On Philosophy and Its Progress (a response — of sorts — to Massimo Pigliucci)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Massimo Pigliucci has just finished publishing his book, The Nature of Philosophy: How Philosophy Makes Progress and Why It Matters, in serial form over at his blog, Plato’s Footnote. (1)  Just the other day, the first of three video-dialogues on the book aired on the Sophia program, over at MeaningofLife.TV.  (2)  Needless to say, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the nature of our subject, and thought it might be a good time to share some of my own views, here at the Electric Agora.

My typical response, when asked to give any sort of definitive characterization of philosophy, is to say that it can’t be done and that what I will do instead is list a number of representative philosophical questions.  The list typically looks something like this:

What are good reasons for believing something?

How do sounds, marks, gestures, and the like represent things in the world?

What does it mean to say that a statement is true or false?

What is the relationship between the mind and the body?

What makes actions morally right and wrong?

How should a person live his or her life?

From where does political authority derive?

The upside of doing things this way is that one avoids the inevitable false results that come with neat formulas and tidy definitions.  Any such effort will either count too many activities as philosophy or too few.  The questions approach, by contrast, is much more modest in its ambitions.  It says “There are a number of questions that every student of philosophy – even those who are casual learners – will encounter.  If we examine them closely, we can get a good impression of what the discipline is about.”

The downside is that the form these questions take also gives the impression that they are of a kind that they really are not.  “How?”  “What?”  and “Why?” questions appear to be the sort for which there should be clear, definitive answers, and yet, philosophers have been asking these questions – and many more like them — for millennia and seem no closer to such answers now than before.   This gives the impression that philosophy makes no real progress, an idea that has fueled much of the recent criticism of philosophy, by a number of prominent scientists and science-popularizers.  Worry over this effect provided much of the motivation for Massimo’s most recent effort, and one certainly can understand his response.  After all, if people have a misimpression about philosophy – about what it is – and on the basis of this, draw negative conclusions about the subject, one would think that the best thing to do is educate them as to philosophy’s true nature.

Of course, this approach will only work under certain conditions.  For one thing, those who suffer under the misimpression must be willing to be educated, which means that they must accept the idea that there is such a thing as expertise in philosophy and that some people have it.  (My experience has been that those who are dismissive of philosophy in this way tend not to believe that there is any such thing as philosophical expertise and think that anyone and everyone is as good at philosophy as anyone and everyone else.)  For another thing, if philosophy is a type of activity that these sorts of people are unlikely to understand or accept as legitimate, then making them aware of what philosophy “really is,” is hardly going to persuade them that it is worthwhile, regardless of whether or not they think it makes progress.


It is my view that the questions I listed above have a tremendous capacity to mislead — that their “surface grammar” masks the sorts of questions they really are – and that philosophy is, in fact, a very different, very distinctive sort of intellectual activity; not at all like science, barely – in places – like logic or mathematics, and much more like literature and the fine arts, in terms of the type of benefit it provides.

It’s very easy to read the listed questions as straightforwardly seeking factual answers.  “How should a person live his or her life?” looks like it should receive an answer of the form, “A person should live his or her life this way,” where ‘this’ indicates some tangible, specific lifestyle that will ensure one’s life is an admirable one.  “What is the relationship between mind and body” looks like it should receive a similar sort of answer to what one would get in response to a question like “What is the relationship between the heart and the circulatory system?” in terms of some discernible causal connection.

So many of us read these questions in these ways, because we have been conditioned to do so by science, and we live in a culture in which science, overwhelmingly, is taken as the model of intellectual activity.  (It is worth noting that this is quite recent — a feature, of post WWII thinking – and that for most of the history of higher education, Classical learning was dominant in our top academic institutions and scientific education was considered somewhat plebian.)  In science, when we ask “How?” we are looking for some sort of mechanism.  When we ask “What?” we are looking for an empirical characterization or description.  When we ask “Why?” we are looking for a cause.  So, when we see these words at the beginnings of questions, we interpret them in the manner that we would, if they were being asked in a scientific context, unable to imagine that there could be any other way of understanding them or any other way in which taking them up could be useful.  And when I say “we,” I mean an awful lot of us, including many philosophers, who not only have not been immune to the unhealthy influence that science has come to have over our intellectual imagination, but have been some of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders.

But philosophical “How’s” and “What’s” and “Why’s” are not scientific ones.  We don’t ask them for the same reasons that we do in science and the benefit we derive from asking them does not lie in any specific, concrete answers that we might find; answers which, in any event, are not forthcoming.  Unlike science, then, in which the primary benefit of asking questions lies in their answers, in philosophy, it lies in the questioning itself; in rehearsing those questions for ourselves, again and again, over the course of our lives.

The moment one begins to explore the philosophical treatment of these questions, one discovers that they are not typical “How’s?” “What’s?” and “Why’s?”  The question “What are good reasons for believing something?” immediately unpacks into any number of further questions.  What do we mean by ‘reasons’ and why should we characterize some as good and others as bad?  What do we believe for – that is, what is the point of believing?  Do we believe in order to acquire the truth?  Do we believe in order to paint an appealing picture of the world?  What are the respective roles of reason and sentiment in the human template, and which is normative, with respect to belief? Is there a single account of what constitutes good reasons for believing something or will the accounts vary, depending upon the type and purpose of the belief in question?  Or on the type of person whose belief it is?  Or on the context in which the belief arises?

“What is the relationship between the mind and the body?” likewise unpacks into any number of further questions.  What do we mean by ‘mind’?  Is the mind a thing, as the body is?  If the mind is a thing, is it a physical thing?  Is the mind the brain and in what sense?  As a matter of literal identity?  Of material equivalency?  Of some other relation?  Should we identify persons with their minds and thus, on this view, with their brains?  Can it be that we both have minds/brains and also are our minds/brains?  Do minds/brains do various things or do people do them?  Are thinking, believing, feeling, hoping, and the like discrete events, in the same sense that physical happenings, chemical reactions, biological processes, and the like are discrete events?  And so on.

I can do this with every question listed, but you get the point.  What look like relatively straightforward questions, in search of a mechanism or an empirical description or a cause, are quickly revealed as being anything but, and when they are treated as such, they are inevitably treated badly.  As already mentioned, the failure to understand what kinds of questions these are and the bad answers that follow are hardly the province just of philosophically-ignorant scientists, but of many philosophers as well, which is why we find philosophers engaged in so many rabbit-hole type endeavors, a good number of which are found in – but are hardly exclusive to — the philosophy of  mind and much of what passes for “cognitive science.”

But can one actually provide a relatively compact characterization of the kinds of questions these really are and thereby at least give an impression of what philosophy really is?  I’m going to take a crack at it, and I think I can boil my characterization down to three core elements.

  1. To properly unpack, understand, and address the listed questions involves the use of a number of tools, significantly: (a) linguistic analysis (semantic and pragmatic); (b) analogical reasoning; (c) the method of differences; (d) logical rules of inference; (e) casual – meaning uncontrolled –observation; and (f) intuition.
  2. One consistent interest that emerges from the questions above is that of understanding our folk-conception of ourselves, the world, and our place in it. By ‘folk-conception’ I mean that conception which is conceived and articulated in ordinary language and which includes, significantly, intensional characterization and description, as well as intentional accounts of human behavior and affairs.  Put less technically: Much of what philosophy is about is providing an account of ourselves and the world, as we conceive them, in ordinary language and as common people.  Personhood, rationality, perception, representation, belief, action, moral agency, citizenship … these comprise some of the chief ingredients out of which our common conception of ourselves and our world consist.  And it is a conception that is shot through with normativity; with the idea that human life, activity, and civilization have meaning, significance, and ultimately, purpose.
  3. Another interest that we see reflected in a number of the questions listed is the relationship between this folk-conception of ourselves and the world and the account provided by the natural sciences. That is, philosophy seeks to reconcile or at least make some sense of the relationship between ordinary speech and technical dialects; between what Wilfrid Sellars called the “Manifest” and “Scientific” Images. (3)  I say “the natural sciences” and not just “the sciences,” because the social sciences are pursued largely in ordinary, rather than technical language, and employ folk psychological – i.e. intentional – explanations as their primary explanatory modality.  Consequently, they contribute much more to the folk conception of the world than to the scientific one, as much as social scientists might like to think (or hope) otherwise, a subject I have taken up in an previous essay. (4)

Because when we ask “How?”  “What?” and “Why?” in philosophy, we are not looking for mechanisms, empirical descriptions, or causes, in a largely neutral intellectual space, but rather are seeking to develop a compelling, resonant picture of ourselves, the world, and our place in it (in ordinary language and employing our common conceptions), philosophical questions are not the sort one takes up, until one finds an answer, after which one drops it and moves on.  Rather, we revisit these questions again and again, for what counts as a compelling, resonant picture of ourselves, our world, and our place in it changes over time, as we change over time.  By this point in my life, I have taken up the questions listed above many times: as an undergraduate; as a graduate student; as a new professor; as a mid-career professor; and now, as a senior faculty member.  Of course, this also means that I have taken them up as a teenager, as a young man, and in middle-age.  Each time I have come to very different conclusions, which have meant very different things to me and played very different roles in my life.  In earlier years, I held quite strict views on epistemic warrant and morality and justice, as they supported a picture of humanity and of the world as I would have liked them to be; one that idealized ideological and intellectual consistency and purity, in the way that young people so typically do.  The passing years and the experience that comes with them, as well as a deepening appreciation of my own limitations and faults, have led me to different, looser, more contextually sensitive, even somewhat open-ended views on these subjects.  Certainly, along the way, in my research and teaching, I learned any number of arguments for and against the various positions in these areas, and certainly these have had some effect on the course that my own views have taken.  But unlike the sciences, in which evidence can tell decisively in favor of or against a particular view, none of these philosophical arguments are even remotely conclusive; every position has a pile of arguments for and against it; and very smart people can be found representing virtually every position on the map.  The philosophical views one holds, then, are as much a matter of who one is at a particular time and in a particular place, as they are about what has been satisfactorily demonstrated or proven.

As much as the pursuit of philosophical questions is part of an effort to paint a certain kind of picture of human life, therefore, it is also very much an expression of it, and this is where philosophy and the arts reveal their great affinity.  Literature, painting, music, theater, dance … they all assist us in exploring human life as we commonly understand and experience it (by way of their own distinctive methods and tools), while at the same time being essential expressions of that life.  And just as Socrates’ dialogue with Parmenides and Rousseau’s Confessions and Gettier’s strange cases reward our reading them again and again, so the greatest works of art sustain repeated viewing, reading, and listening, over the course of a lifetime.


Massimo maintains that philosophy makes progress, not in the sense of setting and then achieving goals, as the sciences do, but rather, in the sense of  “advancing toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition.”  He associates mathematics and logic with this conception of progress, as well.  And one might think that it could work with philosophy as I’ve conceived it too.  After all, I’ve said that philosophy endeavors to give an account of our folk-conception of ourselves, the world, and our place in it; one in which we are able to see ourselves and our lives and the things we create and do as having significance and meaning; and one which we are able reconcile, at least in some sense, with the picture painted by the sciences.  Is this not something that has gotten more sophisticated over time; deeper and more comprehensive; and ultimately, more satisfying?

Certainly there is much more philosophy than there ever was and certainly, it’s more complex.  Whether it’s more comprehensive is a bit tricky, as philosophers have become less and less inclined to build comprehensive systems of the sort that one finds in Kant or Hegel, but taken as a whole, the discipline certainly covers more ground than it used to.  As to whether we are more satisfied with the picture of ourselves, the world, and our place in it today than people were in, say, the 18th Century, I have no idea and suspect that there’s no way, really, to find out.

The trouble is that I don’t see how any of this translates into philosophy being “better” than it was before and to say that something has progressed – at least, in the sense that matters to philosophy’s current fortunes — is to say that it’s gotten better.  Is Kripke better than Aristotle?  Quine better than Kant?  Epistemology today better than the epistemology of the Enlightenment?  Liberal democracy is certainly better than autocracy or oligarchy, but that doesn’t’ translate into Rawls being better than Plato.  It’s difficult to compare personalities, because philosophical problems are sliced into much smaller pieces today, so no contemporary philosopher’s mind or body of work is going to have the scope of those of the philosophers of Antiquity or the Enlightenment.  But even at the level of the work itself, it’s not at all clear to me that one can really characterize contemporary philosophy as better than it was in its preceding phases.  For one thing, philosophy really is a subject in which its more recent practitioners are essentially dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, something that is not true in the sciences.  So much of philosophy today consists of the development of – in the sense of tinkering with, nipping and tucking, perfecting here and there – older ideas.  (The dominant moral theories of our age, for example, are little more than refinements of 18th and 19th century moral philosophies.)  For another, all of the work is equally of use to us, in our current philosophical investigations and meditations.  Plato and Aristotle and Descartes and Hume and Kant are as useful to us today as are Quine, Putnam, Kripke, Rawls, and Nozick, and in a way that ancient Greek physics and medieval cosmology and 17th century medicine are not of use to contemporary scientists and doctors.

Hopefully, we, as individuals, progress as we get older, and the more philosophical history we have available to us in constructing a worldview, the better off we are, individually and collectively.  Thus, I am philosophically better off than my medieval counterpart, in the sense that I have more philosophical sources upon which to construct a picture of myself, of others, and of the world we share.  But to say this is very different from saying that philosophy itself progresses, and it seems quite clear to me that it does not.  And here, once again, we see a close relationship between philosophy and the arts.  Certainly artists at later periods of time have more resources from which to draw inspiration and instruction than those at earlier periods of time, and for those who form art’s audience, the more art there is, the more there is to play the role that arts play in our development as individuals and as human beings.  But like with philosophy, it’s just incorrect to say that because of this, contemporary art is better than the art of previous eras.  The development of linear perspective in the Renaissance gave artists more tools with which to work, but it’s flat out wrong to say art became better as a result.  Raphael paintings that employ this new tool are not “better” than Van Eyck paintings that do not or than medieval illuminations, which could not.  Indeed, art critics of a formalist bent – such as Clive Bell – may even be of the view that art became worse with such developments.  As Bell wrote, “Before the late noon of the Renaissance art was almost extinct.  Only nice illusionists and masters of craft abounded.” (5)

Progress, as it is generally and commonly understood, involves, at its heart, a notion of betterment at both the “object level” of attaining a superior position — either with respect to a possible end state or in terms of a final goal — and the “meta-level,” in which these states or goals are themselves conceived as forming a progressive hierarchy.  Science clearly progresses in this sense, as it not only accomplishes goal after goal, but each accomplished goal itself represents progress along a hierarchy of goals.  Logic and mathematics might.  Philosophy, however, does nothing of the sort.  One can try, as Massimo does, to compromise and hedge one’s bets and come up with a notion of progress for philosophy, which is sufficiently like progress in other progressive areas that people are inclined to be more positive about it, but ultimately, I think this way of improving philosophy’s fortunes is a mistake.  Philosophy really is nothing like these other areas – or very little like them – and is quite a lot like the arts, which command their own distinctive types of appreciation and esteem, which are not themselves based on any conception of progress.  Rather than making philosophy more scientific, more logical, and more mathematical, then, its fortunes would be better served by making it more literary and by firmly and confidently identifying itself with humane letters, where it has always most belonged.


  1. Massimo’s book, The Nature of Philosophy: How Philosophy Makes Progress and Why It Matters


  1. The first of our dialogues on the book, on Sophia.


  1. Wilfrid Sellars on the “Manifest” and “Scientific” Image.


  1. Daniel A. Kaufman, “Explanations in the Social Sciences.”


  1. Clive Bell, Art (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, Co., 1913), Ch. 2.


Categories: Essay, Essays


  1. I’m not sure Massimo will respond in print. Indeed, I think it likely he will not.

    I will, however, try to work elements of my view into the remaining two discussions. Still, the main point of those dialogues is to discuss Massimo’s book itself.


  2. stolzyblog:

    I’d be happy to do a follow-up essay, whether Massimo responds or not. I can’t really speak to Continental philosophy, though, as it is almost entirely outside my expertise, with a few very small exceptions.


  3. A very thought-provoking essay, indeed.

    The superficially obvious “progress” in the natural sciences is at some level trivially true. We can build machines and cure diseases we couldn’t before, so we seem to understand more, can achieve more and therefore have made “progress”.
    At another level scientific understanding is fundamentally rooted in specific ontologies and epistemologies, that is, in philosophy. Should we then say that scientific “progress” can only be achieved if there is philosophical progress?
    If science is seen as engineering, then science can be said to have made progress.
    If science is seen as (natural) philosophy, as one did until roughly 100-150 years ago, then if there is no progress in philosophy there is also no progress is science.

    I surely agree that philosophy is much like art. And science is ultimately based on philosophy. So science has elements of art, perhaps even foundational ones.
    Perhaps “progress” should be abandoned altogether?
    Perhaps mathematics is the only area where true progress has been made?

    Thanks for an intriguing essay.


  4. I haven’t read any of MP’s latest, but have downloaded it, so I might tackle it.

    What I find least attractive in philosophy is the search for the “one true answer”. Metaphysics tends to be one major aspect of that; its appeal has declined somewhat as physics and chemistry have told us far more about the underlying nature of things, though raising some new subjects for “pure reason” speculation, like the dualisms and other other mind-bending aspects of quantum physics. IMO, humans reside somewhere in the middle of the scale of size and complexity, and our intuitions about the “bottom”, if there is one (“Turtles all the way down”), aren’t very good. While Quine often annoys me, I believe he did say something appealing about what I’d call “focusing on the middle” in the area of epistemology. Wittgenstein also does a good job of gently puncturing obsessions with “getting to the bottom”.

    I am attracted to Sen and Habermas for applying a philosophical style of thought to major practical issues, and I like Sen’s parable of the flute for poking gentle fun at the near-universal penchant of social thinkers to start by enthroning one strict
    principle of value, possibly always essentially one of the following three.

    * Social utilitarianism or “greatest good for the greatest number”
    * Distributive justice
    * Extreme individualism/libertarianism.

    Sen refuses to designate one of these as “the bottom line”, leaving us with ambiguities that can only be resolved through democratic or judicial processes — just the sort of thing many libertarians and conservatist regard as the **danger to be avoided
    at all costs**.


  5. Well, about 10% of the way through MP’s latest opus, I’m still skeptical about philosophy making progress, but now believe wholeheartedly that Massimo DOES make progress. This makes me sit up and listen, unlike much of what I read in the last days of Scientia Salon. I was first snagged by Massimo via _Nonsense on Stilts_, which, from my perspective at the time, seemed to throw up useful conceptual schema,and to be the only one of the at that time rash of “debunking” books to take notice of social epistemology. _Philosophy of Pseudoscience_, which he edited and contributed to, was also a very good book, even though I sympathize with Larry Laudan’s desire to put aside the “demarcation problem” (the former philosopher of science is now doing social epistemology of judicial systems). I suspect it was a pretty tired MP who presided over the last says of SciSal, and he may have once more reinvented himself. I will continue to listen (via Kindle text-to-speech) as my body does tedious stuff in the background.