May 252013

In his essay There is No Progress in Philosophy1, Eric Dietrich argues that, while the sciences progress as new theories are confirmed by empirical data and become accepted, philosophy does not and cannot make progress. Philosophy, he says, only modernizes itself, incorporating advances made by society in areas like morality and science, but it is never ahead of any progress. When he says, “philosophy is exactly the same now as it ever was; it has made no progress whatsoever,” the idea may first appear scandalous and radical, but on closer inspection–and by following Dietrich’s argument–it begins to make sense.

So why does philosophy not progress? Dietrich begins by showing up the similarity between science and philosophy, namely, that in both fields competing arguments cause seemingly intractable disagreements. Holders of competing theories or explanations of data try to convince each other of the truth of their positions, but often the disagreements are never resolved, no winning theory emerges, and no progress is made in the field.

The difference with science, though, is that even while disagreements exists between particular scientists on particular problems, progress can be see on the larger scale between generations. That is, science eventually makes progress. Outdated theories and inaccurate models are eventually superseded by newer and more accurate ones. Philosophy, on the other hand, never makes such progress, because philosophers never come to widespread agreement on the truth of this or that theory. As example, Dietrich asks how society came to regard slavery as immoral. It was not established by meetings of philosophers mulling over the correctness of this or that argument for slavery. Politicians and activists, acting on what they already somehow knew to be right or wrong, moved society forward. Philosophers incorporate the immorality of slavery into their discussions only after it was already established–and even then philosophers can’t agree on a reason for its immorality. Well, that certainly seems true on the surface. We don’t see citizens coming en masse to philosophy departments seeking grounds for their decisions.

Moving on, Dietrich invites us to entertain a thought experiment meant to clarify this lack of progress in philosophy. Imagine that Aristotle comes to the twenty-first century, and he visits university classes in both physics and metaphysics. In the physics class, Dietrich imagines Aristotle being so overwhelmed with shock upon hearing of the advances in scientific knowledge that he faints. Dietrich’s Aristotle can’t comprehend the progress made and simple resigns. In the metaphysics class, Aristotle feels right at home: he understands the material and can engage in sophisticated discussions with the professor. This, he says, shows how science has progressed since Aristotle’s day and how philosophy has remained the same.

Here is where a crucial distinction in Dietrich’s argument becomes clear. “The fact that this story contains even a whiff of plausibility” does not show, as Dietrich contends it does, “that the reader can discern a crucial difference between science and philosophy.” It shows that the reader can discern even a whiff of a plausible crucial difference. The confusion is that Dietrich isn’t imagining Aristotle as Aristotle, but he is imaging Aristotle as the embodiment of the history of philosophy. In the same way, we could imagine Newton, the embodiment of science, engaging in a present-day physics class while tuning out in a metaphysics class. Or, we could imagine a much more plausible scenario in which both Aristotle and Newton are no longer embodiments of the histories of their respective disciplines, but rather they are as they were: Aristotle and Newton, important thinkers who addressed the basic problems in their respective fields differently than those before them. In this way, we imagine them both engaging with much interest and intellectual sophistication in both classes, yet struggling to incorporate the new language, theories, and data of present-day physics and metaphysics into their prior held concepts. Isn’t this much more plausible? But Dietrich concludes,

What could explain this pattern of vast disparity in the histories of philosophy and science, in what the returning Aristotle experiences? Only one thing: Philosophy doesn’t progress.

His time-traveling Aristotle does help to show exactly what Dietrich means by “progress”, “science”, and “philosophy.” What he refers to with these terms is the idea of a monolithic truth machine whose changes in language and explanatory clarity produce a movement closer and closer to truth as true correspondence to reality. With this understanding, the difference between science and philosophy makes more sense. Scientific theories are true or not true. Philosophical theories are interesting and important or not. Truth in science is judged by correspondence and predictability. In philosophy, truth is not judged by correspondence to some reality, as that very reality is usually at stake in the question. Science, thus, advances by accepting as true new and better theories. Philosophy only incorporates new concepts and languages in order to discuss the same questions, but it doesn’t advance on the back of truth as does science.

Is that the only possible conclusion from the difference between science and philosophy? Dietrich, perhaps, didn’t have the time or space to address these questions. But we must ask, why does truth as correspondence only constitute progress? What’s missing is the fact that truth as correspondence is truth in relation to some certain something, some notion of reality. But here scientists are not even sure to what truth corresponds. Some say scientific truth is truth of reality, while others say that it is truth of observation. The point is that, however any individual answers the question of reality, scientific truth still advances, yet the advance obscures the question of reality which, indeterminate as it is, makes no progress.

Thus, when Dietrich says that philosophy does not come to agreement on the truth of theories and for this reason it does not progress, he is only stating an obvious but important difference between science and philosophy, namely that science limits itself to a certain epistemological domain requiring specific answers to questions outside of its domain, while philosophy doesn’t restrict itself in this way. For Dietrich, whether philosophy makes progress or not is a purely scientific question. It comes down to whether or not philosophy, from the perspective of science, is strictly scientific. It is obviously not, and it obviously does not progress in this way.

So we can agree with Dietrich thus far, that “there is no progress in philosophy,” but with the understanding that progress is strictly scientific progress and that philosophy, being as it is philosophy but not science, does not progress. I concede that there is no progress in philosophy. I concede it in the same way I concede that a motorcyclist doesn’t drive. A motorcyclist rides a motorcycle but doesn’t drive. A truck driver drives. But isn’t riding a motorcycle and form of driving–one drives a truck, the other drives a motorcycle? Not only does the motorcyclist not drive a truck, the motorcyclist qua motorcyclist doesn’t drive at all. The motorcyclist only rides motorcycles. But if you expand the definition of drive outside of the colloquial meaning of driving as opposed to riding, does it not become plausible that a motorcyclist also drives in some meaningful sense? Yes, but I am only interested in the colloquial sense of to drive a car, as opposed to to ride a motorcycle.

Nevertheless, if philosophy does not progress as Dietrich says, does it do something similar? Is their an analogy to progress in philosophy? To start, we could look for clues in the definition of the word progress itself. Doing so, we find something a bit different from progress as scientific progress, a definition which, as I’ve argued, Dietrich relies on. Progress is forward or onward movement toward a destination.2 Here we find nothing about the objectification of truth nor about the true theory dialectically superseding other theories.

What, then, is this forward or onward movement, and what is its destination? For Dietrich, it is the movement of Truth across history. Each step along its way is Progress toward Reality. It is a specifically modern, Cartesian movement, identified by that distinctly non-philosophical doubt which doubts only with the goal of erecting Truth on ever more firm foundations. But isn’t there another onward movement that precedes upper-case Progress? Couldn’t we say that each individual in her going out into the world, making plans, working on projects, acting morally, and so on is a forward and onward movement toward some destination? Not only is the truth of the immorality of slavery Progress, but what came first was the progress of activists making political changes and slaves freeing themselves and being freed. And for this latter progress to have happened, each individual acting for the sake of Progress had to have already decided for herself that slavery was immoral. How did they decide this, so that they could act?

I am reminded of Arendt who, following Heidegger, saw thinking–the primordial activity of the philosopher–as that which prepares the ground for those activities and modes of relating to the world that can make progress. Having established Socrates as the exemplar philosopher for the very fact that his thinking itself never produced any results, and yet he was committed to the idea that somehow virtue, and thus happiness, arose out of this self-reflexive dialogue between myself and I, Arendt says:

If thinking–the two-in-one of the soundless dialogue–actualizes the difference within our identity as given in consciousness and thereby results in conscience as its by-product, then judging, the by-product of the liberating effect of thinking, realizes thinking, makes it manifest in the world of appearances, where I am never alone and always too busy to be able to think.3

Arendt concludes more directly saying, “the manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.”4 We could, then, conclude that thinking is not an advance, in the sense of progress, but is rather an ability, a making possible a forward movement by preparing the ground for reason’s encounter with the world. In this way, philosophy doesn’t itself progress in the manner of superseding theories of truth. Instead, in the manner of thinking as that without which a movement forward can only merely repeat what already was, philosophy makes possible the ability to judge this or that situation as having gone wrong, resulting in the calling up of the rational, technical, scientific and moral human capacities in the pursuit of progress.

In Theaetetus, Socrates speaks of progress in philosophy in terms of care for the soul rather than scientific truth or linear advancement. He says that his interlocutors “make progress–a progress which is amazing both to other people and to themselves. And yet it is clear that this is not due to anything they have learned from me; it is that they discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things; which they bring forth into the light.”5 Here Socrates is describing the effect of midwifery as teaching method as well as a certain view on the nature of knowledge. Care for the soul is really a motion of exercise of reason6, and it is the result of the view of knowledge that Socrates develops throughout the dialogue. While some types of knowledge are gained by perception through the senses, other knowledge like that of oneness and difference, being and not being, is the result of reason’s dialogue with itself.7 If reason is this “talk which the soul has with itself about the objects under its consideration”8, then philosophy is the caretaker of such a process of thinking and judgment, and progress is more the development and exercise of reason rather than determination of objective facts which are the object of reason.

Socrates highlights this character of the function and goal of philosophy in the central anecdote of the dialogue: the difference between the lawyer or politician and the philosopher.9 The importance of the anecdote isn’t so much to show the impracticality and aloofness of the philosopher–though these characterizations make for an entertaining story–but rather to demonstrate the difference between two types of knowledge: one whose goal is objective progress and accelerated resolution, and the other whose goal is the better operation of reason itself. While the lawyer or politician, or the practitioner of any other craft, is confined to certain external customs, opinions, and rules of temporal efficiency, the philosopher is confined by the rules of reason. This creates for the latter a freedom to investigate the grounds of the results of the former. Progress in this Socratic form is like that of Arendt. Development of the individual’s critical thinking ability comes about through the exercise of reason’s dialogue with itself and forms the basis for judgments made about the practical and political world. Philosophical progress for Socrates is care for the soul in the sense of the discipline of reason as grounds for the judgments that give results as objective progress.

In each and every case, this movement happens first for the individual. Before the activist fights for slaves, or before the scientist confirms a hypothesis with observation, the chance for philosophy has always already come and gone, yet is always still there, latent beneath the modes of theorizing and acting with some destination in sight. This is why the scientist, when confronted with new and conflicting data, loses sight of the destination in this moment. The introduction of something new obscures, briefly, the way forward. In this moment of bewilderment, the scientist can take up again the task of thinking in the manner of preparing the ground for progress that incorporates the new data. When this thinking is not taken up, the only possibility is a mere repetition of the old and entrenchment into prior held notions. Philosophy in this manner is evident most prominently today in the debate among scientists themselves as to the consequences of the truth of both classical and quantum mechanics. Here, much to their dismay, scientists appear to have moved no further than asking again those questions which they consider the domain of philosophy.

There is no progress in philosophy, perhaps. There is no march of Philosophy through history, no philosophical method for producing transcendent truths. But for the philosopher, the scientist, or the citizen, the task of philosophy is no less urgent than the task of science. Philosophy, as the thinking which prepares the individual for the possibility of going out and beyond what merely is, affects the lives of all those with whom it comes in contact, and it is the right of everyone, though made explicit in the specialization of the philosopher. If philosophy affects the lives of people in this way, could we call it, according to the definition, a kind of progress? Maybe, maybe not. It probably matters less what we call it and more that we understand what philosophy, as compared to science, does.


  3. Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1, p. 193
  4. Ibid.
  5. Theaetetus, 150d
  6. Theaetetus, 153c
  7. Theaetetus, 184d-186d
  8. Theaetetus, 189e
  9. Theaetetus, 172c-176a
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