How philosophy makes progress

Figs in Winter
16 min readAug 16, 2021
[image: La Rue du Progrès, the road to progress, in the city of Le Locle, canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (Wikimedia)]

Back in 2009 I took up my first academic post in philosophy, as Department Chair at the City University of New York’s Lehman College. Until the previous semester I had been a professor of evolutionary biology, most recently at Stony Brook University.

One of the first things I noticed about my new colleagues — in the discipline at large, not just my particular Department — was that a good number of them had a peculiar tendency to denigrate their own discipline, something a scientist would rarely, if ever, do. After all, if you are a biologist, or a physicist, and you think your field doesn’t make progress and is largely useless, the obvious question becomes: why are you still there? Many philosophers, however, appear to be able to live with the seemingly cognitive dissonance-inducing twin thoughts that what they do is useless and yet somehow fulfilling.

One such philosopher appears to be Chris Daly, from the University of Manchester, UK. Not long ago he wrote a piece for Aeon magazine entitled “Philosophy’s lack of progress.” The tagline says: “For centuries, all philosophers seem to have done is question and debate. Why do philosophical problems resist solution?” The problem is that Daly, as many of his colleagues, seems to be affected by serious misconceptions about the nature of his own discipline and of what counts as progress in it.

I know, I know, this may sound preposterous. But try asking a scientist about the nature of science and scientific progress and you’ll likely get some laughably naive answers that a first year graduate student in philosophy ought to be able to easily dismantle. (This isn’t hypothetical, I have consistent empirical evidence to support my claim.)

Daly writes that “despite [a] wealth of questions and the centuries spent tackling them, philosophers haven’t successfully provided any answers. They’ve tried long and hard but nothing they’ve said towards answering those questions has quite made the grade. Other philosophers haven’t been slow to pick holes in their attempted answers and expose flaws or dubious assumptions in them. The punctures in the attempted answers then get patched up and put up for discussion again. But what happens is that new punctures appear, or the patches fail and the old punctures are revealed again.”