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.








56 responses to “On Philosophy and Its Progress (a response — of sorts — to Massimo Pigliucci)”

  1. ‘scientific education was considered somewhat plebian’

    -My father-in-law still had this attitude. He put physicist in the same category as mechanics. I guess there’s some honor in that (quantum mechanics!), but he didn’t see it that way …

    I suspect some of ‘post modernism’ is motivated by the same contempt for the mere technician … though if the classify us with astrologers that is going too far.

  2. mpboyle56

    This is the single best explanation of philosophy I have come across and is also a powerful defense of the arts and humanities to boot. The use of Sellars is spot on. Bravo!

  3. “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”

    Heisenberg: If I had never lived, someone else would probably have formulated the principle of determinacy. If Beethoven had never lived, no one would have written Opus 111.

    Perhaps philosophy is somewhere between Science and Art. Some ideas seem kind of inevitable (Popper, Hume) even if one can still argue about them endlessly unlike Opus 1111 or Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog’ [a] which would not exist apart from their practitioners.

    Nietzsche more to the arty side, Wittgenstein closer to the scientific?

    [a] In which is completely clear she not singing about a dog.

  4. This is a strong piece and there is a lot of wisdom here. The weak point, it seems to me, is that ‘philosophy’ means different things to different people and meant different things at different times (e.g. before the various sciences split off from it). And even now you get philosophers who identify with the proto-science element of philosophy rather than with the aspects you are emphasizing. If there are very different views within philosophy about its nature, who is to say who is right?

    For me the strength of the piece lies in the fact that it is defending a certain kind of education, one that is not narrowly scientific. It feels a bit like Leavis’s attack on Snow.

    Leavis was not a philosopher. As it happens, the discipline which he identified with is also in crisis. There is a good case for something here, and not merely for a continuation of the academic/educational status quo. Should we perhaps be looking at some way the humanities could re-form themselves and work together more?

  5. Mark, certainly, according to my account, a good amount of what passes for philosophy today is either (a) bad philosophy; (b) science; (c) bad science.

  6. garthdaisy

    That’s a great contrast to Massimo’s position, Dan. Both positions are helpful in understanding the other, and I have to go with yours.

    “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. ”

    I agree. And I do think that it belongs more in the arts category in the way in which you describe. This is why I am still in favor of funding it as we fund some of the arts. But as we know, some arts are not popular enough to make it in the market place and require someone in government deciding they are worthy of forcing the public to pay for through the NEA for example.. So I think you make a good argument for socialist funding for philosophy departments as we fund the arts. But there seems to be no market for it in the capitalist system. In other words, it’s the ballet not Hollywood.

    You either need to get enough people into the ballet to make it successful in the market place, or be in favor of socialist government funding of it. It seems the same is true of academic philosophy. I know you will make the argument that corporations demand graduates who have taken philosophy courses, and that is true, and so long as it stays true their will be private funding sources for philosophy departments, but where funding is dying it is lack of capitalist demand that is the culprit.

    Great piece! Thanks.

  7. garth: Well, the role that philosophy and the fine arts play in human life is much greater than that of mere entertainment. But, I guess, at a certain level, if one wants a country full of stupid, unreflective, boors, one can have it.

  8. davidlduffy


    “I am sometimes credited with the remark, due to Nelson Goodman, that ‘there are two kinds of people in the world: the logical positivists and the god-damned English professors’..I advocate material philosophy, and I will try to explain what I mean, which is actually rather broad, and of course rather vague. In The Dynamics of Reason, Michael Friedman wrote that the service of philosophy is to provide ‘new frameworks, new possibilities for science that are in some sense outside of science.’.” Glymour’s description of the former kind definitely refers to progress, and is very much in the spirit of “philosophy as the logic of science”. Are there already Two Cultures within philosophy?

  9. Great post. Thank you. If evolutional force is applying pressure to the modern mutations of philosophy, these mutations will continue to compete, cooperate, coexist or experience an extinction event. From where did philosophy come? From the mouths of awestruck men, who emerged from primordial earth, that emerged from formless chaos (or that always existed). Where is philosophy going? Without a goal there is no progress. Unless the goal perhaps is an examined life worth living and death preparation. Which is an evolution of the religio social binding coping impulse, with or without deities. Known knowns. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns.

  10. More like thousands of “cultures” to use the term loosely…

  11. Very Interesting entry Dan,

    I am thinking about the way our unexamined experience (or ‘manifest image’ ) comes to us and how both philosophy and science can be seen as tools that provide depth and perhaps understanding to that experience. Philosophy can provide tools to help us discover how surface level grammar (operating below the surface of our awareness) impacts our concepts and beliefs in ways we would otherwise be blind to. Science gives us tools that describe an alternative image of the world which is perhaps more objective. I find the ways you describe the differences helpful, but is there not a similarity in the way they each can inform the unexamined image.

  12. Hi Dan, this is another one of those essays which are so good I’d rather not touch it. Since Mark expressed something I was feeling, I guess I will expand on it.

    When I took my first philosophy class, I walked in thoroughly convinced that science was THE way to know things. I loved the arts for sure, but solid knowledge was about science. That included both the natural and social sciences, which is why I was working a double major in one of each.

    I took the class because I wanted to know more about the history and logical underpinnings of science (I recognized science as natural philosophy) as well as methods of reasoning which were useful in social criticism, particularly ethics and law.

    In short order I discovered the “logical underpinnings” of science were basically “assumptions” and that certain obvious moral concepts were not so obvious. I ended up switching the natural science part of my (at the time) double major to philosophy. There were some things I had to get my head around.

    After my undergraduate program, I returned to science (and math) much stronger. I have found it useful, indeed complementary to empirical approaches, helping to provide a richer understanding of natural phenomenon. This is so much so that I feel myself heading back toward more philosophical approaches, as some of the empirical fields have begun stumbling over proper interpretations.

    So I am not sure I can agree with the extent of split you have created between philosophy and science, particularly as what we call science was once natural philosophy. Now that science has budded off, does philosophy as practiced today provide direct answers as science does? Basically no, you are right about that.

    But it does provide enhanced answers (and enhanced questions)… when done right.

    I guess I should add that I did not find myself changing over the years as you have, in ethics anyway, except to strengthen my position. Your account of changing with time was wonderful, but I’d argue that even if one does not end up changing, the continued dialogue with oneself and others is worth it. You may remember bits that you have forgotten. Oh that’s right that is why I feel that way about XYZ… Just like you find passages in great literature that you forgot.

    Regardless, I thought the piece was beautiful. And definitely a stronger move than trying to play scientist or play at science to score points according to current public bias.

  13. garthdaisy

    “Well, the role that philosophy and the fine arts play in human life is much greater than that of mere entertainment. But, I guess, at a certain level, if one wants a country full of stupid, unreflective, boors, one can have it.”

    Agreed and I sure don’t want that. That’s why I support aristocratic government funding of things like the fine arts and philosophy departments. Because capitalism doesn’t support them.

  14. dbholmes:

    I think that it’s very easy to get things mixed up, because it’s easy to conflate those whom we call “philosophers” with those who are doing philosophy.

    Prior to the modern era, people called “philosophers” were doing plenty of things other than philosophy: including, mathematics and science of every stripe. Some, like Locke, were doing medicine. But we don’t say that they were doing philosophy when they did those things. Rather, they were philosophers doing something other than philosophy.

    I submit that philosophy, proper, was always what I say it is. And yes, it has always been the case that philosophers themselves have been confused on this front and have conflated that which is distinctively philosophical work with that which is scientific or mathematical, which is why it seems that with every major philosophical generation there are a number of “correctors” who come along to separate the good philosophy from the rubbish. Hume in the 18th century. Wittgenstein in the 20th. Etc.

    Aside from this, I can only thank you for your very kind words about the essay. Coming from you they mean quite a lot.

  15. garthdaisy


    What do you think about the idea of philosophy making progress taxonomically. If one considers part of the value of philosophy as a taxonomy of ideas and their criticisms, and a map of peaks and valleys explored, does this value not improve (get better) with time?

    Similarly, does art overall progress by there being so much more of it than there was before? More content and explorations to learn from and be inspired by? Can this be considered progress?

  16. Garth: I took up this idea in the last part of the essay, but the word ‘progress’ — at least in the sense meant by those like Massimo who worry about philosophy’s fortunes — implies betterment, and I just don’t see any way of justifying the claim that because there is more philosophy or art, philosophy and art are better than they were before.

  17. Isn’t Hume progress over St. Thomas. Slow progress, but progress?

  18. For some, certainly. For others, including some very smart neo-Thomists, like Alasdair MacIntyre (one of the best philosophers in the post WWII era), definitely not. MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” is one of the strongest takedowns of Enlightenment ethics — including Hume’s — ever written. It builds on the core arguments of Elizabeth Anscombe — another Catholic philosopher — articulated in her famous essay “Modern Moral Philosophy.”

    MacIntyre’s critique of Enlightenment moral philosophy is in many ways responsible for the revival of interest in Greek Virtue Ethics.

    So, no, I would not say that one can say that Hume, in any clear, straightforward way, represents progress with respect to Thomas.

  19. Dan: Great essay! My first questions are did you write this over a long period of time? In one sitting? Did you discard an earlier compilation and re-write this all at once? Just my curiosity, but curiosity is what makes us uniquely human.

    What comes to mind reading it is all of those fundamental drives and sensorimotor systems our brains share with the rest of the animal kingdom. But humans starting with primates acquired the unique ability to form social groups or our brains are the unique social organ as well. Your mention of the folk psychology and social sciences all connect with that famous thinker Socrates who broke the rules of the social group. As a matter of fact everything you mention from the sciences and mathematics is a social enterprise including the university you teach in. Philosophy is the mother of all western thinking because it underscores how we hijacked or co-opted our tribal social rule making brains to “somethings” else. It persists in the “no progress” mode because it persists in the questioning mode appears to be what you are saying.

    One area where philosophy had the greatest social progress which is a conundrum in itself if you subscribe to the human social brain theory is in the centuries progress of Western Government and politics. Watching the presidential politics some can question whether politics makes progress. If one looks at all of the constant factioning some will say resoundingly no and some will say successfully yes. Until we make more progress in understanding the human social brain, the more likely these appearances and conundrums will exist.

  20. victor: The essay was written in about 2 days, a few hours writing each day.

  21. So who ‘won’ this debate?

    Copleston vs. Russell on BBC:


    Copestone’s “History of Philosophy’ , used as textbook for my philosophy course by his fellow Jesuits at Santa Clara, is where I learned most of the little philosophy I know [a[.

    I, of course, think Russell represents ‘progress’, but that’s likely just my own biased point of view. I suspect the ‘winner’ is in the ‘eye of the beholder’.

    [a] I once had the whole set in paperback, but I think my mother got rid of it when she converted my room at home into her sewing room – though I am a little surprised by that as she was interested in philosophy herself and once went through much of the ‘Great Books’ program at our local JC.

  22. Synred: Being an atheist, I obviously think Russell has the better argument. But then again, I don’t think people are theists because of arguments.

    What’s really important though, is the deeper point. Whether one is a Copelstonian or a Russellian has as much to do with the kind of person you are as it does to do with the merits of the arguments. This is the sense in which philosophy is as much an expression of one’s humanity as an investigation of it. There are strong arguments and very smart people — a lot of them — on every side of (virtually) every philosophical position. There is nothing that plays the role in philosophy that decisive evidence plays in science.

    Keith Ward, a theistic philosopher and Berkeleyan (Idealist), debated Arif Ahmed, an atheist, Empiricist and Realist, not long ago. Each did an excellent job of making his respective case. No one “won” in the sense of offering decisive arguments against the other. Thus, which side you, as a spectator, fall on, has as much to do with *you* as it has to do with the evidence or arguments.


  23. synred: Oh, and one other thing. Copelston’s book is much better than Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy.”

  24. synred:

    One more last thing. This is partly what drives me nuts about the smug attitude of “new atheists.” (Such as Coel.) They think the arguments and evidence are so decisive on their side of the issue and that their position is entirely rational and based on nothing but the arguments and evidence. And yet, people like Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach and Alasdair MacIntyre — all of whom were vastly, by orders of magnitude smarter than *any* of the new atheists (yes, Coel included), had access to all the same evidence and arguments and were religious believers nonetheless.

  25. Since I’ve mentioned them quite prominently:

    G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy”


    Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue”


  26. Well, while a hardcore atheist myself I don’t go in for ‘evangelism’ and we can certainly suffer from confirmation bias as well as anyone. ‘Skeptic’ magazine is chockfull of it. I think ‘the atheist’ are right on the fact(s), but their arguments aren’t always. .

  27. synred: As I said, I am an atheist too. But I don’t think that the relevant “facts”, with respect to this subject, are so simply construed. Put another way, I’m not sure that the “facts” that sophisticated theists like Anscombe and MacIntyre believe in are quite the same as the ones that New Atheists disbelieve.

  28. Yes, I really liked Copelston’s history. He seemed to me to be fair when describing the work of philosophers he had to disagree with.

    I wish I still had it. It cost quite a lot to replace. Maybe it’s in my sister’s garage – that’s as good as lost though!

  29. davidlduffy

    “the smug attitude of ‘new atheists’ [and] the ‘facts’ that sophisticated theists believe in”. I don’t see any evidence that the attitudes and rhetoric of the NA are any different from that of any other freethinkers of the past 300 (or indeed 2600 years). Russell doesn’t sound any different, for a start. As to facts, both MacIntyre and Anscombe will have to assent to beliefs about particular historical events and disbelieve other ones, quite aside from any particular underdetermined metaphysical theories.

  30. Maybe the God debate is passé when according to George Carln its not the elders and educated élite of organized religion that control human society.


  31. “…but he loves you!” — Carlin

  32. *ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r-e2NDSTuE

    George Carlin (link disabled so WordPress doesn’t fill your screen, just cut and paste should you care to see it).

  33. “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.”

    What is philosophical expertise? What skills/characteristics do some of the best philosophers in the world have in your view?

  34. Several key elements, I think:

    1. Being very well-educated in the history of philosophy.
    2. Being well trained in logic.
    3. Having a firm understanding of Linguistics — especially semantics and pragmatics.
    4. A powerful and wide reaching imagination.

  35. Very clear as usual.

    You mention Coel linking him to smug atheists who are orders of magnitude less smart than some philosophers. Two thoughts come to mind:

    I remember Massimo stating, in response to one of your epic battles with Coel (I do miss those) that his position was midway between yours and Coel’s. Massimo was referring to the degree to which philosophy is informed by science. All philosophers fall somewhere on this spectrum and most would therefore be confused to some degree, according to you.

    You also seem to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of acquiring knowledge, but rather is really just a recursive questioning. You see it more as a cultural activity and I tend to agree in a narrow sense.

    However, by taking such a personal and subjective view of ‘true’ philosophy, you are in fact yielding almost all the territory of knowledge to science and ‘scientismists’.

  36. I think that historically, a lot of philosophers were also doing science. (And mathematics.) That doesn’t mean that philosophy is either science or mathematics.

    So, I don’t see how I’m ceding anything to anyone.

  37. Hi Dan, thanks for the compliment on my compliment 🙂

    The number of likes on this is probably a good indication how strong the essay is. Hopefully it gets picked up and spread around.

    Your claim…

    “I submit that philosophy, proper, was always what I say it is. And yes, it has always been the case that philosophers themselves have been confused on this front and have conflated that which is distinctively philosophical work with that which is scientific or mathematical, which is why it seems that with every major philosophical generation there are a number of “correctors” who come along to separate the good philosophy from the rubbish. Hume in the 18th century. Wittgenstein in the 20th. Etc.”

    …is pretty bold. And it is interesting. Back in my undergraduate program I would have fought you tooth and nail on that. I would have (as I do now) agree that you made a strong case that philosophy is primarily about what you said it is, and certainly that it needs no further reason or defense for its existence than that. But, I was coming at it from a vantage point (which I guess you would consider confused) that philosophy itself, not just philosophers roaming outside that field, plays a part in empirical research. Its construction, its function, and its correction.

    I guess I should add that I was almost thoroughly in the pocket of analytical philosophy, with near flippant disregard for what is termed continental philosophy. I think the only philosophers I respected on that side were Nietzsche, Sartre, and Foucault… and the latter two only slightly. I thought philosophy, while definitely part of the humanities, distinguished itself from things like literature based on its use of logic as applied to evidence to help build knowledge. And subjects like aesthetics? Though I loved art, I was dismissive of philosophical investigations in that realm (though maybe my profs just weren’t good on the subject) because you couldn’t reach real conclusions. Looking back now I see the irony that I thought philosophy was useful in ethics (critical even) despite not reaching real conclusions there too.

    Wait, this is turning into a confession.

    Ok, so what I am building toward are a few questions. Do you think the confusion you describe stems from/is promoted by analytical philosophers? What about scientists? I know for those scientists that like philosophy (ahem, like me) they tend to emphasize the connection between the two fields. Is that damaging?

    Note: On your list of key elements to Risto, I would not have included #3. And I would have added (at least as a recommendation to philosophy students) immersion in some additional field of study or practice. This could include Linguistics, of course. Do you feel there is value in taking on a second major or minor to complement philosophy (as a degree)?

  38. dbholmes:

    With respect to your first question, I think it has an awful lot to do with analytic philosophy. I don’t blame the scientists nearly as much … until they begin going out in public and acting like they know something about philosophy.

    With respect to your second question, yes, absolutely. I took a second major in History and it was of tremendous help to me — and helped me resist some of the worst habits that analytic philosophy can instill in you.

  39. (1/3)
    As we saw, quite by the way, in our recent discussion concerning Quine, in the interplay between myself, Mark, and davidlduffy, one major mistake that we can be misled into, by thinking philosophy ought to be the hand-maiden to the sciences, is believing all knowledge is somehow of a piece, that it all fits neatly together because of methodology or subject matter. This is simply not true.

    Admittedly, this has been a dream of philosophers since at least Aristotle, perhaps Plato. Pursuit of this dream has led to construction of those magnificent cathedrals of logic and language known as ‘systematic philosophy:’ everything could be brought together, everything would be explained. From the cycles of the stars in the sky, to the boils on one’s buttocks, all would be known.

    I can’t remember who said it, but it has been said, that Hegel’s dialectic ended with the burning of the Reichstag. In fact the past hundred or so years has seen the complete collapse of every project of a ‘systematic philosophy,’ in the face of social, political, cultural changes undreamt of in Hegel’s day. We now know that we simply can’t account for all possible human experience, and human experience remains the core of any possible knowledge.

    While the Positivists confined themselves to the details of language, their privileging scientific theory above all other language uses tells us that they hoped that a ‘systematic philosophy’ would at last be possible – only not within the practice of philosophy, but in science. Science would eventually tell us all we needed to know – about the world, and, eventually, about ourselves – and discourse outside of science would be recognized as mere opinion: perhaps deeply felt, but ultimately unreliable. And many scientists and some philosophers still seem to believe this.

    But it is becoming more clear that the methodologies of the various sciences are actually rather varied; and that there is sometime little or no connection between differing sciences, either in the kind of knowledge they provide, or the structures of knowledge implicit in their modellings. Right now, computer simulations seem to be the one practice that all sciences share; yet the fact remains that these simulations are very different in structure, from one science to another, and implicate differing degrees (perhaps, in a sense, different kinds) of probability and predictability.

    And no computer simulation or algorhythm is going to get me a better tasting beer, for the simple reason that my taste in beer varies from day to day, and brewing recipes depend on the brewer’s own taste and attention to details, some of which must be measured strictly, others more reliant on the brewer’s intuition. And should I drink beer before driving a motor vehicle? Obviously not, it’s against the law; but such laws have been arrived at after years of communities suffering the consequence of poor choices on the part of drivers.

  40. 2/3)
    But why should I drive any motor vehicle at all? That’s a question science cannot answer, because the question depends on the social world, its history, and my place in it. Indeed, it seems a curious question; yet our collective failure to ask it has contributed to a damaged biosphere and the consequences of that.

    ‘Well, wait; doesn’t the damage caused by vehicular pollution – which is a scientific fact – answer my question?’ It certainly informs it, and informs some of my political choices. It won’t pay my bills should I decide to quit my job because it involves a long commute.

    What are my obligations in such matters, and from whence do they arrive? One can reduce such a question to matters of consequence – ‘if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t break the law!’ But concerning matters not determined by law, surely simple reference to positive or negative consequences just won’t do. I don’t have a family anymore; but when I did, I certainly felt obligated toward them, despite the fact that they were wholly dysfunctional, both individually and collectively, and unpleasant to be with. (In “The Marx Bros. Go West,” when Groucho asks Chico, concerning Harpo, “You love your brother, don’t you?” Chico shrugs. “Naw, but I’m used to him.”)

    Should we not expect philosophy to provide answers to questions such as these? Here, I agree wholeheartedly with Dan: No; what philosophy ought to do is what it’s always done best, even before the coming of ‘systematic philosophy’ – pose the questions in a way that causes us to think deeply about them.

    And the devil of it is that people expecting science to answer all these questions fail to understand that such answers are not what we want of science, they’re not what any science has been set up to get us. One effort after another to reduce the human experience to the lowest common denominators for statistical probability and ‘scientific’ intervention has failed. (As late as 1980, Skinnerian Behaviorists were trying to ‘train’ homosexuals to be heterosexuals. Now most of us no longer view homosexuality as an aberration; simply yet another possibility in the wide range of what it might mean to be human.)

    We need to stop thinking that the human experience is filled with all sorts of diseases or pathologies that somebody needs to diagnose and cure. Just as, after years of tortuous logic chopping in America, and equally tortuous inflated tropology among certain Europeans, that good plain speech is something we must suspect, dissect, correct. Humans make a lot of mistakes, and think and do a lot of stupid things. But we must remember that the human is the source of all value, and must be respected for that.

  41. (3/3)
    “I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here (Auschwitz) , to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” – J. Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”

  42. Jake Z.

    Nice essay, Dan. I completely agree. I hope your counterpoints come up in discussion with Massimo. He needs some hardballs from a knowledgeable philosopher.

  43. Hi Dan, has this ever come up between you and Massimo? I don’t remember you guys discussing this, but it would have been interesting… I would expect more sparks than usual.

    Perhaps this isn’t the time/place to get into more detail, but I am curious where the demarcation line would be (and the criteria) for a philosopher straying from philosophy while engaging with empirical evidence. An example that jumps immediately to mind would be Hacker who seems relatively involved with science and scientific evidence. He is certainly from the analytic school of philosophy (just realizing in my last post I kept calling it “analytical”, duh) and he writes within science journals. Do you feel he is straying and so not doing philosophy? What about Dennett?

  44. ej: Your posts are absolutely amazing. And in many places, they express my views better than what I wrote. Thank you!

  45. dbholmes: Massimo has not replied to this essay. Don’t know if he will. (Probably not.)

  46. dbholmes: I don’t know that it’s any kind of “straying,” at least not in the negative sense. There’s no reason why philosopher shouldn’t do science or mathematics if they are competent to do so. I just want to be clear on what philosophy is, as opposed to science or mathematics.

    Hacker, at least in his work on Phil Mind strikes me as doing what I describe in (3), in the essay.

  47. Hi Dan, I should have worded my comment more clearly. Although it is interesting if Massimo decides not to react to this piece, my question was actually about whether you ever mentioned philosophers being confused that they were doing philosophy (while doing science/math instead) or the problem of analytic philosophy fostering such confusion?

    And then I should have used a different term than straying. I wasn’t thinking of it in a negative way but I get it could sound that way. Veering? Shifting? Hmmm. Anyway, I meant it in the sense of philosophers simply doing something other than philosophy as you set out earlier.

    I would agree with your assessment of Hacker fitting #3 for much of his work. But if you felt there were times/areas where he might end up working more “science” than philosophy?

    I’m very curious about the criteria (obviously these might not be hard rules) that might be used to decide, ok now the philosopher is engaging in math/science rather than philosophy. Let me add, I’m not using “curious” sarcastically, or to suggest the distinction would be impossible/dubious. It’s just a very interesting position I hadn’t heard before, so I am interested in finding out some of the underlying logic.

  48. I have a lot of sympathy with what I take to be the conclusions of this piece, but have learned from experience that it’s best to wait and see what sort of dialogue it prompts with Massimo. When the two of you chat, it’s often the case that a new synthetic agreement is forged between your positions.

    That said, I’ve mostly been thinking about the first half of the piece where you lay out your conceptions about how doing philosophy unfolds. Considering your remark about the need to respect those who’ve amassed professional experience in the subject matter, I’d love to see, as a kind of quick teaching expose, an expansion about each of the six items mentioned here:

    “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.”

    Examples of, abuses of, misconceptions about, where each sits vis-a-vis modern trends and say Continental vs. Analytic. Maybe asking a lot, but a separate post on each could go a long way to de-mystify and make more common the forum member’s foundations. I read various philosophical pieces as encountered along my way, according to the questions most interesting to me, and of course rely upon a healthy dose of ‘folk’ introspection. But I doubt I have the time to initiate a formal intro into philosophy. Just an idea. Would also be interesting to hear Massimo’s take on these 6 items.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. A quick primer on Continental Philosophy


  52. Per Lundberg

    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.

  53. 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**.

  54. 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.