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The Life Philosophical
Is Progress Possible In Philosophy?
Mathis Bitton suggests three ways that philosophy progresses.
It is often said that philosophy is deprived of the possibility to progress because, unlike science, it cannot accumulate knowledge. But to say that progress is a mere addition of discoveries is to misunderstand the concept. Even in science, progress is far from a linear amassing of theories; scientific history is filled with contestations, revolutions, and redefinitions. The human sciences also defy the linear progress idea. From Durkheim to Weber, from Saussure to Chomsky, it is evident that progress in sociology, linguistics, or even psychoanalysis sciences is neither linear nor cumulative. Rather, it manifests itself through the refinement of analytic techniques, interpretations, and reflections.
A similar posture could be adopted for philosophy. Philosophy does not consider past concepts as obsolescent, or even as able to become obsolescent. We still philosophise around the notion of God; but not in the same way that our predecessors did. This implies two principles: on the one hand, philosophical reflection is trans-historical; on the other hand, the reproblematisation of philosophical questions is in constant evolution. This means that philosophical progress can emerge in three different forms: by extra-philosophical necessity; by totalisation and accumulation; and by dialectical interiorisation and exteriorisation. I want to briefly consider these three options here.
Human Progress Natasha Sinegina 2019 public domain
Progress By Extra-Philosophical Necessity
A first way to deny philosophical progress would be to say that the program of science and the march of history do not affect philosophy itself. But they do.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson makes an analogy between philosophical production and metaphysical dualism: philosophy itself has a ‘body’ and a ‘soul’. The ‘body’ of philosophy, the formulation of a set of ideas, emerges from historical influence – from a context, an epoch, and even a language. But the ‘soul’, or the idea itself, is the product of what another Frenchman, Gilles Deleuze, calls ‘the manifestation of a primeval intuition’. In other words, he thinks that a philosopher living at a different time would have expressed similar ideas, albeit in a different manner. One implication is that philosophy cannot progress because it is ahistorical. But here Bergson and Deleuze seem to neglect the context that accompanies the development of philosophical problems, which do not emerge from the ‘inner self’, but from the state of knowledge of the culture surrounding it. This doesn’t mean that the truth that philosophy aspires to achieve is ephemeral, local, or illusionary: philosophy tends towards universality – but it does so within and through history.
Since in this way philosophy is a reflection of extra-philosophical knowledge and circumstances, we could reasonably affirm that an evolution of the latter would generate progress in the former. The level of philosophical reflexion is a function of the rate of expansion of its knowledge base.
Let us suppose that two philosophers wonder about the human condition. One has travelled around the world and her thinking is moulded by scientific knowledge. The other hardly sets foot outside of the four walls of a university philosophy department. It is clear that, all else being equal, the former has a better chance of developing useful theories than the latter, for she has, through experience, accumulated more knowledge, and may be able to understand societal and cultural influences to a deeper level.
Although a greater knowledge base need not result in the production of better ideas, it is evident that it may facilitate the formulation of philosophical problems. Jean-Paul Sartre’s post-WWII writings are diametrically opposed to their pre-1939 counterparts, because the historical catastrophe influenced his perception of social realities and inspired him to ask different questions.
Every scientific, social, or political revolution is accompanied by a philosophical equivalent. Copernicus changed our perception of humanity’s place in the universe; Darwin, our vision of our place in nature; and Einstein, our comprehension of space and time themselves. Of course, historical evolution is not itself philosophical progress. It is rather that our collective experience shapes a continuously evolving environment of knowledge, or at least thought, which in turn constitutes an extra-philosophical motive for philosophical progress. The Industrial Revolution did not create Marxism, nor did it result in Marxism; but it is undeniably hard to imagine the formation of that doctrine at any time preceding it. So while the Industrial Revolution may have changed social interactions and the way we see them, it also allowed philosophers to re-conceptualize an existing problem in economics without directly affecting the theses addressing it.
This distinction also negates Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s idea that because what we call philosophical progress is subordinate to advancements in history or science, it cannot be considered progress at all. To prove his point, Piaget considers Descartes’ ‘pineal gland theory’ (the brain’s pineal gland was where Descartes thought the mind and brain connect). This, according to Piaget, has “a certain historical interest, but [has] lost all scientific, and, by extension, philosophical, relevance.” But a closer examination of this example could lead one to observe that the pineal gland theory is by no means a philosophical thesis: it is a physiological theory meant to support a philosophical theory concerning the relation between body and soul. Even if it is certain that the physiological theory has been disproven by scientific discovery, the accompanying philosophical theory – metaphysical dualism – cannot be disproven by anything but philosophical reflection.
Nevertheless, because all philosophical reflection revolves around particular problems, which themselves depend upon the culturally available ideas, it is clear that the evolution of science and history influences that of philosophy. In this sense, an evolution in extra-philosophical knowledge may result in new epistemological, societal, or metaphysical tensions that are unresolvable within the current philosophical framework. History therefore inescapably results in philosophical progress, for the questions philosophers ask are the product of the constantly evolving culture surrounding them.
Progress By Totalisation & Accumulation
But philosophy is not only in contact with its social and intellectual surroundings; it is also in relation with itself. Philosophy interiorises and problematises its own history – the history of philosophical problems and reflections. Not only does it problematise extra-philosophical considerations, then, but the history of philosophy itself becomes a source of knowledge to philosophically problematise. In this sense, there is a layered progression of philosophy.
That philosophy has a core relation with its history was a thesis that was brilliantly defended by GWF Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). He was the first to show that philosophical progress implies an integration, conscious or unconscious, of the history of philosophy. This history is not a pure succession of doctrines: rather, it consists of a long process of dialectical shifts, of one theory being opposed by another and leading to a third and then again and again in a progression stretching centuries. Hegel went as far as arguing that progress was ‘organic’ to philosophy, being part of a ‘chain of reason’ obeying a transcendental Logos or rational Spirit existing in and of itself.
One need not agree with Hegel’s idea of a deity of rationality, but his vision of philosophy reveals a paradox that’s pivotal for us to consider. The paradox can be generalized: the history of philosophy has a logic, an orientation, and a necessity, but no philosopher could define those characteristics, precisely because he or she is part of that history.
This problem is addressed by Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). He says that history being a constant totalisation (that is, an adding-up) of what has happened before, it is impossible to predict its direction, for this prediction will itself be totalised by others into the whole, before their own predictions become, in turn, totalised by others… The direction of history is therefore constructed by individuals (often themselves in a process of de -totalisation or deconstruction), so that their liberty to construct history absorbs the constructions of others (which then become re -totalised)! This all means that the precise direction of the history of philosophy is an arbitrary conjecture. One thing this means is that philosophical progress cannot be defined in terms of progress towards any particular goal. It can, however, be defined more generally, in terms of accumulated knowledge: that is, as the totality of re-totalised de-totalisations !
In this sense, progress is part of philosophy. No matter whether a particular theory is accepted or rejected, it is conserved by its sublimation into philosophy generally. This therefore inescapably results in a form of philosophical progress by accumulation of ideas.
Image © Question Mark Word Art John Hain 2014 public domain
Progress By Dialectical Interiorisation & Exteriorisation
A last form of philosophical progress can be found in the continuous refinement of philosophical ideas on the basis of more elaborate knowledge.
Philosophical progress is not merely accumulative, it is also dialectical, meaning that in the formulation of new theories it integrates older ones. The history of philosophy is the continuous digestion of a past. Today’s philosophers are not smarter than yesterday’s, but they certainly benefit from their work. When we comment on past philosophies and reflect critically on their implications, we internalize them and recast them. Progress therefore includes a process by which one puts such theories out again in a new form. This may be done consciously or unconsciously, but it is necessarily done. At worst, an entire generation of commentators, unable to themselves produce new philosophical reflections, would still constitute a form of advancement (although, of course, progress is more manifest when philosophers overcome their ‘mere commentator’ status and say something totally new).
Sartre describes philosophical progress as the ability to ‘make something out of what someone has made of us’. Thus, no matter how preceding philosophies are conserved, either by acceptance or by contradiction, progress will happen through the re-problematisation of earlier solutions, since to manifest tensions in what appeared to be settled is, by definition, to refine one’s critical understanding. And it is always possible to re-problematise the answers of philosophy.
Never considering philosophical answers as ‘given’ need not imply that every reflection has to be recommenced cyclically, from the start. Descartes’ ‘ I think, therefore I am’ does not need to be re-thought infinitely anew. Rather, subsequent philosophers will examine aspects that are left unexplored by Descartes himself, such as the place of the ‘I’ in the statement (is it needed?).
Philosophy therefore progresses because the necessary relation it has with its past – as the exteriorisation of interiorised theses in a new form – implies the attainment of a deeper level of analysis.
Through arguing that philosophical progress is possible by extra-philosophical necessity, by totalisation and accumulation, and by dialectical interiorisation and exteriorisation, I hope I have also shown that philosophy cannot be defined as an ensemble of advances converging to a given point. So is philosophy really worth it? What is the point of refining dialectics if the philosopher is deprived of the possibility of attainting any form of truth?
The answer may lie in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Much like the prisoner in the allegory, humanity aspires to progress to the light: all the work of the mind is an odyssey from absolute unconsciousness to absolute self -consciousness. So progress is to be found almost everywhere within philosophy and philosophies, in their fight against darkness, unconscious stagnation, and critical passivity. This is a subtle, but necessary, progress.
© Mathis Bitton 2023
Mathis Bitton is taking a PhD at Harvard University.