Philosophy's Inertia

Philosophy's Inertia

THE SOURCE: “There Is No Progress in Philosophy” by Eric Dietrich, in Essays in Philosophy , July 2011.

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Western philosophy seems to have had a pretty clear evolution: from Plato to Descartes to Kant to Wittgenstein. Eric Dietrich, a philosophy professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, begs to differ. “Philosophy is, except for some modernizing, exactly the same now as it has ever been. It has not progressed one iota,” he argues. And he’s no renegade—a number of his peers agree.

Compare the trajectory of philosophy with that of the hard sciences. If Aristotle were to sit in on an elementary college physics class, he would be mystified by some of the basic concepts—equations, gravity—tossed around by the students. Yet he would feel very much at home in an introductory philosophy class, where his works continue to command a spot on the syllabus. People are still grappling to understand some of the phenomena Aristotle wrestled with 2,400 years ago.

Of course, a few philosophical advances have gained traction since the agora’s heyday, such as modal logic, which formalizes considerations of necessity and probability. But there is no “deep and widespread agreement” on—much less answers to—the essential questions the discipline faces, such as the nature of free will. Ask a dozen philosophers why slavery is wrong, and you’ll get 12 different explanations. Philosophy “morphs and transforms to stay current,” Dietrich says, but the underlying questions are pretty much the same.

Why can’t philosophy give definitive answers? Dietrich believes that the multiple viewpoints humans can adopt are the essential reason. One “No-Progress” philosopher, Thomas Nagel of New York University, sees the problem as arising from the contradiction between objective and subjective points of view. Based on their own experience, lots of people strongly believe that humans possess free will. Taking a longer view of history, however, may lead one to doubt that conclusion.

University of Miami philosophy professor Colin McGinn has argued that philosophical problems are solvable in principle—just not by us. In McGinn’s eyes, humans are comparable to dogs when it comes to their grasp of the world around them, philosophically speaking: We understand a little bit of what’s going on, but the real language used to articulate what’s happening is beyond us.

There’s some consolation, then, in Dietrich’s assertion that his field has accomplished virtually nothing since its inception: It simply couldn’t be any other way. “In philosophy, clashing points of view are ineluctable, and their existence is the only truth.”

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