[FOM] methodological thesis

Timothy Y. Chow tchow at alum.mit.edu
Wed Apr 30 21:25:15 EDT 2008

Marcin Mostowski makes some excellent points.  Let me note, however, that 
he subtly shifted the topic from "intellectual progress" to "philosophical 
value."  If, as I suggested, we take Friedman's "THESIS" to be a 
*definition* of "intellectual progress," then perhaps the real thesis to 
be discussed is whether "intellectual progress," so defined, should be 
equated with "philosophical value."

It seems clear to me that the answer is no.  Gian-Carlo Rota had a lot to 
say about this topic in his famous essay, "The pernicious influence of 
mathematics upon philosophy" (reprinted in _Indiscrete_Thoughts_).  I will 
mention just one or two ideas here.  Imprecision can be a positive virtue.  
Even fans of intellectual progress in Friedman's sense may find certain 
imprecise philosophical papers of great value, due to their suggestiveness 
and fruitfulness.  (This happens in mathematics, too: The terms "large 
cardinal" and "sieve," to take just two examples, are most useful when 
they are *not* defined precisely.)  Failures can also have value, even 
when the failures cannot be codified formally.

On Thu, 1 May 2008, Marcin Mostowski wrote:
> Richard Heck seemingly gives a few counterexamples.
> Counterexample 2: Peter Strawson, /Individuals/
> This example supports rather the Friedman thesis.

Indeed, it surprises me that Heck's picks were biased towards what we 
might call "analytic philosophy," since analytic philosophers are the most 
likely to agree with Friedman.  Even if we put aside things like the 
Communist Manifesto as being the "wrong kind of counterexample," something 
like Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit" is surely a more promising 
candidate.  I don't think anybody, even the world's biggest fan of Hegel, 
believes that there's any hope of extracting the "precise meaning" of this 
text.  Nevertheless it inspired a great deal of other philosophical work, 
both pro-Hegelian and anti-Hegelian, and thus contributed indirectly to 
intellectual progress in Friedman's sense.

Perhaps a more tenable thesis would be that the philosophical value
of a work of philosophy should be measured according to how much it 
*contributes*---whether directly or indirectly, whether positively or 
negatively---to intellectual progress in Friedman's sense.  Even that 
thesis is controversial, but at least it stands a chance of being 


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