Has there been progress in philosophy?

You know this old debate: why are we still reading Plato?  Haven’t they figured out free will yet?  Will they ever?  Don’t the philosophers obsess too much over very old texts?

My opinion is that there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.  Here is a list of just a few breakthroughs in our philosophic understanding of the world, noting that part of our philosophic maturation is not to care so much anymore as to whether it is called philosophy:

1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.

2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.

3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import..

4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.

5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.

6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.

7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.

8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

10. Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.

11. Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.

12. Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.

13. Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.

14. Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.

15. Development of an “internet way of thinking.”

16. Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

So our philosophic understanding of the world is far, far deeper than it was in the time of the so-called classic philosophers, whoever you might take those to be.  If “philosophy” has advanced by collaborating with other disciplines and the sciences, so much the better, and most of the “great philosophers” themselves would have approved of this.  And of course that list of sixteen items could be much, much longer.


Agreed. My great hope is that there will be "progress" on the problem of qualia in my lifetime. But I'm not very optimistic...

This was my first thought too. "The hard problem of consciousness" was only coined in 1995!

Interesting graph on the usage of the word qualia -- which clearly I had to look up.

17. Industrial societies are learning the limits to the thinking of both Adam Smith and David Ricardo as populism is turning its back to globalism, particularly in the form of free trade. This isn't the first time liberalism has failed, nor the last.

If it's not the last at least that means it will recover and have an up cycle to fail from in the future.

Everything really is cyclical--there are ancient Greek texts that contain passages that sound as though they were written by today's environmentalists or "Greens."

There's also a powerful human tendency to look at noise and see patterns.

^ Found the butthurt leftist/Marxist

"13. Most of the Bill of Rights are understood much better today than they were by the founders."


Indeed, we understand the 4th so well that it is safely ignored, with the 1st and 2nd in close pursuit.

I would replace "understanding" with "dismantling."

In other news, a Texas nurse who saved for an Africa clinic "left in limbo after US Customs seized $41,377."

Provocative indeed, given that traditionalists hold to "declinism," and believe that we moderns in the Kali Yuga understand less than our ancestors.

>>"13. Most of the Bill of Rights are understood much better today than they were by the founders."

No kidding. Every now and then, Tyler's passion for statism shines through.

Half the Bill of Rights are heading ever-toiletward.... the 1st and 2nd now have "hate speech" and "assault weapons" exceptions, both of which mean whatever is desired at that moment. The 4th has been dead for decades. Likewise the 9th and 10th, as folks like Tyler are always happy to create a Federal law for literally anything they support.

Keep going, Tyler! Your tribe is halfway there!

+1. Tyler is such a major-league shill, I don’t know why he still thinks he’s fooling anyone.

Perspective of a philosophy PhD student...

Those who aren't academic philosophers tend to misunderstand what academic philosophers think their job is. And the more-or-less standard understanding within the discipline is something like: conceptual analysis, the tidying of our often-messy conceptual resources. Put another way, philosophers are chiefly concerned with what Hume called "relations of ideas" not "matters of fact".


So most of the areas of progress listed above come from improved understanding of matters of fact. Which is progress! Though not, I don't think, philosophical progress.

True philosophocal progress, however, is not something that is easily communicable. Just as you can't hire an ethicist to make you more ethical, you can't outsource conceptual clarity to professional philosophers. Sure, they'll make progress; but that progress can be shared only if others follow along the conceptual path forged by working philosophers. (This is different feom, say, technological progress. I don't have to understand how TCP works in order to browse the web.)

So, in my view, there's been a good amount of philosophical progress in the last 100 years, but almost all of that progress has been completely opaque to outside observers.

To pick just one example, I think David Chalmers has done incredible work clearly laying out the conceptual terrain of the problem of consciousness. And the efforts of philosophers of consciousness are very often built upon the conceptual foundations laid by Chalmers.

Unless you, yourself, work through this problem space, you will not appreciate Chalmers' achievement.

I think your first point is a good one. I think "philosophical progress" manifests in the public domain (as TCP has done). If it is stuck in the ivory towers, it's because it isn't really progress. Do we have free will? Why do good people suffer? What is courage? How should I live? These questions are as fresh as they were in Plato's time.

Well, I could try to do some philosophy here and walk through some reasoning which sheds light on the philosophical questions you’re asking. But that’d be a bit unweidly in this context. So I’ll settle for hinting at some of the progress I think philosophers have made on a couple of these questions.

Free Will - Most philosophers have moved on from this question. ‘Free will’, as used by lay people, is a junk concept–it represents a confused way of thinking about us and our actions. (Most philosophers buy Hume’s reasoning that free will ought not be understood as hinging on the truth of determinism.)

Why do good people suffer - Again, I think most philosophers have moved on. This is a problem if you think there’s a benevolent God. Most philosophers don’t see any good reasons to believe in such a thing. people suffer because bad things happen to them and there is no grand pattern/plan at work.

This kind of move—retiring old questions that no longer make a lot of sense—is paradigmatic of philosophical progress. We start off confused about something. We realize what it is that were confused about. We update our conceptual scheme to be more sophisticated. And we move on to new questions that emerge within this new conceptual scheme.

I think your questions represent what most people think philosophy is all about. But philosophy, at least as it is pursued in the academy today, is not particularly concerned with these sorts of questions. Very roughly, it’s concerned with how to reason (epistemology, logic, phil of language), what the most basic truths are (metaphysics), and what is good (value theory, ethics).

"How to reason", "what the most basic truths are", and "what is good" are all important questions that have a lot of impact for people. But is philosophy as a discipline having an impact on how people think about those questions in the real world? I don't see it.

I think Singer has had real influence on how normal people think about animal welfare and that Rawls (and others) have had real influence on how people think about social justice.

Some of it is direct because a lot of people have been made to read them, but most of it is indirect. They influence MSM reporters who then influence everyone else.

Thank you. Interesting comments.

This sounds like a strategy I would use on tests. Skip the tough questions- maybe there will be time later to come back to them.

I love Hume, but he and all the compatibalists are very weak on agency. To me, it always comes out as "Human action is determined, but that doesn't leave any room for ethics, and I want to talk about ethics, so..."

Of course, no good determinist can blame them for pursuing this avenue- they could do no other.

I think they should just bite the bullet and admit that the concept of "free will" makes no sense. Choosing to be compatibalist because you want to hold people morally accountable is illogical and philosophically dishonest.

I think your view of academic philosophy is limited by your local feedback loops and there are a lot of unexamined pressuppositions in your statements.

> This is a problem if you think there’s a benevolent God. Most philosophers don’t see any good reasons to believe in such a thing. people suffer because bad things happen to them and there is no grand pattern/plan at work.

Philosophical consensus/apathy does not render a question irrelevant. Philosophers of religion think theodicy is still a subject worth working on, except the easy attacks are already discovered. It's still a worthy problem.

You may not want to be so dismissive of topics that don't show up in your radar just because your feedback loops are limited.

Rubbish. There is no good reason to believe in the existence of a god. It's the kind of thing that is only taken seriously by those who fervently wish that it were true. Hence, it's not a concern for anyone with a modicum of intellectually honesty.
Criticising people for not believing fairy tales is perverse.

Ulterior motives? Check. Attacks on character? Check. Straw men? Check.

Your post makes it quite clear who's being intellectually dishonest here.

Thanks for the comments. I was struggling a bit with deciding how correct I thought the list was and part of that stemmed from trying to understand just what the list implied "philosophy" meant. The list didn't really sit well with me even though it does fit well with standard definitions of the word.

Your response help clarify things in my mind.

Tyler appears to be using "philosophy" in its literal meaning, "love of knowledge." He's smart enough to know what philosophers actually do so I don't understand the apparent equivocation. To the extent he means we have learned to think about how to think about these issues, I disagree. We've learned a lot about how to fool ourselves about these issues. We are witnessing the triumph of Orwellian propaganda.

This is basically saying that philosophers have spent the last century developing a secret language. It's hard to see how this is meaningful for the world at large, nor why the academic community our society as a whole) should continue to support it.

No, he’s not saying that that has been the main or sole achievement of philosophy. All disciplines develop their own terminology. He says it’s hard for those outside the discipline to recognize what progress the discipline has made recently. Philosophy is hardly alone here. How many non mathematicians understand recent advances in maths? How many non historians have even a vague idea of recent progress in history? It took a non computer bloke, Steve Jobs, to make computers usable for non nerds. There is little doubt, however, that you find it hard to see why philosophy should continue as part of the academy, but for better or for worse, the continuance of philosophy in our universities is not constrained by the limits of your powers of imagination.

I know that it sounds rather smug to say so, but I've always thought that one cannot meaningfully criticise Philosophy without actually doing Philosophy. In this regard it's different to IT where I think you could explain a lot of progress to non-experts. The Mathematics comparison is probably apt, however.

Physics - Engineering - Technology
Electricity - Incandescent light - Light bulb
Combustion - Internal combustion engine - Car

I don't know how to make chains like that for philosophy. Who works out philosophical ideas into something people use? Artists?

@Maria D. Good question. Perhaps an example of the kind of progress philosophy achieves that improves the human condition might help. Until around the time of Plato, many intelligent and educated people believed that in logic there were three truth values, True, False and a third value “similar to truth but not actually the truth”. Philosophy, especially as practiced by Socrates and Plato, showed that in logic there are two and only two values, true and false. (The use of the third value as a figure of speech or metaphor is not the issue here.). This was a fundamental advance, and allowed tremendous progress in mathematics, engineering, medicine, law, politics and many other areas. Another example is the field of psychology and psychiatry, which originated in philosophy. Anyone can convert the progress achieved in philosophy into practical use. It’s free, there are no barriers. Artists maybe, but the greatest benefit to society from such conversion comes from engineers, scientists, jurists, politicians and doctors, and sometimes plain ordinary folk.

In our current iteration we call that third value “similar to truth but not actually the truth” Fake News.

@Anonymous. Unless your comment is meant completely flippantly, perhaps you are missing the serious point here. The reason we know fake news is bad is because we have a clear and absolute distinction between true and false. But for this, it would not be crystal clear that fake news is a bad thing.

For some reason I don't like "completely flippant." I prefer ironic commentary.

Interest over time on Google Trends for "post-truth" - United States, 2004 - present - https://g.co/trends/ZDgj2

An exploration of this today by Justin Fox.


Help us out, philosophers.

@Anonymous. I am taking Maria D’s question very seriously, because it is a great question. I am glad to read that you did not intend to be flippant, and perhaps you might be clearer if you dropped attempts at irony, at least in serious discussions. To elaborate on the point that I think you are missing, the only reason we know fake news is bad is because some dead Ancient Greek two thousand years ago proved that there is no third truth value. Your example, flippant, ironic, or otherwise, misses or confuses the point. Today any well educated person who thinks clearly knows that fake news, or the third truth value, is bad or at least false. Until that dead Greek worked out truth values, fake news probably (we cannot check) seemed to many people real, I.e. as good as true, at least in practical terms. Today there are still people like that, but we laugh at them with confidence, if they are fools who ought to know better. Myth was a kind of fake news. Was myth believed? Again, we cannot be certain, but it is likely that it was believed much more than after the idea of only two truth values permeated deeply into the educated class.

Wow. You seem stuck on something. Yes, that third value thing was fun and interesting.

What I did next was *apply* it to a current problem. It was an opportunity for Practical Philosophy if you will.

But yes, to go back again, thank you dead Greek. For .. identifying exactly what creek we are up in current politics.

Would you say it was philosophy that worked out modern taxonomies of truth and their applications? Such as:

- Best available, least wrong descriptions of the physical universe (natural sciences)
- Internally consistent, deductive human-created systems (mathematics)
- Metaphoric expressions of complex feelings and ideas (art)
- Suspended disbelief (roleplay, fandoms, church-lite)
- Goodfact, in contrast to realfact (propaganda; the words come from Babylon V take on 1984)

I don't know how to describe what history, psychology, economics, and many more fields consider their truths, but I am sure that exists too.

Much of that is worked out within each discipline. Do mathematicians who work on philosophy of mathematics use pure philosophers' work much?

Maria, I regret I lack the knowledge to answer your latest question with much certainty. My initial feeling is that most of them are very broad questions and allow much interpretation. But you might enjoy working out the answer yourself. A good introduction to philosophy is Roger Scruton, _Modetn Philosophy, an Introduction and survey_. A few months of that and you’ll have the basic toolkit of philosophy.

Thank you for your insider perspective. I was about to post something along the same vein, but not being a professional philosopher I lacked the words.

Tyler's points of progress struck me as advances in applied philosophy, as in the Ph. in PhD for many fields, not philosophy as in what you do in your profession.

I would describe it as "thinking about how to think." Or, as my philosophy teacher put it, "the difference between actually 'saying something' and merely sending air through your vocal chords and making noises." "Good grammar does not a thesis make."

To classify them into 5 branches - Epistemology,Metaphysics,Ethics, Politics and Aesthetics - Most progress is in Epistemology and none in Ethics?

There hqs been great progress in ethics. For example, the revival of Aristotelian Nicomachean ethics ( by inter alia David Wiggins at Oxford), which has helped to break the apparent barrier to progress in this area. § Besides Ep., Met., Ethics, Pol., & Aesthetics, we ought not to forget Mind, Logic, and Language. There has been great progress in these three sub fields in the past century including recently. § As another commenter has observed, though, most of the areas listed in the article have nothing to do with philosophy.

I'm a big fan of the revival of virtue ethics, but it seems quite a stretch to cite a 2000-year-old theory that has lain dormant for most of that time as evidence of progress.

Philosophy might be best summarized as the opposite of empirical, basically if your idea can be tested via experimentation or observation, it is not philosophy it is science. So a theory of mind back in Plato's day could well be philosophy, but now if you have an idea of how the mind works you can test it, and the people who are doing the testing are not called philosophers but scientists. Non-empirical ideas like ethics (you ought to do something rather than you actually do something) can never be tested empirically, so the philosophers are probably safe there. But it turns out that our ethical intuitions are usually too strong to be changed by logic (naturally since they are there for evolutionary purposes) so the usefulness of ethical insights from philosophers is debatable.

I think this is a bit of a straw man. Why do art historians still publish on the Baroque? And often in non-Classical work the references to the Greeks are paradigmatic. I agree with the rest of your arguments, but also think that Chalmers is an example of the amazing progress the (as still defined) field of philosophy is making amazing contributions to humanity, at least to those who pay attention.

Yes, but he is addressing a common idea around progress in philosophy ("there has been no progress"). And the "easy" statement is "they are still reading texts from 2000+ years ago, so there are no new ideas and it is endless repetition of the same stuff. I think this is a fairly common view...

Our knowledge and understanding of the world has increased greatly and our meta understanding of the nature and limits of this knowledge may also have improved. But what does this have to do with philosophy? If everything is philosophy then the term becomes meaningless.

'we just don’t always name it as such'

Well, sophistry remains alive and well.

While I agree that these are important advances, I’m not sure they qualify as philosophy. Epistemology? Justice? Ethics?
The biggest advance in the former might be the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. Does that resolve anything?

Solipism remains alive and well too.

“If “philosophy” has advanced by collaborating with other disciplines and the sciences, so much the better, and most of the “great philosophers” themselves would have approved of this. And of course that list of sixteen items could be much, much longer.”

1. Why the quotation marks around the word? It is philosophy, not “philosophy”. (Unless one is a French sociologist or playboy masquerading as a serious person).

2. Philosophy does not merely collaborate with other disciplines, it gave birth to most of them. Some are amiable children who cooperate productively, a few are ungrateful troublemaking good-for-nothings where collaboration is harder (see above on French poseurs).

"9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals."

What do you have in mind? We still milk some, shear some, and eat some. We cuddle some, train some, ride some, and mourn some. We squash some underfoot, we poison some, and shoot some. We anthropomorphise some. We even invent some.

We share much more similar minds than was previously understood.

Previously acknowledged. I think mankind always knew and believed that animals have minds and emotions. Owning a dog, cat, or horse is sufficient to learn that and it is why those animals enjoy a special bond with humans above all others. The religious doctrine of the soul clearly considered the issue.

We may have come up different ways, have different experiences.

I remember efforts to hold fix lines between man and the animals, for instance toomakers versus non, language speakers versus non.

Basically there was much more "man is different" rather than "we are monkeys."

I came here to say the same thing. Woof!

Tyler - That's a lot of points. But I still don't believe philosophy post Hobbes is quite the same as in the old world.

The concern for virtue doesn't exist to the same extent. All the points you raise are largely empiricist in motivation, Golden rule-based ethical thinking (if it all one gets to ethics), and a very very strong focus on how to make people and societies "happier".

Pursuit of happiness - is declared as the goal of most modern philosophy. That's where the old masters differ. For Plato, unlike Jefferson, happiness isn't the be all and end all. Virtue and the purity of the soul matter more than happiness.

Should we choose happiness over virtue? Jefferson perhaps would. But Plato wouldn't.

There can be no genuine concern for virtue and the quest for what constitutes a "good life" in the absence of religion. Which is why I just don't care for philosophy sans God. Philosophy sans God is mere masturbation and an exercise of rationalizing the human quest for happiness, even when it comes at the expense of "good"ness.

I have another simple and very direct question -

If modern philosophers are indeed engaging in something deeper and more virtuous than intellectual masturbation, then is there ANYONE among them who would sacrifice his or her life for the sake of their beliefs, the way Socrates did?

Name one modern philosopher, who has enough skin in the game in your view, who would be willing to die for the sake of truth and virtue, in the manner of Socrates.

Would a theologian count as a philosopher? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer

Sure. Theologians are a tad better. But they get a little childish at times. Instead of discussing virtue they get embroiled in brawls with other theologians - "my god is better than yours" arguments....that's the weakness of theology. Their inability on occasion to transcend the "literal"

I doubt you can name a mainstream Western theologian in the last 50 years who has argued their God is better than some other God.

I am talking of theologians in general.

Past 50 years, theologians have been so much on the defensive on account of atheistic materialism that engulfs them, that they wouldn't have dreamt of giving voice to their kneejerk tendency to shout "my god is tbe best". In a society where everyone is a theist, and mainstream culture is strongly theistic, theologians will rediscover their true nature of name calling.

But still I like theologians better than secular philosophers.

And I like hedonistic libertines over self-righteous, moral preening virtue signalers. Freedom > Sharia Law

Again, I am discussing virtue here. Not virtue signalling.

Sharia Law is not virtue. It is merely an antiquarian and outdated secular law in religious garb - not an outcome of genuine moral philosophical debate.

Wait, it’s a secular law?!?!

Would SBC theologians count? At least to the extent that Baptists have recognized theologians guiding Baptist thinking (thus the SBC restriction).

Or Dominionist associated theologians (admittedly, 'mainstream' might disqualify them)?

The trouble is that if you define "mainstream" to exclude certain viewpoints, either directly or indirectly, then of course no mainstream theologian will have that viewpoint.

True Scotsman, anyone?

@Shrik. Sir Roger Scruton nearly died for his beliefs. There you go.

As did Leszek Kolakowski.

"The concern for virtue doesn't exist to the same extent."
You know, the "virtue" of slave societies.The "virtue" of looting. The "virtue" of idol-worshipping (there is no truth, one village worships this devil, that village worships that devil). The "virtue" of "philosophical", institutional paedophilia. Well, you just have to look to India and count the Indian expatriates to see what pagan "virtue" amounts to.

'"my god is better than yours" arguments.'

Must say it seems more like "god likes us better than you" type arguments in most cases given (at least to my exposure and at least western press) the main brawls here are for people claiming the same god.

Socrates didn't choose to die for his beliefs, he was murdered by the Athens authorities for his beliefs. Not quite the same thing.

Modern philosophers have decided that living and continuing to work for one's values produces better results than dying for one's values.


And similarly not killing people for their values. Though of course sometimes their actions may force it.

Meanwhile, this nobody from 2,000 years ago died for his values, and a billion+ people continue to take him seriously today. How many philosophers have come and gone since then without making a dent?

But surely Plato, and more so Aristotle, would have said that happiness is the result of virtue. You are not virtuous for the sake of it although that would be nice. But if you want to be happy, you need to understand what is right and do it. Happiness will follow.

Isn't that central to Western philosophy - including Christianity - all the way down to the modern period?

Virtue is an end in itself in the classical and maybe even Christian world view. Happiness is a by product. Which may or may not materialize.

EVerybody wants to be happy. That's a trivial statement. But is it ethical to choose happiness over virtue? If modern western societies were indeed concerned with virtue as opposed to mere happiness and hedonism, they would not have immoral institutions like unemployment insurance, social security, planned parenthood, Medicare, Medicaid, single payer insurance, Gay marriage, among other things.

I am a Hindu. And I'd like to quote a verse from the scripture Bhagavad Gita where Krishna advocates "Karma" for the sake of Karma, with complete disregard for "Phala" (outcome).

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।
मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि।।2.47।।

Translation : “You have a rightful interest only in your action, never in its fruit. May you never make the fruit of action your motive. May you never get attached to inaction”

This is what is missing in post-Hobbesian world. There is no genuine concern for virtue. And good Karma. They are merely viewed as means to be "happy". There are no absolute standards of Good or Evil.

Can you choose happiness rather than virtue or virtue rather than happiness? I would think the Western tradition would argue - against some strong evidence from the real world - that the two go together. You might think robbing a bank and fleeing to Brazil would make you happy, but it won't.

Hindus seem to associate Karma and virtue. Doing what is proper for your status in life is virtuous even if it does not make you happy. I would think it is not particularly virtuous either. The obvious example being Arjuna who does not want to kill his friends and kinsmen but is reminded by Krishna of his duty regardless of the consequences.

"Can you choose happiness rather than virtue or virtue rather than happiness? "

Ofcourse you can. Modern Western (and non western) societies have embraced abortion to a great extent. They have also embraced social security. Unemployment insurance. These are choices that betray a preference for happiness over virtue.

Virtue over happiness? Sure it is possible. Eg : What Taleb suggested in the Caplan interview - "professional" education for kids - is a good example of instilling virtue in kids even if it doesn't make them happy. You force them to learn trades instead of engaging in abstract liberal education in the comfort of air conditioned classrooms - which they could well prefer given a choice.

Also you are stereotyping the Hindu view. Krishna doesn't unconditionally glorify any kind of Karma, but only Karma that is in tune with ideas of righteousness and sustainable civilizational order. Arjuna has to fight even if it is unpleasant, because not fighting will set a bad precedent for civilization - it will set a precedent of injustice going unpunished.

Churchill epitomized this spirit too. He chose not to down the route of making a deal with Hitler. Instead preferred the destruction of 60MM people. Because that was a price worth paying for Dharma (righteousness) to prevail.

I don't see abortion making anyone virtuous or happy. People can argue for it as a solution. They can deny the horror of what it is. But I don't think anyone can make a moral case for it. Nor has anyone done so.

Social security? Unemployment insurance? How do they betray a preference for happiness over virtue? Everyone knows that long term unemployment is not a route to happiness and no one would coose it for their son. And they sure as hell aren't virtuous. Choosing stupid policy does not mean people don't know those policies aren't stupid much less that they think they are virtuous.

I would think that liberal education these days leads to neither virtue or happiness. On the contrary, it either attracts unhappy nutcases or it soon turns people into unhappy nutcases. I don't see the connection. Taleb is surely arguing that a vocational trade is no less virtuous and more likely to lead to happiness than a liberal Arts one?

Krishna tells him to kill his friends and relatives in the name of Karma. I don't see how that is righteous or upholding of civilization.

For Churchill there was no moral dilemma. He was fighting an evil regime. That is not the same for Arjuna is it? And Churchill did not kill those people. Not personally and by and large not by his order either.

The correct parallel would be with the German railway worker. His Karma is to be a professional and efficient railway worker. Make sure those trains run on time. But even when they are carrying Jews to their deaths?

"He was fighting an evil regime. That is not the same for Arjuna is it?"

I don't think you are familiar with Mahabharata. Arjuna was fighting an evil regime.

Krishna's exhortation is an exhortation to abandon clan culture, misplaced familial sentiment, when these come in the way of defending virtue and order.

"If modern western societies were indeed concerned with virtue as opposed to mere happiness and hedonism, they would not have immoral institutions like unemployment insurance, social security, planned parenthood, Medicare, Medicaid, single payer insurance, Gay marriage, among other things."

You know, instead of India, castes, widespread misery surrounding splendor and devil worshipping (which devil? the one who suits you better, there is no objective truth!).

"There is no genuine concern for virtue."
I think you are way off on this. Do you have left wing or right wing friends? Have you not heard of the term virtue signaling? If anything there is an overconcern for virtue these days. I personally find all the moral posturing, left, right, religious, nonreligious, a bit tiring.

The fact that you associate "virtue" with "virtue signaling" shows how far we have fallen.

I am talking of "virtue" here. A quest for the "good". Not a quest for the "pleasant".

The "virtue" in virtue signalling is not virtue. It is mere herding of opinions to sound pleasant. Eg : The quest for gender equality has given rise to a great deal of virtue signalling. But that is not virtuous. As gender equality in my view goes against the larger principles of virtue.

Eg : If you argue for equal wages for men and women, and ignore what causes disparity in the first place, you are being anti-virtue. You are sacrificing virtue at the altar of political correctness and equality.

Summing it up: if you care about other people (voting rights, anti-slavery, religious freedom, rule of Law, provisions for the sick and the poor), you are not virtuous. If you only care about yourself and worship Satan for what he can give you, you are virtuous. Indian kings murdered dissidents ergo they were very virtuous. Modi is virtuous because he persecutes Christians.

Tyler - The fact that Jake first thought of the term "virtue signalling" when I mentioned virtue, tells you why we need to read Old books!

It is only a matter of time that people even forget what virtue means, if we don't revive the culture of reading old books instead of getting education merely through twitter and blogs.

"It is only a matter of time that people even forget what virtue means".

Why! Obviously, virtue means worshipping Satan. And castes.

Jake demonstrates a popular confusion, in which he uses the accusation of "signalling" to attack virtue itself.

It's kind of amazing that such a transparent and underhanded attack proved so successful:

"[Moral Concept]"

"You don't believe that, you are just signaling."

Go ahead, if you are underhanded. It works for everything!

Philosophy sans God has given us individual rights, equality before the law, the scientific method, free markets, modern technology, limited government, mathematics based on axioms and rules of logic, the placement of rationality not faith at the center of man's faculties, etc. Virtue ethics has its place but to dismiss the above as mere masturbation is sadly wrong.

Rationality was not unknown to Greeks, Romans, ancient Chinese or Indians.

Mathematics was not unknown either.

Yet, the old world did not make science and reason the be-all and end-all of human existence. Science is value-free. Science engenders hubris and hedonism. Science doesn't tell you if reading MR is a superior pastime to watching porn. Science would say the two pastimes are morally equivalent.

I would like to quote the great Harvard Philosopher Harvey Mansfield on Science. (By the way I regard Harvey as one of the greatest genuine philosophers of the 20th century) -

"Science has an implicit argument that science is important; it is a grand project for making human life more reasonable, less customary, less concerned with ambition and greatness; in sum, science seems more democratic. It undermines all traditional elites, but quietly, implicitly, replaces them with a scientific elite hostile to all elitism except its own. Science democratizes everything but its own despotic self"

""All science is opposed to and suspicious of common sense, the enemy of science that upholds prejudice and relies on mere appearances. Social science bears the burden of opposing common sense on behalf of all science because common sense has to do mostly with human behavior.

Natural science can easily defeat the common-sense view that sun moves and the earth stays still, but social science has more difficulty overcoming common sense. The common-sense stereotypes of sex differences, for eg, have been in many cases confirmed by social psychology"

"Science doesn't tell you if reading MR is a superior pastime to watching porn. Science would say the two pastimes are morally equivalent."

Aristotelian phronesis, on the other hand, comes down clearly on this issue: Porn > MR.

"Science doesn't tell you if reading MR is a superior pastime to watching porn. Science would say the two pastimes are morally equivalent."
The same way worshipping this devil is equivalent to worshipping that devil. Who cares? The same way free elections and rule of law are equivalent or inferior to kings murdering their subjects. And so far and so on...

I agree that most of the list isn't philosophy. For an excellent list of successes in conceptual analysis that are more tightly linked with academic philosophy, see https://thomas-sittler.github.io/ps/

If these are about philosophy, then nearly everything is.

Lost contrast.

I still wait for a breakthrough in bank regulators’s philosophic understanding of the world that would allow them understand Voltaire’s “May God defend me from my friends (what’s perceived safe), I can defend myself from my enemies” (what’s perceived risky)

Has behavioural economics really been a break through?

It's the easiest thing to assume people are irrational.

Has it held up empirically? No, not very well.

Has it made useful contributions to our understanding of the world? No, nothing major.

Thaler getting the Nobel was a waste. Barro should have got it.

I think the fallacy here is that every good idea should give you easy answers to your favorite problems.

If it just instead explains why the problems are hard, you may become frustrated.

The goal of neuroscience is to deal with Plato's cave....and we don't call it philosophy.

I'd propose philosophy of science as #17.

3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import..

I don't know of any philosophers working on this - although it is not my field. It would huge if they did because so much of the Western tradition is based on the notion of some concept of equality. To accept people are biologically non-diverse would be courageous. More so with race of course.

4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations. You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.

More often than not this is just an excuse to refuse to come to any conclusion from what I can see. Refusing to believe that there are values that are superior to others regardless of context is a kiss of death for philosophy.

7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.

Did we? What?

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

By and large this appears vapid. Peter Singer is hugely famous but that is an indication of the poor state of Western philosophy. We are no better off than we were in the Roman period when people suggested it was not nice to look at animals being torn apart.

10. Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.

None of them particularly scientific much less philosophical. Wishful thinking from Hippies.

12. Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.

I don't know of any philosopher who has even been there. Anyone?

13. Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.

I strongly doubt that. From what I can see of modern academics most of them do not even bother reading the works they are commenting on and simply regurgitate whatever fashionable garbage is current and will get them a research grant. It used to be feminism and then it was the environment. No doubt Grant Committees are inundated with proposals revolving around Shakespeare and Intersectionality.

14. Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.

As above. Although people in the medical world have done some nice things on music and brain function. I even liked Oliver Sacks book on the subject.

16. Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

To a first order approximation there are none. To a second order approximation where there were some, they are mostly Bad Thinkers and so are resolutely ignored. Elizabeth Anscombe for instance.

Re 16: When will the insights of the other umpty-umph genders be incorporated?

Everything is "behavioral."

Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. Are we more or less philosophical the more or less we know about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence? I suppose it depends on whether we know what we don't know. Did the ancient philosophers believe they knew what they didn't know or did they believe they didn't know what they didn't know? Do today's philosophers believe they know what they don't know or do they believe they don't know what they don't know? Philosophers provide insight to understanding that which we know and, more importantly, that which we don't know. For those who believe they know all there is to know, philosophers are just faith healers. My view is that we need philosophers today more than ever because we seem to know less than ever before. The intellectual paradox: the more one knows, the more one appreciates how little one knows (and conversely, the less one knows, the less one appreciates how little one knows). I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian of the three crazy prophets spouting gibberish.

"Musical languages" needs to be disambiguated.

The only musical language you need is GWAR!

Philosophy is the detritus left over from the chaotic organizing of human society and thought. If a particular thing is found which has value, it will be yanked out of the junkpile of philosophy and given status as its own discipline.

That means that progress in philosophy is measured by a lower ratio of treasure to trash in society's dumpster.

Unfortunately for philosophy, the creation of a new field is a messy process generating exponential cross discipline garbage to sort through. But fortunately for philosophy, society has gotten very good at addressing the highest value cross discipline concerns in the most nascent of fields. The natural tools of philosophy are used before they ever become urgently needed and as such this sorting through of valuable cross discipline considerations is seldom recognized as philosophy.

Name a new discipline and you can find papers arguing its merit or detriment in any other number of unrelated fields. We don't call this philosophy anymore, this is merely a natural and obvious response to novelty. We are much more thorough in making and evaluating these connections.

That's not merely progress in philosophy. That's progress full-stop.

Philosophy: the whore of science.

I have to mention one philosophical point, made relatively quite recently, and mentioned in this very space within the past few weeks: Aumann's agreement theorem.

Empiricism won the philosophical debate.

You Kant say that.

According to Kuhn in *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions* a key indication of whether a field is able to make progress is whether students are given the original texts in their instruction. If they are the field is mostly concerned with the prestige of the original authors and texts. If they aren't then the field is confident that it can separate the important truths of its great innovators from the particular ways in which they were expressed. If you can't separate truths from how they are expressed with any certainty then you're not in much of a position to make or recognize progress.

This applies, of course, only to particular institutions of learning rather than to philosophy at an, er, philosophical level which seems to be more your concern in this post.

If you have Kuhn here in context — and I note that you don’t quote him, perhaps for fear of sinking your whole argument — he’s simply wrong. Shakespeare studies, for example, do not progress by replacing Shakespeare. In biology we do not progress by paraphrasing the Krebs cycle or the CAM 4 cycle, nor in physics by writing the first law of thermodynamics in hip hop rap lyrics. In Philosophy Plato’s _Theaetrtus_ is read in the original because it is a very clear argument. It is not assumed to be correct. The student then argues for or against. In a decent philosophy course, original texts and new ones will both be studied, for example in the latter case papers from journals such as the _Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society_ or _Mind_.

Is existential AI risk considered a legitimate area of philosophy? If so, Nick Bostrom (the author of "Superintelligence") seems to have made lots of progress.

Applied Science Fiction might be useful, but I see no deadline.


In a way philosophy is more related to literature than to science. Why we still read the Iliad? Because it remains a great story. Also a lot of the ancient writers probably got most of the human experience well, so what they wrote remains very relatable for modern readers. When we read Plato's Republic we can relate this to modern totalitarian regimes, for instance.

@Andy. I disagree. Philosophy is a humanity, sure, because its main focus is the study of human nature or the human condition. But it does not follow from that, nor from anything else, that it is more closely related to literature than to science. The _Illiad_ is not philosophy, and I take it you probably did not mean to assert that it was. Philosophy is quite different from literature in that philosophy is characterized by rigorous proof and the clarification of concepts, meaning and categories. Literature is as important a subject but is not concerned with these things. Out of philosophy science was spun, which is why until recently science was known as “natural philosophy”. In that sense it can credibly be argued that sciences and philosophy are related, but one need not get too excited by such an argument, unless of course one suffers from the pathetic condition of physics envy that afflicts so many trained in, but incompetent in, economics. Philosophy stands apart from all other subjects, in that unlike the various sciences, it shares few common fundamental toools with other disciplines. (The sciences share the scientific method; maths and engineering perhaps share the calculus). But it has relevance to most other fields, and strong common interests with several, especially maths, the sciences, politics, history, fine art, sociology, medicine, law especially jurispridence, music, rhetoric and education.

And yet 2400 years later, TC still thinks "progress" and "philosophy" are in no need of explicit definition. I infer he thinks I think like he thinks. I DO agree that we have advanced substantially since Plato in our philosophical understanding of entropy, as well as bacteria and quantum field theory. Oh, and also Plato completely ignored Hume and Descartes! I wonder: we (collectively and possibly, for the 1%, personally) know a lot more today than they did in 350 BCE, but are we smarter? I wonder. What is the relationship between knowledge and intellectual power? Is it monotonic?

I somehow feel you are placing almost all subjects under phosophy. I am not an academic so i may have misunderstood

What a relief. Tyler Cowen doesn't have time to read absolutely everything. He's obviously not reading any current philosophy and if he hasn't read it, he does need to reread Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of nature.

None of the things on this list are the subject of any serious thinking in the modern discipline of philosophy (perhaps except diversity). I wouldn't disagree with the individual items just that they are examples of progress in philosophy since Plato (of course unless we call it natural philosophy).

It does read a little like list of achievements written by Borges. And it makes the 'mistake' of equating complexity and sophistication with progress.

I will say that there are certain ways in which philosophy has progressed in the last few thousand years. I recently tried to read through The Republic but had to give up because I got so annoyed at Aristotle's (or actually Plato's) apparent inability to distinguish between words and meanings. I suppose it's understandable given that he only ever learned to speak on language but I can't really imagine modern philosophers being so careless.

@Andrew Clough. Did you read it in the Ancient Greek, or in a translation. If a translation, perhaps the problem was the translation. Plato was generally careful in his use of language. Your apparent confusion between Plato, who is credited with being the author of _The Republic_, and his pupil Aristotle, who is not and whose style of writing is quite different, just possibly might, in the extreme, suggest that you yourself might not be clear in your reading of a text.

The bullets listed are not philosophy as it is traditionallly taught and understood but knowledge.
When experiments are allowed, we make progress and can understand the world. . When they are not we endlessly debate and understand little as there’s nothing useful at hand to settle the matter.

See how much Philosophy has progressed! It now includes Mathematics, Physics, Economics, Psychology etc .

The greatest practical use of philosophy is to recognize bullshit at a thousand paces. Another use is that it helps one to construct arguments that are not bullshit. The amount and sophistication (in the original sense of the word) increases with time. Philosophy has maintained its abilit to identify bullshit and bullshitters, notwithstanding their increased power and sophistication. Therefore philosophy has progressed.

Since you did not show good humor in response to my good humor, I will come at you, sir.

Do you think this is really a good time to pride yourself on Philosophy's power to weed out bullshitters?


Perhaps, in your towers, your mountain caves, you knew?

I was making a serious answer to a very serious question. Your juvenile attempt at irony was unhelpful and confused a very serious point. You are the sort of bullshitter alluded to. You are wasting my time and I shall no longer bother to respond to you.

Man, you have zero sense of humor *and* zero sense of responsibility.

An incoherent list is another indication that the idea of "progress" is nonsensical in the absence of a goal. It's also unclear what is meant by "philosophy." My own view is that philosophy, like every other discipline in the humanities, has exploded like a supernova. There is no progress because there is no longer any road or destination. All we have is an ever-ramifying and ever-expanding set of texts on a multitude of subjects. It's no wonder people have stopped reading them. There is no reliable guide.

In some cases progress is possible absent a goal. Evolution by natural selection is one paradigm example. Man is more advanced than other animals, but there was no goal. Evolutionary pressure creates progress without any goal. The incoherent list you complain of, if the list in the article, is not a list of areas or achievements of philosophy, in the current analytic or Anglo- American tradition. (French posing pouch philosophy is a different matter and a different subject). There has been real progress in philosophy, as I and others have explained above.

I think a couple of the people on this page who might be "real philosophers" have made clear that "real philosophy" is much narrower than outsiders believe, and even more unhelpful than outsiders might have hoped.

For instance, I seriously linked to Justin Fox's serious questions on "what is 'truth' in our news?"

Today, I took down philosophy in a MR comments section. It was a good day.

That's not really where I'm at. I can subtract myself from these questions.

Justin's piece is serious and topical, and I would think philosophical input would be helpful.

The link again is


But perhaps Fox covered it?

For instance, one claim I am sympathetic to, but wary to endorse:

"we only know the truth about a quite-limited number of not-very-interesting things"

Tyler, read this: http://consc.net/papers/progress.pdf
And then get back to us

Interesting paper, many thanks.

I agree, I just see a very large lack of understanding of these topics in people who call themselves philosophers. Often it seems to me that when philosophers pose questions, a mathematician answered it 50 years ago.

For example, whenever someone brings up the Chinese Room problem, I know they don't really get neuroscience or information theory.

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