[FOM] Progress in Philosophy

Studtmann, Paul pastudtmann at davidson.edu
Mon Mar 12 10:01:38 EDT 2007

Timothy Chow wrote:
>There's a significant leap from "systematic body of theory" to "settling
>debate."  Due to the very nature of philosophical inquiry, it is hard to
>imagine that any debates in philosophy will be *settled*, other than by
>forcibly silencing dissidents.  Defining philosophical progress in terms
>of settling debates seems therefore to be seriously wrongheaded.  Even in
>mathematics, has the "debate" about whether, say, the circle can be
>squared been "settled" in the sense that no human being disagrees?  No.
Yes, I agree -- 'settling debates' is not a good phrase to use.  But the
general point remains.  There have been and still are substantive, positive
philosophical theses that philosophers have debated and still do debate.
Let me list just a few.
God exists
Freedom and determinism are compatible
Abstract objects exist
There is no analytic/synthetic distinction
Substances exist
Classical Mathematics correctly describes the natural numbers
Intuitionist mathematics correctly describes the natural numbers
Well, you get the idea I'm sure.  Now, in other disciplines there are
methodologies that lead to widespread agreement amongst the so-called
experts in the field.  So, for instance, there is widespread agreement about
the following:
Classical first-order logic is complete
The earth revolves around the sun
Atoms exist
Water is H20
Well, once again you get the idea.  Now, here is a question: has there been
progress in answering philosophical questions that is in some way analogous
to the progress in math and science?  And one obvious way of trying to
determine whether there has been any such progress is to ask whether any
arguments exist that the majority of philosophical experts, whatever such
creatures might be, would deem as providing such good evidence for some
philosophical thesis that we can claim to have some systematic knowledge
that the thesis is true.
Now, I expect the answer to this question is 'no'.  But if I am wrong, I
would like to hear which arguments and which theses are part of the correct
philosophical theory.  But is such a question, as Chow suggests (though
without any argumentation), seriously wrongheaded?  Well, there are some
good reasons to think not.  First, philosophers still try to establish
substantive philosophical theses through argumentation.  How do I know?
Because I read and listen to them all the time.  Second, philosophers still
put forward theses as if they are correct and should be accepted.  Indeed,
Chow's assertion about what is and what is not seriously wrongheaded in
philosophy is itself one such assertion. Or consider Harvey Friedman, who
tells us that he has a view about what philosophical thinking is.  I assume
that he thinks his view is correct.  But one possible response to such
philosophizing is philosophical skepticism, i.e. skepticism about
philosophical theses.  To my mind, no one either in the history of
philosophy or in contemporary philosophy has done much to assuage skeptical
concerns about philosophy itself.  Of course, it is also not clear that
anyone has provided a convincing argument for skepticism about philosophy
either.  Indeed, such an argument would presumably be epistemically
self-undermining.  So philosophy finds itself in a peculiar state, unable to
place itself on a firm theoretical footing and unable to demonstrate that
such a project cannot be done.  (Sounds like Kant)
So why is any of this interesting?  Well, in part because of philosophical
optimists like Godel.  Perhaps we should be optimistic about coming to have
theoretical knowledge that God exists, or that he does not.  Perhaps we
should be optimistic that we can have theoretical knowledge as to whether
classical or intuitionistic mathematics correctly characterizes the numbers.
Perhaps philosophy is at the stage that mathematics was during Babylonian
times, and if we are only diligent enough we will see a flowering of
philosophical theory just like we have seen a flowering of mathematical
theory.  But then again, perhaps not.  Perhaps philosophy is, despite its
venerable pedigree, a bunch of bullshit.
Now, by Œbullshit¹ I mean roughly what Frankfurt means.  Someone is a
bullshitter if he is not concerned with the truth.  I quote Frankfurt:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth.
Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby
responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an
honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the
liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements
to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is
neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not
on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are,
except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with
what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality
correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
 I do not deny that many, perhaps most, philosophers think that in some
sense they are on the side of truth.  They put forward theses and arguments
in an attempt to establish certain conclusions.  And they certainly act as
if those that disagree with them are wrong.  Nonetheless, I cannot help but
think that most of them (or perhaps only the honest ones) have a deep
skepticism about philosophical truth.  And if so, most contemporary
philosophers are really closet bullshitters.  Their eyes are not really on
the facts.  Why?  Because they think that (1) there is no philosophical
truth to be had; or (2) there is no way at present to have theoretical
knowledge about such truth.  And yet they continue to act as if they are in
some genuine serious pursuit of the truth.
Now, I should say that by calling philosophy Œbullshit¹ I am not necessarily
denigrating it. Indeed, I think that there can be real value to good
bullshitting. In fact, I engage in it on a regular basis.   Nonetheless,
bullshit is still bullshit.  So unless someone can provide some way forward
in the pursuit of theoretical knowledge about traditional philosophical
questions, then I cannot help but look upon the vast historical sweep of
philosophical theorizing and upon the majority of contemporary philosophical
theorizing, indeed even upon the philosophical theorizing that occurs on
this e-mail list, and think: what a bunch of f*@*ing bullshit!

Paul Studtmann

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