So what makes good philosophy good? What makes it valuable? We wrestled with these questions last year in my philosophy salon when we considered a fascinating paper by David Chalmers, “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”
Chalmers is almost comically passive-aggressive in the paper, veering between defiance and doubt. He opens by insisting that “obviously” philosophy achieves some progress, but the rest of his paper undercuts that modest assertion.
He concedes that whereas scientists do converge on certain answers, “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.” A survey of philosophers carried out by Chalmers and a colleague revealed divisions on big questions: What is the relationship between mind and body? How do we know about the external world? Does God exist? Do we have free will?
Philosophers’ attempts to answer such questions, Chalmers remarks, “typically lead not to agreement but to sophisticated disagreement.” That is, progress consists less in defending truth claims than in casting doubt on them. Chalmers calls this “negative progress.”
Chalmers suggests that philosophers’ methods keep improving, and that these refinements constitute progress of a kind. But if improved methods of argumentation still aren’t yielding truth, do they really count as progress? That’s like equating scientific progress with advances in telescopes and microscopes, regardless of whether these instruments discover viruses or pulsars. If philosophers can’t reach agreement on anything, why keep arguing?
And some notable observations from Part 2:
I’m often struck, watching philosophers interact, by their aggression. Scientists can be rough, but less so, on average, than philosophers. Why is that? Because philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits.
In “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?,” David Chalmers notes that science employs “the observational/experimental method,” which has “the power to compel agreement on the answers to big questions.” In contrast, philosophy relies on “the method of argument,” which does not compel agreement.
Chalmers acknowledges that millennia of philosophical debate have not yielded convergence on big questions. So why do philosophers keep bickering if they can’t arrive at a resolution?
Perhaps philosophy has devolved into mere competition, in which victors are rewarded with fame and glory--more specifically, grants, tenure, book contracts, invitations to Davos and appearances on Charlie Rose.
He concludes Part 2 by suggesting maybe the point of philosophy is like the point of a martial art.
I favor a more plausible hypothesis, due to Nietzsche perhaps unsurprisingly, namely, that philosophers are "advocates who resent that name," who defend their non-rational "hunches" and "inspirations" "with reasons they have sought after the fact" (sec. 5, Beyond Good and Evil). Maybe not all philosophers all the time are like that--some are like Nietzsche's "scholars" (Gelehrten), whose real interests in life lie elsewhere (in family or money or politics), and for whom it is a matter of indifference whether they become a good professional philosopher "or a fungus expert or a chemist" (sec. 6). But "every great philosophy" is "a type of involuntary and unself-conscious memoir" in which "the moral (or immoral) intentions...constitute the true living seed from which the whole plant has always grown" (sec 6). Kant at least had the decency to admit that (to limit reason, to make room for faith!).
Nietzsche to one side, I'm curious to hear what readers think of Mr. Horgan's observations. What is the point of philosophy, insofar as philosophy doesn't seem to make much or any progress?