Williamson, Brock and others on philosophical progress

Recently on The Philosophers’ Cocoon there’s been an interesting discussion on the “no progress” accusation I mentioned in the previous post. It goes something like this: Take any major philosophical question you like. You’ll soon find out there are multiple theories, technical concepts and hair-splitting distinctions, dozens of arguments, replies to the arguments, replies to the replies etc. Thousands of pages of peer-reviewed material – the outcome of thousands of hours of intense, careful, rigorous thinking done by many apparently intelligent, well-educated and open-minded people. But at the end of the day it’s always the same: nothing remotely resembling a consensus is reached. Experts in the field keep sharply disagreeing on pretty much everything. This is how philosophy never actually moves forward.

Confronted with the problem, philosophers seem to split into three broad camps. There are people like Eric Dietrich who argue this is all exactly correct, philosophy has stagnated since it was born, full stop. There is also a sort of middle-ground position defended by people like Justin Weinberg, according to whom philosophical progress happens, but it’s not primarily about giving true answers to philosophical questions or gaining philosophical knowledge, but rather about something different, like creating new questions. And finally there are the optimists, who think philosophy makes real progress in terms of gaining knowledge. One of them is Timothy Williamson, who writes:

In many areas of philosophy, we know much more in 2007 than was known in 1957; much more was known in 1957 than in 1907; much more was known in 1907 than was known in 1857. As in natural science, something can be collectively known in a community even if it is occasionally denied by eccentric members of that community. Although fundamental disagreement is conspicuous in most areas of philosophy, the best theories in a given area are in most cases far better developed in 2007 than the best theories in that area were in 1957, and so on. Much of the knowledge is fairly specific in content. For example, we know far more about possibility and necessity than was known before the development of modern modal logic and associated work in philosophy. It is widely known in 2007 and was not widely known in 1957 that contingency is not equivalent to a posteriority, and that claims of contingent or temporary identity involve the rejection of standard logical laws. The principle that every truth is possibly necessary can now be shown to entail that every truth is necessary by a chain of elementary inferences in a perspicuous notation unavailable to Hegel (every instance of the schema A→□ A is derivable from instances of the schema A→◇□A in the weak modal system T). We know much about the costs and benefits of analyzing possibility and necessity in terms of possible worlds, even if we do not yet know whether such an analysis is correct.

Another example: Far more is known in 2007 about truth than was known in 1957, as a result of technical work by philosophical and mathematical logicians such as Saul Kripke, Solomon Feferman, Anil Gupta, Vann McGee, Volker Halbach, and many others on how close a predicate in a language can come to satisfying a full disquotational schema for that very language without incurring semantic paradoxes. Their results have significant and complex implications, not yet fully absorbed, for current debates concerning deflationism and minimalism about truth.

This, however, doesn’t sound very impressive to many people. Why? One worry is that perhaps Williamson is trying to sell us progress in logic or linguistics as progress in philosophy. Another one is that while he discusses questions about esoteric technicalities – like “How close a predicate in a language can come to satisfying a full disquotational schema for that very language without incurring semantic paradoxes?”– many expect real progress to consist in finding answers to the big philosophical questions, like “What is truth?”. Williamson suggests that answering the former brings us closer to answering the latter, but not everyone sees it this way. For example, in their contribution to the recently published volume on philosophical progress Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay claim that philosophers may gain knowledge within their little obscure projects, but this kind of progress is actually completely detached from anything philosophically significant.

Are there really no cases of discovering solutions to the big (or at least bigger) problems? Three years ago Daniel Stoljar published a book defending the optimistic view. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve listened to an interview about it in which Stoljar offers the universal rejection of Cartesian dualism in the philosophy of mind as his favourite example. Sounds fair enough to me, however, as always, not everybody seems to agree.

Another strong optimist is Stuart Brock, who writes:

Philosophers have shown, among other things, that knowledge isn’t justified true belief (Gettier), that proper names as they occur in natural language are rigid designators (Kripke), that the probability of a conditional is not the same as a conditional probability (Lewis), that some propositions can be true but not believed, and some truths are not even believable by a rational agent (Moore). None of these things were known prior to the twentieth century, and their discovery has helped resolve other problems and has reduced confusion both within and beyond philosophy.

This is perhaps still far from what some people might expect, but seems a bit more substantial than Williamson’s examples. Assuming Brock is correct about all that, of course.

Yet another optimistic approach to the problem is taken by Herman Cappelen, who argues that the whole debate over progress is largely based on a false assumption: namely that the persistent disagreement among experts means no collective knowledge is possible. When we reject the assumption, we realise loads of progress has actually been made.

All in all, just like there seems to be a lot of philosophical disagreement, there seems to be a lot of disagreement about philosophical disagreement. This might mean metaphilosophy doesn’t move forward, but one can of course disagree. Which brings us to the problem of disagreement about disagreement about disagreement, over which, I’m sure, little agreement is going to be achieved.

3 replies on “Williamson, Brock and others on philosophical progress”

Here’s one question: Is there a body of philosophical knowledge that exists now that didn’t exist in the past or that satisfies some standard now that it didn’t in the past?

But here’s the prior question: What’s philosophical knowledge? What is it, for example, to “know […] about truth,” never mind the question of whether we “know more about truth in 2007?”


Actually Williamson addresses this problem, sort of. Also, Cappelen summarises his view in the article I’m linking to.
There is a thesis Willaimson calls Evidence Neutrality: “whether a proposition constitutes evidence is in principle uncontentiously decidable, in the sense that a community of inquirers can always in principle achieve common knowledge as to whether any given proposition constitutes evidence for the inquiry”. He argues that EN is false: “Even in principle, we cannot always decide which propositions constitute evidence prior to deciding the main philosophical issue; sometimes the latter is properly implicated in the former”. This means that if person A believes x counts as philosophical knowledge and person B believes that x doesn’t count as philosophical knowledge, it’s possible they’re screwed. A can appeal to evidence E, and B can agree with E, but won’t agree that E is evidence for A’s view. This is because if A is right, then E is evidence for A’s view, but if B is right, then E is not evidence for A’s view.
Apparently this shouldn’t lead to total despair: “The predicament is not special to philosophy, although it may be worse there than elsewhere. It is not in practice fatal to other disciplines; it is not in principle fatal to philosophy.”


Thanks for responding!

To my ear, Williamson is merely giving voice to a presupposed view of what philosophical knowledge consists in rather than addressing the question of what it consists in. His view is one according to which (among other things) there are these entities we call propositions that have something we call content, these propositions fall into logical relations (broadly speaking) with each other, we are able to get ourselves into some kind of relation with these propositions and their relations, knowledge (including philosophical knowledge) involves being in the right kind of relation to these things, the goal is to figure out which propositions stand in which relations to which other propositions and which propositions merit the honorific “true,” philosophical argumentation involves figuring all of that out, etc.

I’m not saying this view is suspect — I’m not saying that here, anyway. I’m just saying that it’s a particular view, a particular self-understanding of what one does in doing philosophy, not often recognized because it’s so common. And you can see how a debate about progress in philosophy will shape up according to it: There will be those who claim that there are propositions we now know to be true that philosophers of the past did not, those who claim that there are no such propositions, those who claim that it’s all about finding new propositions to ask about, and so on.


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