The Chronicle Review

Coming Soon to an Agora Near You: Philosophical Progress?

James Yang for The Chronicle Review

October 02, 2011

Did the "Symposium on Philosophical Progress" make any progress?

For the glib-minded who attended the two-day session at Harvard last month, the answer was as simple as modus ponens.

The symposium began at 2 p.m. on Friday, September 16 ("Let's agree to call that t1"), proceeded chronologically through its agenda from t2, through t6 ("where each t indicates the time slice at which a scheduled session began") and culminated at past t7 on Saturday—aka Saturday evening to the layman. And everyone seemed to know more—at least about one another—than they did at t1.

Next question.

But since the next question in philosophy often looks a lot like the last question, perhaps closer scrutiny is in order. Co-sponsored by the philosophy departments of Harvard and Australian National University, and ably co-organized by Harvard's Susanna Siegel and ANU's Daniel Stoljar, the symposium, which filled the Barker Center's Thompson Room (with its enormous Joseph DeCamp portrait of Teddy Roosevelt towering over all), offered a touch of uncertainty in its title.

Did "A Symposium on Philosophical Progress" presuppose that there's been progress? Or was that open to question?

"The question isn't something that's often front and center," Stoljar, author of a crisp book titled Physicalism, noted in his opening remarks, drawing laughs when he offered as one challenge "whether there has been any or will be some soon."

A slew of questions soon hung in the air. Was the issue of progress "partly a question internal to the subject itself," as Stoljar put it, and so partly one that required assessment by outsiders as well—"external validation," in a phrase heard more frequently by late Saturday?

Is philosophical progress "epistemic"—an increase or betterment of knowledge? Or might philosophy be more like mathematics or art, in which there's arguably no new knowledge, but progress is calibrated a different way? Did scientists' drawing on work by philosophers—Michael Faraday building on the work of Kant, or computer scientists exploiting the work of logicians—count as philosophical progress? Did the development of allegedly exquisite "tools" in modern analytic philosophy, or its "sheer creativity," in Stoljar's phrase, count as progress if it was usually analytic philosophers who viewed such tools as exquisite and effective, and noted the creativity?

Invited speakers soon broadened the discussion. For Rae Langton of MIT, philosophy's "sheer resources of scholarship" constituted progress, as did the challenge in recent years to male domination of the field. Philosophy, she observed, had come a long way since Aristotle deemed woman a "deformed man" and the slave a "living tool." Robert Pasnau, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, argued that philosophers "would make more progress" if they spent more time studying the history of the subject. He acknowledged that his peers, who admirably "lavish lots of attention" on views they don't take seriously, sometimes choose "beauty" (as in "beautiful" philosophical work) over truth. "We don't give a [expletive] about relevance," he cheekily declared.

Another panel, dubbed the "Philosopher Kings" session by one symposium participant, brought together two members of the tribe who wield power at their institutions as dean, and former dean and vice chancellor, respectively: Richard Feldman of the University of Rochester and Richard Foley of NYU. Feldman playfully toyed with his projection of power, suggesting the principle "Universities ought not to have departments or disciplines that make no progress" before nudging it aside.

Conceding that he'd "always been interested in doing" philosophy rather "than talking about it," Feldman rejected the idea of setting out definitions of philosophy and progress as a way to "figure it all out," warning, "We'd get bogged down in that and never really get anywhere." He expressed confidence that new ways of "thinking about things" and "rigorous thinking" retained their value.

Perhaps because he's a dean, no one challenged him when he said, "You have to understand that progress is not necessarily making the world a better place." Compared to that paradoxical quip, Foley's claim that philosophy constitutes a "middle case" between science and the humanities seemed almost quaint.

By Saturday, rival visions of professional philosophy as an elite, progress-heavy practice, and as an out-of-touch "guild" activity with little credibility among nonmembers, came more strongly into conflict. Nancy Bauer, of Tufts, quoted Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson—his generation's apparent exemplar of the insular don who keeps talking about the "shoddy" work of others—as asserting that "serious philosophy is always going to bore people with short attention spans." Bauer adeptly paid respect to "getting things right" in philosophy while impugning Williamson's smugness. Benj Hellie, of the University of Toronto, when not peppering his presentation with a generation-stamp invocation of "yada-yada," pushed a "guild" metaphor of philosophy as a positive thing. To his mind, "apprenticeships" are served in philosophy, leading to necessary "restriction of trade." Though he looked no older than a graduate student himself, Hellie seemed to relish being inside the guild as a taskmaster. "All you graduate students out there," he announced in one near sputter, "work until your eyes bleed."

A different mood evolved when John Bengson, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, guided the room into the symposium's most systematic and taxonomic effort at theory. In a PowerPoint presentation on the notion of a "conception," he outlined how it differs from a "concept," and how grasping why one conception of something might be better than another would help us to understand "progress." Conceptions, he explained, "help us to understand understanding."

Bengson's presentation—smart, precise, and smoothed along by his genial manner—nonetheless ran into the sort of Q&A stiletto work that often marks professional philosophy sessions. An intense, Wittgensteinian-type toward the front, who'd spent much of Bengson's presentation grimacing and twirling his hair (it turned out to be Selim Berker, an assistant professor and epistemologist in the Harvard philosophy department) repeatedly zeroed in on putative errors in Bengson's formalization of his theory. Every time Bengson (or others in the room) appeared to adequately answer his objection, Berker replied in "OK then, but ... " mode, insisting there was another formal mistake.

Bengson's fastidious approach also elicited the kind of odd repartee that can make one think at analytic philosophy sessions that Tom Stoppard, standing behind a curtain nearby, scripted the lines, or that Monty Python is on the premises.

Questioner: "What's the difference between a conception and a theory?"

Bengson: "I don't have a theory of theories."

To this invited speaker, asked to go tête-à-tête with rising analytic epistemologist Jason Stanley on "Philosophical Progress and Intellectual Culture," too many in the room had things backwards. To them, philosophy simply meant what a dominant class of English-language philosophy professors do, separated from an outside world too untrained and illiterate in the field's issues and nomenclature to matter much. As Stanley, a professor at Rutgers, put it, some advances in philosophy, such as Ruth Barcan Marcus's work in modal logic, can't be communicated to the "unwashed masses" or "even some of the washed masses."

Yet if one saw "philosophy" as a word and activity that preceded these professional cadres into the world, then the burden fell on those identifying "philosophy" with artificial "research programs" in analytic philosophy (ones that seek universalist definitions for contested everyday words such as "truth," "meaning," "knowledge") to justify their narrowing of the term. While some in the audience shuddered at the thought that nonprofessionals might judge what philosophy is, any "theft" of the word could easily be seen as one committed by philosophy departments against the cultural world at large. Unesco's 2007 report on world philosophy declared that philosophy is "anyone's business and no one's property," but many analytic philosophers think they hold a deed, and have a right to police the use of "philosophy" in academic life.

Would professional philosophers of this ilk willingly give up the word "philosophy" and consent to their fiefdoms being renamed "Department of Hyper-Ratiocination," or "Department of Intellectual Chess"?

Reader, I forgot to ask the question! The other speakers proved too engaging. But it was heartening to hear that one absent philosopher regularly speaks of philosophy as the "Department of Homeless Questions," showing some disciplinary flex on marquee matters.

Throughout the symposium, sessions uniformly permitted at least 30 minutes of back and forth with the audience, a credit to the time-management skills of the organizers and moderators. With accomplished philosophy professors and intense, committed students in the audience—though one wore a T-shirt announcing that "Knowledge is Poo-Poo"—questioners drew out new conundrums and private enthusiasms. Was philosophy a luxury? Should philosophy pack more predictive power? (Foley rejected the thought as a kind of "categorization" mistake.) Langton admitted to being charmed by the Indian philosopher Shankara (AD 788-820), who moved from Cartesian-like claims of "I think, therefore I am" to "I am immortal" and on to "I am God."

"I believe this to be an invalid argument that is beautiful," Langton said.

By late Saturday afternoon, the issue of "external validation" of professional philosophy's progress—an achievement undisputed by most speakers in the room, but still questioned by a handful of skeptics—led to more fiercely drawn battle lines. Was there progress in philosophy? "It blows my mind," opined Peter Ludlow, of Northwestern, emphasizing how much there was. The mark of it, he explained, was not philosophy's distance from mastering truth, but "how far we came from where we were." He accused some of those criticizing professional philosophy's lack of accessibility to the layman as the "arrogance of the reader," an attitude of, "Why can't I understand this? So it must be crap." Ludlow warned that shifting to a "vanilla vocabulary," understandable to readers of, say, The Nation, would result in "a stifling of philosophical growth."

"To make progress," he concluded, "we absolutely, positively, cannot give up our own vocabulary."

Amid dueling condescensions as the positions of participants and audience members became clearer—an uptick in scrunched faces, rolled eyes, and exasperated sighs as t7 approached—Australian David Chalmers appeared to win the most potent mix of affection, respect, and agreement. The picture of a middle-aged rock star with his long, unkempt silvery hair, T-shirt, black jacket, and jeans, beaming an intermittently beatific smile, the distinguished expert in philosophy of mind (The Conscious Mind, 1996) roamed happily about, digitally snapping one and all. Chalmers maintains a Web page that itself amounts to knockdown evidence of philosophical progress—an oasis after the interminable dullness of so many philosopher sites, a circus of good cheer that (in addition to harboring Chalmers's serious work) displays photos from years of lovingly attended philosophy conferences. It also offers wry lists such as "Why no one wants to play golf with a philosopher" and "Philosophical light-bulb jokes" ("How many Marxists does it take to change a light bulb? None. The light bulb contains the seeds of its own revolution.")

Once he took the podium, Chalmers counted the ways that philosophy might and might not make progress. One reason against, he ventured, might be that "We're just too dumb." Perhaps, too, many philosophical questions are "unanswerable in principle."

Devil's advocacy done, however, Chalmers owned up to being an optimist, balancing the view attributed to philosopher Gideon Rosen that "philosopher" can be "the second most depressing job in the world."

"Let's be honest," Chalmers had begun his talk. "Yes, there's philosophical progress, and lots of it." Not, he conceded, "large, collective convergence to the truth on the big questions." Just smaller things: those "sophisticated" analytical tools, or the influence a thinker such as Princeton's Peter Singer has exerted on our ethical views. Chalmers even bore personal witness. "I can tell you that I have made a lot of progress toward the truth," he declared to laughs.

But the master of consciousness seemed conscious of a practical truth: Philosophers, in an intellectual culture that largely ignores them, might not need proof of progress anyway, so why sweat the matter?

"We don't know where on this curve we are," Chalmers maintained. It might be the cusp of something great, he ventured. "Maybe we're just around that point. And maybe we should act as if we're at that point and just keep doing philosophy."

The word "Amen" was not uttered. One could, however, hear it in the room.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.