Has the progress of philosophy stopped?
In modern times, philosophy has become a marginalized subject. Only around 4% of all majors awarded in college are to philosophy majors, and very few philosophers could be considered public intellectuals. There are a few possible reasons why this has happened, but the most plausible one, in my eyes, is that it’s widely believed that philosophy is stagnant.
It’s understandable how this has come to be believed. Unlike science, literature, or history, one doesn’t see new findings in philosophy on the back page of the New York Times. Most people, even well-educated people, would even argue that there simply aren’t any new findings in philosophy. They’d argue that the last original argument in philosophy was settled centuries ago, and today’s philosophers are simply beating the proverbial dead horse.
Is that the case? Has the progress of philosophy stopped? This short essay will argue that the progress of philosophy has not stopped, using the techniques of “Lessons from Socrates and Aristotle: How to Craft Writing to Teach and Persuade” .
In order to argue that the progress of philosophy has not stopped, we first need to define philosophy. When people think of philosophy, they often think about the big, vague questions: who are we? What’s our purpose?
That is a part of philosophy, but that is not all of philosophy. The Greeks defined philosophy as philo sophia, or “love of wisdom”. Philosophy was the practice of obtaining and organizing knowledge. In the Socratic tradition, philosophers began with the idea that they knew nothing about a subject, and then built their knowledge through reasoning and argumentation.
If the Socratic definition still holds, then in order for the progress of philosophy to stop, the process of building and organizing knowledge has to stop. This obviously is not the case, so philosophy continues to progress.
Philosophy forgotten: an analogy
But why has philosophy appeared to stop? This is because the parts of philosophy that have stagnated have become identified with philosophy. The parts of philosophy that continue to progress have not.
An analogy can be made to the blues. The blues, as an American musical style, has largely disappeared from the musical landscape. Music buffs would probably say that there hasn’t been that much progress in blues since Muddy Waters, and he died in 1983.
But, when music buffs say that the blues has stagnated, they forget the impact that blues has had on rock and roll, R&B (which stands, of course, for rhythm and blues), rap, and country. There’s been tremendous innovation in those music styles, and they continue to rely on the blues for much of their foundation.
In other words, the stylings and techniques of the blues have been appropriated. People continue to innovate within the blues, but they now identify themselves as rock and rollers, rappers, or country artists. It’s not that the blues has been marginalized, it’s that the blues has become so ubiquitous that we can’t even notice it anymore.
Likewise, people continue to innovate in philosophy. When they do so, however, they identify themselves as artists, historians, or scientists, not as philosophers. Philosophy has become so ubiquitous that the only philosophy we notice is the old university department.
Philosophy as syllogism: what parts of academia are philosophy?
Not all of art, science, or history is philosophy, of course. The technique for how to paint a tree is art; the force equation is physics.
However: all attempts to gather and organize knowledge is philosophy. The questions that biology faces today of how to classify species are the same that Aristotle struggled with. The replication crisis in the social sciences is a classic philosophical conundrum: what amount of proof do we need in order to say something is true? How do we respond if we observe something that clashes with what we’ve observed before?
The same can be said of history’s attempts to judge the goodness of presidencies, or art’s attempts to categorize movements. All of these are problems of philosophy, and, therefore, all of them can be analyzed with the tools of philosophy.
The tools and techniques that Aristotle, Socrates, and their intellectual descendants spent so long refining can once again be brought to bear upon these problems. After all, all problems revolving around gathering and organizing knowledge are philosophical problems.
How university philosophy fits into everything
Coming back to the original question, the progress of philosophy has not stopped. It only appears to have stopped because we identify a small part of philosophy as the whole of philosophy.
Philo sophia, the love of knowledge, is an ancient practice that is the foundation of so much of what we learn. The formalization of almost any subject comes under the umbrella of philo sophia, and advancements in how we gather and organize knowledge are advancements in philosophy.
Philosophy, as it’s taught in universities, is a part of philo sophia. Those who attempt to advance the parts of university philosophy that directly help how we gather and organize knowledge (like the Bayesians) can help the rest of philo sophia. In that way, university philosophy can help its descendants progress, and the descendants of philosophy can, in turn, improve and revitalize university philosophy.