Is philosophy making progress?

Is philosophy making progress, like, say, science?

That is, in science, new theories are continualy proposed, and through testing are either verified or rejected.

In this manner, older theories are slowly supplanted or replaced or expanded upon by newer and newer theories, with the end result being that one can say that scientific understanding today is better than it was a few years ago.

In other words, there is progress.

Is there similar progress in philosophy? i.e. through reasoning and debate, have older theories been rejected and new ones accepted?

From a layman’s point of view, it seems to me that there are a lot of philosophical theories out there, most from many many years ago, but each just has its proponents, and each side has reasonable arguments to defend its position. I don’t see progress. I just see newer theories being proposed and taking their place alongside the old ones. I’m not saying that there is no progress, just that it seems to me that there isn’t.

So, the question is: Is philosophy making progress towards better and better understanding of the universe?

If yes, can you give specific examples of older theories that were rejected through rational arguments, and supplanted by newer theories?

Theories that were rejected due to scientific discoveries (e.g. the earth is round) do not count. What I’m looking for are older theories that were rejected because a newer theory was proposed and through reasoning alone it was determined that the newer theory is more correct.


Off-hand, I don’t think there have ever been any theories like that. No matter how lofty the arguments, philosophy ultimately has to mesh with the facts.

Historically, philosophy has been a breeding ground for new sciences. Someone asks a question whose answer isn’t known, and the philosophers argue about it, and then someone goes and studies it.

I think the view of science that new theories come in and supplant old theories by virtue of their rational superiority is false, or at least hopelessly simple. See Kuhn, Lakatos, etc. Further, the claim that science is making progress has not been rigorously (read: satisfactorily to philosophers) established; though I think its safe to assume. So I think its a bit of a false comparison.

That said, depending on how you define philosophy, there has been the same sort of progress that you attribute to science. The invention of modal logic, for example. Theories have been rejected as unsupportable (relativity about truth is an obvious one, there are others). New, better theories have replaced old ones (witness the history of what we consider to count as knowledge). I think that in every field of philosophy there has been measurable progress.
There are, of course, philosophers that still cling to old, mostly rejected theories. But the same can be said of scientists.

It’s a bit harder to say that philosophy progresses as science does (or is claimed to do), in large part because philosophical theories never gain the broad consensus among professional philosophers that scientific ones do among scientists. I think there are some theories (e.g., positivism) which have been fairly decisively consigned to the dustheap of history, but such theories are the exception. Having said that, I think there are a number of claims which most philosophers would agree to. For example, most philosophers endorse meaning holism (e.g., the meaning of a word depends on the meaning of other words). Most philosophers also think dualism (the theory that the mind is an immaterial substance separate from the body) is false. I think most philosophers reject libertarianism about free will (*not * to be confused with libertarianism as a political philosophy). I believe most philosophers hold that the Divine Command Theory (the theory that right actions are right because God commands them) has been fairly decisively refuted by objections stemming from Plato’s Euthyphro. Most philosophers reject psychological egoism (the theory that people are only capable of acting selfishly), as well as ethical egoism (the theory that your sole moral obligation is to act in your own best interest.) I could probably think of some more, but it’s late (where I am).

Now for the commentary. Much of the above agreement might be connected to the fact that professional philosophers are a pretty secular bunch, and hence might be inclined to reject theories (libertarianism about free will, dualism, Divine Command Theory) which tend to go hand in hand with theism. Second, the mere fact that the above-cited agreement exists doesn’t mean that this consensus will continue to hold, or that what most philosophers believe is true. Third, every theory I listed above as being rejected by most philosophers nevertheless has prominent supporters among the ranks of professional philosophers.

I could write more, but lemme see how the conversation evolves before subjecting everyone to more of my tedious ramblings.

I decided this OP needed a more substantial response. It is fairly commonplace in academia for there to be tension between philosophers and scientists, particularly between philosophers and psychologists, over this very issue. It is frustrating, because scientists often reject philosophy as day-dreamy hand-waving while believing that science makes hard, useful progress. This is a gap in understanding that has to be overcome as important problems become increasingly multi-disciplinary. Cognitive science, for example, is going to require strong collaboration between philosophers and scientists.

This link, particularly the comments and further links at the bottom, addresses a lot of the issues surrounding philosophical progress. I’ll post a few of the best points:

  • Philosophy has something called the principle of charity, which basically says you need to interpret other’s theories in the most charitable way. This often makes old, outdated theories seem reasonable and competitive, when in fact the charitable interpretation has just gone to far in updating the theory. This masks progress.

  • Showing that a particular answer doesn’t work is a kind of progress, and there are plenty of examples of that. In fact Popperians would say this is the only kind of progress that can be made.

  • the progress of philosophy is evidenced simply by the existence of the other disciplines of natural and rational knowledge to which it gave rise (physics, etc.).

These are all good points. Progress in philosophy is always masked it seems - if a problem is solved it is not really considered philosophy any more - it is a new subject or area of study which has been born out of philosophy (the most recent subjects would probably be psychology and sociology). So, I would say that yes, philosophy does make progress, and fairly significant progress as well.

If you want more concrete examples I suppose the best example to look at is logic. There has most definately been very real progress in this field. I can’t really explain the progress very well because I don’t really understand it that well, but theories here can, and are, clearly refuted and replaced with new, and better, theories (Bertrand Russel disproving Frege’s theory of logic is probably a good example or maybe Kripke’s work on modal logic and possible worlds theory). This could, of course, one day be attributed to a separate field of study (logic, or maybe it’s just considered a part of mathematics) and people will say that philosophy hasn’t made any progress because it will be masked by the emergence of this new field of study.

This is a good question though, because I think it clearly shows how people seem to percieve philosophy as some sort of discipline where all you do is argue and debate different theories which can never be refuted which isn’t true. Better theories are constantly trying to replace outdated ideas and theories. There are, of course, many questions within philosophy that can’t be answered conclusively, but not all theories are equally valid in any way like some people seem to think (“That’s just your opinion, man” type of arguments which I seem to hear a lot when I talk to people - especially about ethics).

More’s the pity that there is competition between philosophy and science inasmuch as science is a branch of philosophy — specifically, epistemology, and more specifically, empiricism. Therefore, wherever science has made progress, so has philosophy.

It’s not just the solved problems that are considered to fall in other disciplines, but the problems that are approached empirically. Linguistics is probably the best example of this–language is far from a solved problem, but it’s not generally considered a philosophical problem now that there’s a science to study it.

The huh? All those who study Wittgenstein and Nietzsche will be surprised to hear that, Ultrafilter.

I admittedly know very little about exactly what people study in linguistics, but language is certainly still studied within philosophy as Liberal points out. I have spent all semester reading about and studying different philosophies of language (Frege, Russell, Meinong, Quine, Kripke, etc…). I can only assume that within linguistics, the subject matter is approached differently - perhaps philosophers tend to study the truth value of sentences and the ‘meta’ issues more and linguists study more in detail how the language that we use actually works or evolved or something?

I kind of look at the split between philosophy and science (or at least the supposed split) as within philosophy a methodology for how the subject matter should be studied is found, and then this methodology can be used to create a ‘new’ subject. Maybe that is one way to see the progress of philosophy - it sets up the initial rules so that a new subject can be considered a field of study in its own right. I think that people fail to realize this all too often and that is perhaps why they pass philosophy off as a purely academic and useless pursuit.

Philosophy isn’t going to make progress like science because philosophy won’t have a method like science. The problems philosophy deals with don’t lend themselves to the observation-conjecture-test method of science. (If that is an adequate description of scientific method: a philosophical point in itself.) Indeed one philosophical question is what it means to have a method at all and how can a method lead us to certainty. Obviously this question can’t be answered by a method without question-begging at least, even in the unlikely event one were to think of a method to answer it. (I hope that made sense. I just woke up.)

In history one does see certain problems drop out of philosophy. No serious philosopher today would speculate on the ultimate constituents of matter. Philosophy steps back and looks at the process of science and the nature of scientific theories. It does not attempt to compete with science on its own turf.

Of course the very existence of science is a sign of philosophical progress as the idea of science originated in philosophy–in Bacon and Descartes, for example–before becoming its own discipline.

There’s been an attempt in this century to get rid of philosophical problems by declaring them all to be linguistic errors or category mistakes or something. This attempt seems to me grossly wrongheaded for several reasons. Mostly because the problems aren’t going away just because some academic declares them incoherent. Asking big questions is part of what makes us human. We aren’t going to stop doing it. Also I’m not sure if many philosophical problems–even metaphysical problems–are really based in incorrect use of language or logic. Questions of, say, personal identity or the nature of mind are at least intuitively coherent, and in any event, aren’t going away.

Philosophy can use science in its ruminations. It can also use history or the advances in logic that arose from the work of Frege. No one believes in the divine right of Kings any more, after all, though of course you’d be hard pressed to find a philosopher who really did.

As for the sidetrack on language, I think Low Key is right in that linguistics and philosophy approach language from different perspectives. However I am not really competent to say this with authority.

Yeah, it is a little more complicated than I originally said. The point is, though, that language was an entirely philosophical problem until someone figured out how to methodically study it. It’s the same as what happened with physics.

Good on you for the retraction and clarification, Ultra. As a matter of fact, however, the philosophical issues with language (and physics, for that matter) remain despite the scientization of the fields. Remember, science is epistemic, and epistemology is only one aspect of philosophy. Metaphysical (as in the nature of existence), ethical, and aesthetic issues are as lively as ever.

For that matter, epistemological issues aren’t really solved, and not every epistemic solution has been scientific in nature. Studies of language history and etymology are inductive in nature, while studies of language taxonomy and structure are deductive. There is precious little opportunity to apply scientific experiment to such analytical beasts as language.

Finally, please consider that it has been philosophers from Popper to Kuhn who have made science into something scientific, differentiating science from pseudoscience, and introducing such philosophical underpinnings as falsification.

I think the linguists might disagree with you here.  It depends, of course, on what you mean by "scientific in nature" and "scientific experiment," but many linguists do something most would consider scientific investigation.  They collect quantifiable data, construct theories, and test how well the theories fit and predict new data.  Linguists look at a wide variety of problems and solve them scientifically.  A linguist is only a scientist if an evolutionary biologist is also not a scientist.  

Linguistic research has informed philosophy of language and vice versa. Just like the symbiotic relationships between philosophy and psychology or philosophy and physics. What I think is important, in this discussion and others, is to make both sides realize the inter-dependence.

Sophistry and Illusion, much of what you say is simply incorrect. How can you claim, for example, that positivism has been “consigned to the dustheap of history”?

I can agree with the gist of that. Apparently, our disagreement focuses on qualifying the range of scientific influence. You call it a wide variety of problems, and I call it a narrow niche of falsifiable problems. I like my interpretation better because people unfamiliar with logic might wrongly infer a scientific scope that isn’t there. After all, just because scientific theories make predictions, that does not mean that all predictions are scientific theories. It is easy to confuse induction with science, but the former is an analytical process, and the latter is an empirical one.

I think we agree on the above issue, but it seems to me that science involves induction. Can you further explain your distinction between analytical induction and empirical science?

Sure, and you’re right, science does involve induction. The scientific method is an aggregate of epistemologies: inspiriation contributes to forming hypotheses; induction contributes to developing methods of testing (itself a whole field of science); empiricism contributes to the observation of events; deduction contributes to the interpretation of data; and so on. The fallacy that I encounter so often is the conflation of these epistemic resources with science itself — to the effect that science has spawned them all (with the possible exception of revelation). It is a disservice to science to treat it religiously, as though it were everything conceivable plus everything that isn’t.

With respect to the distinction between analytical induction and empirical science, I think Peano’s Fifth axiom can illustrate that. Analytically, we accept that every number has a successor since we can abstract the concept by calling any number “n” and declaring that it is the successor of some prime “n”. Scientifically, we cannot test the concept because we would have to examine every number — a metaphysically impossible task.

Natural numbers, of course…

There is broad consensus among professional philosophers that positivism failed as a positive doctrine. Even central positivists like Hempel conceded its failure toward the end of their lives. Core positivist doctrines like the verifiability principle of meaning, etc., are conceded to be self-defeating, and so on. There may be some today whom you might describe as positivists, but traditional positivism just didn’t work. I cite this as an example of philosophical progress: a theory was proposed, became highly developed, and then rejected as a result of new developments and “discoveries.” Among these discoveries were meaning holism, the theory-ladennes of observation and scientific method, etc.