Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy, 278–92.

37 Ibid., 279–81, 286–87.

38 Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy,” 333.

39 Goldstein, “How Philosophy Makes Progress.”

40 On the contrasts between philosophy and literature, see Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3–53.

41 Cited in Robert Pippin, Henry James and Modern Moral Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 14. Pippin suggests we read James as an Idealist; I do not endorse Idealist metaphysics but hope the reference helps to suggest how ideas might be thought to shape or create reality.

42 Dotson, Kristie, “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” Comparative Philosophy 3, no. 1 (2012): 329, 5–8.

43 Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, 12–13.

44 Dotson, “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” 5.

45 Ibid., 17.

46 This is an empirical claim; it is based on my experience and anecdote. I would love to be proved wrong!

47 See the definition given by the Society for Applied Philosophy, <>.

48 Charles Mills, “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology,” Hypatia 20, no. 3 (2005): 165–84, at 168–69.

49 Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

50 See my Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 81–88.

51 Cheshire Calhoun, Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

52 John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, ed. Susan Moller Okin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1988), 18. I am avoiding the dubious argument for free speech in On Liberty here.

53 Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) and The Fate of Knowledge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). Other views might well be mentioned here. Feminist standpoint theory holds that occupying a specific standpoint gives privileged access to knowledge inaccessible from other standpoints (what it is like to experience injustice as a woman, for instance). Also relevant is Iris Marion Young’s work on diversity and democracy in Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

54 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971).

55 Ibid., 128–29; Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 95.

56 Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and The Ethics of Knowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 4.

57 José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 27. Medina’s view departs from Fricker’s in ways I cannot go into here.

58 Samuel Sommers, “On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 4 (2006): 597–612, at 597. Thanks to Kayleigh Doherty for drawing my attention to this article.

59 This problem is discussed in Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs and Yolanda Flores Niemann, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press, an imprint of University Press of Colorado, 2012).

* A number of people have provided very helpful input and feedback on this essay: Kayleigh Doherty, Simon Hope, Bernie Kobes, Noa Latham, Bas Van der Vossen, and the other contributors to this volume.

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