September 09, 2007

Philosophical Progress (Bryan Frances)

Intelligent, smart-assed, freshman will often say, in class, that philosophy never settles anything or answers any questions. This is a good challenge, I think. I tell them that it’s easy to prove that there is tremendous philosophical progress. Moreover, I claim that they will experience it for themselves over the next fortnight, for that is all the time it takes for the proof.

I start my freshman course by going over epistemological concepts. After several centuries of experience, I know that in their minds ‘knowledge’, ‘belief’, ‘evidence’, ‘justified’, ‘true’ and related concepts form one big messy conceptual structure. They form one big blob. After two weeks, the blob has taken form: there are now several blobs, and they have some idea how the blobs may be related. It’s as though things are starting to come into focus; there are many more pixels per square inch. I don’t care what anyone else says: this is genuine and personally significant philosophical progress.

I tell them about John Madden. He was the head couch of the Oakland Raiders football (American) team for many years. Then he became a “color” commentator. He started out using terms like ‘force’, ‘momentum’, and ‘energy’ pretty much as synonyms. Then some incredibly geeky physics types wrote him letters and tried to straighten him out on how those are different concepts and are related in certain interesting ways. (This was back when I actually watched TV, especially sports.) He tried to mend his ways, presenting his new understanding on the air like a brave soul.

Something similar happens in students in a philosophy course. I don’t care what anyone else says: this is genuine and personally significant philosophical progress.

I remember talking with Adam Pautz when he was an undergraduate at Minnesota (he’s now an excellent philosopher at Texas). I was a graduate student and he wanted to diss David Lewis a bit. He accosted me in the hallway and started to talk about the feebleness of David Lewis’s system of laws, counterfactuals, possibilia, etc. I was blown away of course; how can an undergraduate at Minnesota be so fucking smart and well read? I tried to defend Lewis by saying that he had the virtue of showing how many seemingly disparate concepts are really related in fascinating ways. If I remember right, Adam thought this was an interesting response.

There are other forms of philosophical progress. For one thing, there are good questions that only philosophical reflection reveals. Who would have thought of the all the good questions regarding truth, vagueness, and material constitution without the liar, sorities, tibbles, and statue-clay paradoxes? In these cases philosophy reveals problems that science and other intellectual pursuits miss entirely.

I personally think that these forms of progress are tremendously valuable. But what other forms of philosophical progress are there? Maybe things of the form: if you buy into theses X, Y, and Z, then the arguments and evidence say you should also accept theses A and B.

But is there more than this?

1 comment:

Enigman said...

...but as those five words (knowledge etc.) come into sharper focus, what happens to their applications? (e.g. philosophers could defend almost anything, and so we may have a choice between scepticism and a coherent set of beliefs that we already liked... not to mention how "true" becomes possibly "coherent" etc.:)