[FOM] "Progress" in philosophy
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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