Chalmers on philosophical progress, part 1

In the comments on my post where I summarized the problems I see with philosophy, Alexander Johannesen very helpfully linked to a paper by David Chalmers on progress in philosophy. I hadn’t seen this paper before, so let’s have a look at it.

Chalmers says that, “There has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy.” He gives a tidy deductive argument for this conclusion, but the argument seems rather unnecessary; Chalmers treats the conclusion as fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the practice of philosophy. But he suggests that you could find progress by dropping some of the conditions from his statement. To paraphrase Chalmers:

  1. Maybe there’s been small collective progress on the big questions
  2. Maybe there’s been large progress on the big questions on the part of certain individuals or “subcommunities.”
  3. Maybe there’s been large collective progress on some small questions
  4. Maybe there’s been progress involving not convergence on truth, but understanding, exploration of possibilities, pedagogy, etc.

Chalmers then illustrates these points:

We can illustrate the options by examining a field I know well: the philosophy of mind. To reiterate the glass-half-full perspective for a moment: there has been enormous progress in this field, as there has been in every area of philosophy. In the last century alone, the field has been transformed, leading to tremendous understanding and sophistication that did not exist before. But this transformation has not been accompanied by a large degree of convergence on the big questions, such as the mind–body problem. Instead, progress has taken one of the four forms above. There has been large collective convergence on some smaller questions, large collective increases in understanding on all the questions, and perhaps reasonably large convergence on the big questions among various subcommunities. But across the philosophical community as a whole (and even across the analytic philosophy community as a whole), convergence on the big questions has at best been small.

I’m inclined to be skeptical of much of this. Maybe Chalmers is right about convergence on smaller questions, but I’ve seen claims like that before and none of the ones I’ve examined have stood up to scrutiny. My guess is the same would be true of supposed cases of increased understanding (indeed, it’s hard to see how increases in understanding could happen without progress on some small question or other).

Now, my knowledge of the relevant history isn’t as strong as I’d like, but I can agree that it’s at least plausible that there have been big changes in philosophy of mind in the last century and on the whole they’ve been in the right direction. But I wonder how much of that is just a response to advances in the science of the mind, and it seems like philosophical progress worthy of the name should come from within philosophy, rather than a result of philosophy being dragged along by science, social progress, or whatever.

I’d question the significance of convergence within subcommunities in a similar manner. How much of that could just be the result of sorting into cliques, or more efficient sorting into cliques?

Chalmers then goes on to give no fewer than seven possible explanations of the lack of philosophical progress. Since I find the task of discussing them all daunting, I’ll save that for another post.

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