[FOM] "Progress" in philosophy

Charles Silver silver_1 at mindspring.com
Thu Mar 8 12:29:27 EST 2007

On Mar 7, 2007, at 1:35 PM, Alexei Angelides wrote:
> As for the idea of progress in philosophy, I am of the opinion that
> it is an illusion. There are certainly conceptual shifts, progress of
> a sort—witness the so-called "linguistic turn"—but that genuine
> philosophical questions have any genuine philosophical answers seems
> to me to make the category mistake of applying the aims and methods
> of the natural and mathematical sciences to an area that they cannot
> be so applied. This does not imply that philosophical questions do
> not become more precise as the methods used become more precise.
> Perhaps Goedel meant that philosophy now is like Babylonian
> mathematics then in the sense that it is only now beginning to
> flourish in its precision.

	I believe Russell said somewhere that when a philosophical problem  
has been solved, it is no longer part of philosophy anymore.  If he  
didn't say it, it's right anyway.   Philosophers have a vested  
interest in *not* solving problems, because a solution to a problem  
diminishes their empire, while keeping problems open provides more  
opportunity to publish.
	Articles in the most prestigious journals generally consist almost  
exclusively of excessively niggling comments on views by noteworthy  
authors belonging to the same philosophical inner circle. (It has  
been frequently claimed for many years that the status of the  
author's university is also a criterion for publication.)  Scarcely  
do these articles contain anything one might out of generosity call  
an "idea".  However, there are a few creative philosophers who stick  
their necks out and actually express ideas, mostly in books.   These  
ideas become the necessary "data," so to speak, for the other 95% to  
hack away at and to churn out needed publications.

	When I was a grad student in philosophy (at Berkeley), I had several  
friends in math and in Tarski's "Logic and the Methodology of the  
Deductive Sciences" (L&M).  It dawned on me that my friends in  
philosophy just had to ramble on for a couple hundred pages in order  
to produce a dissertation, while those in math and L&M actually had  
to *prove* something, and that "something" couldn't be just anything,  
it had to be of "sufficient interest".
	I recall that one of my friends in L&M would show up at his office  
at 8 AM every day with several sharpened pencils.  While I and some  
guys in L&M would joke around a good deal, he'd work savagely all day  
long on some problem or other, I think in geometry, until around 5  
PM.   An entire year passed this way.  He solved... nothing.   
*Nothing*, for an entire year!!!   I'd feel tremendous empathy  
watching him suffer day after day.  I wished I could do something to  
help, but of course there was nothing for me to do (except not make  
noise in his office).  His slaving away daily on his problem also  
made me feel guilty, guilty because I knew that for me and everyone  
else in philosophy, "nothing" would be "something," as long as there  
were enough pages of "nothingness".   (I was greatly relieved--though  
of course not as relieved as my friend in L&M--when he shifted focus  
slightly and managed to discover some "interesting" results, which  
were enough for the degree.)

	Incidentally, in a set theory class given by Robert Solovay, he once  
said that Cantor had solved a philosophical problem.   The problem  
Cantor solved was that of "same number," particularly when the  
quantities involved were infinite.  And of course all of you know  
Cantor's solution.   This seemed very neat to me, and it encouraged  
me to hope that problems being batted around in the philosophy  
department at that time could be solved so neatly.   Alas....

Charlie Silver, "Philosopher".

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