Column on Progress & Philosophy

Is There Progress in Philosophy?

Tibor R. Machan

Often those who study the history of philosophy and compare it to the history of other, especially scientific, disciplines, complain that in philosophy no progress is made, that philosophers keep talking about the same thing in each age, that nothing ever gets resolved, etc., and so forth. (Articles on this topic are available in many forums, e.g., Todd C. Moody, "Progress in Philosophy," American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23 [January 1986]:34-46) and the entry "Philosophical Progress," in the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia [at

Here I am taking it as true that there is no progress in philosophy, not comparably to what is evident in, say, chemistry or physics or anthropology. It appears clear that in each age most of the same philosophical issues are debated, theorized about or reflected upon as are explored in others, albeit in somewhat different terms. Thus the topic of free will may get rechristened "human agency" yet the basic problem in focus is the same–are people free to determine or cause some of what they do? Ancient, modern, and contemporary philosopher all address it, with only a few exceptions and opposite positions are defended in every age. Whether God exists, does the universe have a beginning, what is the nature of moral goodness and evil–all these issues keep getting revisited and though answers are defended, they do not seem to have lasting power but seem to need renewed support again and again.

I want to suggest a reason why this is how it is with philosophy and why that fact doesn’t diminish the discipline’s importance, nor its capacity to arrive at true conclusions. It isn’t a very complicated explanation, actually. It is modeled somewhat loosely on individual developmental psychology. To whit, it is well recognized that teens tend to resist explicitly stated advice from elders. Arguably they do accept, at least subconsciously, leadership if it comes in the way of examples set for them by intimates. Becoming financially responsible, for example, may involve encountering one’s parents’ or guardians’ repeated responsible conduct–if they routinely pay their bills, keep their promises, etc., so the teens can witness this without however preaching the practice at them, this is quite likely to carry influence.

One reason may be that teens are in the process of taking over the management of their lives and want to learn about this from their very own experience and practice rather than from explicit instructions. They need to know directly that they are doing what they choose to do, not merely blindly following other people’s advice. Even the more complex matters of accepting their family’s values, religious or political, seem to follow this process. If the teens are not being badgered about what they should believe, about the convictions that their parents want for them to embrace, they are more likely than not to follow their parents. Teens are about to assume the governance of their affairs and to do this they would naturally want to start thinking for themselves. So they, or at least the bright ones among them, are likely to resist just being told everything.

It is quite probable that human beings confront their most important and basic issues, ones treated within philosophy, similarly. A new generation will not take kindly to just accepting, without question and personal involvement, the vital ideas from past generations even if these ideas turn out to be right. It seems more likely that they will want to reconsider the basics on their own, with just some help from those who dealt with them earlier. And philosophy is where the basics are studied, examined, criticized, accepted or rejected.

Philosophy is also a discipline in which discussions are not thoroughly fraught with specialized jargon but are conducted in fairly ordinary terms. Everyone can, with a bit of effort, access these ideas, in other words, instead of submitting to the authority of experts as one would normally do in the case of most of the sciences, even when these bear directly on one’s life, such as medicine, nutrition, biology, psychology, or sociology (although in some of its special areas philosophy can get quite complex and even convoluted, just as do the sciences). Thus most who have an interest in philosophy will want to and are likely to be able to explore its topics directly or through participation in the work of contemporaries, not by reading up on the topics as dealt with in the past.

This, then, places into the hands of a certain group of people in every new generation the task of revisiting the topics of the field. These would include, as already noted, "Is there a God?" "Is there free will?" "Can we know the world?" "Is it possible to be objective?" "Are principles of conduct made up or discovered?" "What exactly is justice or equality or liberty?" And so forth and so on.

No new generation will want such matters to be simply handed down from earlier ones. Sure, help from those who have addressed them will be welcome but not decisive. So there is not going to be rapid progress in the field, if any progress at all. Refinements of well travelled solutions are more likely to be the products of philosophical inquiry and reflection and, significantly, there is not going to be any "at the end of the day" about them. The day of such investigations never ends. And that is just as it must be–anything else would go contrary to human nature!

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