Philosophical progress

A prominent question in metaphilosophy is that of whether philosophical progress occurs, and more so, whether such progress in philosophy is even possible. It has even been disputed, most notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whether genuine philosophical problems actually exist. The opposite has also been claimed, most notably by Karl Popper, who held that such problems do exist, that they are solvable, and that he had actually found definite solutions to some of them.

Some philosophers believe that, unlike scientific or mathematical problems, no philosophical problem is truly solvable in the conventional sense, but rather problems in philosophy are often refined rather than solved. For example, Bertrand Russell, in his 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy says: "Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves." Similarly, Søren Kierkegaard, in his 1843 book Fear and Trembling writes: "Whatever one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the previous generation. Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation."

However, this is not universally accepted amongst philosophers. For example, Martin Cohen, in his 1999 iconoclastic account of philosophy, 101 Philosophy Problems, offers as the penultimate problem, the question of whether 'The problem with philosophy problems is that they don't have proper solutions'. He goes on to argue that there is a fundamental divide in philosophy between those who think philosophy is about clarification and those who think it is about recognising complexity.

According to Cohen, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and Moritz Schlick illustrate this divide in views of the 'purpose of philosophy'. The former, writing in the eighteenth century, describes someone waking up from a deep sleep to find that they are in the middle of labyrinth together with some other people who are arguing over the general strategy and principles for trying to find the way out. What could appear more ridiculous! says Étienne, yet that, he says, is what philosophers are doing, concluding: "It is more important to find ourselves merely where we were at first than to believe prematurely that we are out of the labyrinth."

Cohen contrasts this with the approach of the Logical Positivist movement in the interwar years of the Twentieth Century who, in the spirit of David Hume, wished to consign unanswerable questions 'to the flames'. In 1935 Moritz Schlick, as the 'hub' of the Logical Positivist circle, put it in an article entitled 'Unanswerable Questions' for the journal The Philosopher:

If it is conceded that philosophical claims are a function of the sophistication of conceptual distinctions, arguments, and logical tools, and if it is conceded that there has been progress in making conceptual distinctions, progress in our sophistication about the nature of philosophical arguments, and progress in logic, then clearly there is progress in philosophy.

This page was last edited on 30 March 2018, at 13:21.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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