[FOM] definition of and progress in philosophy

Mark Lance lancem at georgetown.edu
Sun Mar 18 22:03:05 EDT 2007

"The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how  
things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in  
the broadest possible sense of the term.  Under "things in the  
broadest possible sense" I include such radically different items as  
not only 'cabbages and kings', but numbers and duties, possibilities  
and finger smaps, aesthetic experience and death.  To achieve success  
in philosophy would be, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, to  
'know one's way around' with respect to all these things, not in that  
unreflective way in which the centipede of the story knew its way  
around before it faced the question, 'how do I walk', but in that  
reflective way which means that no intellectual holds are barred."

Wilfrid Sellars ("Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man")

Sellars, I think, is basically correct.  Philosophy seeks  
understanding in the broadest sense.  As such it is the generator of  
new ways of thinking, new things to think about, new ideas about what  
goes in various regions of reality, and how regions relate.  WHen  
something gets well enough developed philosophically that it amounts  
to a detailed substantive view of something, of some region of  
everything, others who are not interested in the synoptic vision take  
this specific bit up and run with it.  Philosophers let them,  
happily, and move on to what remains obscure, speculative, or just  
hard.  (And then smile to themselves when technicians make snarky  
comments about the lack of precision in philosophical thinking about  
undeveloped and previously undreamt of connections.)

Progress in philosophy?  Here's a few inventions:
democratic theory, political science generally, sociology, logic  
cognitive science, psychology generally, natural science, physics in  
particular, decision theory, linguistics, ...

More or less everything -- interestingly with the possible, and  
arguable, exception of non-foundational mathematics.

The interesting question here is what the next big spin-off will be.  
(I have a couple guesses, but that's for a book more than a post.

Mark Lance
Professor of philosophy
Georgetown University

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