Philosophy success stories

Philosophical problems are never solved for the same reason that treasonous conspiracies never succeed: as successful conspiracies are never called “treason,” so solved problems are no longer called “philosophy.”

— John P. Burgess


  1. The consequences of defeatism
  2. My approach
    1. Identifiable successes
    2. From confusion to consensus
    3. No mere disproofs
  3. Successes: my list so far
  4. Related posts

In this new series of essays, I aim to collect some concrete examples of success stories of philosophy (more below on quite what I mean by that). This is the introductory chapter in the series, where I describe why and how I embarked on this project.

Most academic disciplines love to dwell on their achievements. Economists will not hesitate to tell you that the welfare theorems, or the understanding of comparative advantage, were amazing achievements. (In Economics rules Dani Rodrik explicitly talks about the “crown jewels” of the discipline). Biology has the Nobel Prize to celebrate its prowess, and all textbooks duly genuflect to Watson and Crick and other heroes. Physics and Mathematics are so successful that they needn’t brag for their breakthroughs to be widely admired. Psychologists celebrate Kahneman, linguists Chomsky.

Philosophy, on the other hand, like a persecuted child that begins to internalise its bullies’ taunts, has developed an unfortunate inferiority complex. As if to pre-empt those of the ilk of Stephen Hawking, who infamously pronocuned philosophy dead, philosophers are often the first to say that their discipline has made no progress in 3000 years. Russell himself said in The Problems of Philosophy:

Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves.

This view is very much alive today, as in Van Iwagen (2003):

Disagreement in philosophy is pervasive and irresoluble. There is almost no thesis in philosophy about which philosophers agree.

Among some writers, one even finds a sort of perverse pride that some topic is “one of philosophy’s oldest questions” and “has been discussed by great thinkers for 2000 years”, as if this were a point in its favour.

The consequences of defeatism

This state of affairs would be of no great concern if the stakes were those of a mere academic pissing contest. But this defeatism about progress has real consequences about how the discipline is taught.

The first is history-worship. A well-educated teenager born this century would not commit the fallacies that litter the writings of the greats. The first sentence of Nicomachean Ethics is a basic quantificational fallacy. Kant’s response to the case of the inquiring murderer is an outrageous howler. Yet philosophy has a bizarre obsession with its past. In order to teach pre-modern texts with a straight face, philosophers are forced to stretch the principle of charity beyond recognition, and to retrofit newer arguments onto the fallacies of old. As Dustin Locke writes here, “The principle of charity has created the impression that there is no progress in philosophy by preserving what appear to be the arguments and theories of the great thinkers in history. However, what are being preserved are often clearly not the actual positions of those thinkers. Rather, they are mutated, anachronistic, and frankensteinian reconstructions of those positions.” Much time is wasted subjecting students to this sordid game, and many, I’m sure, turn their backs on philosophy as a result.

The second, related consequence is the absence of textbooks. No one would dream of teaching classical mechanics out of Principia or geometry out of Euclid’s Elements. Yet this is what philosophy departments do. Even Oxford’s Knowledge and Reality, which is comparatively forward-looking, has students read from original academic papers, some as old as the 1950s, as you can see here. It’s just silly to learn about counterfactuals and causation from Lewis 1973 (forty-four years ago!). Thankfully, there is the Stanford Encyclopedia, but it’s incomplete and often pitched at too high a level for beginners. And even if Stanford can be counted as a sort of textbook, why just one? There should be hundreds of textbooks, all competing for attention by the clarity and precision of their explanations. That’s what happens for any scientific topic taught at the undergraduate level.

My approach

Identifiable successes

In this series, I want to focus on succcess stories that are as atomic, clear-cut, and precise as possible. In the words of Russell:

Modern analytical empiricism […] differs from that of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume by its incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique. It is thus able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers, which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy. It has the advantage, in comparison with the philosophies of the system-builders, of being able to tackle its problems one at a time, instead of having to invent at one stroke a block theory of the whole universe. Its methods, in this respect, resemble those of science.

Some of the greatest philosophical developments of the modern era, both intellectually speaking and social-impact wise, were not of this clear-cut kind. Two examples seem particularly momentous:

  • The triumph of naturalism, the defeat of theism, and the rise of science a.k.a “natural philosophy”.
  • The expanding circle of moral consideration: to women, children, those of other races, and, to some extent, to non-human animals. (See Pinker for an extended discussion).

These changes are difficult to pin down to a specific success story. They are cases of society’s worldview shifting wholesale, over the course of centuries. With works such as Novum Organum or On the Subjection of Women, philosophising per se undoubtedly deserves a share of the credit. Yet the causality may also run the other way, from societal circumstances to ideas; technological and political developments surely had their role to play, too.

Instead I want to focus on smaller, but hopefully still significant success stories, whose causal story should hopefully be easier to extricate.

From confusion to consensus

The successes need to be actual successes of the discipline, not just theories I think are successful. For example, consequentialism or eliminativism about caustion don’t count, since there is considerable debate about them still1. Philosophers being a contrarian bunch, I won’t require complete unanimity either, but rather a wide consensus, perhaps something like over 80% agreement among academics at analytic departments.

Relatedly, there needs to have been actual debate and/or confusion about the topic, previous to the success story. This is often the hardest desideratum to intuitively accept, since philosophical problems, once solved, tend to seem puzzlingly unproblematic. We think “How could people possibly have been confused by that?”, and we are hesitant to attribute basic misunderstandings to great thinkers of the past. I will therefore take pains to demonstrate, with detailed quotes, how each problem used to cause real confusion.

No mere disproofs

In order to make the cases I present as strong as possible, I will adopt a narrow definition of success. Merely showing the fallacies of past thinkers does not count. Philosophy has often been able to conclusively restrict the space of possible answers by identifying certain positions as clearly wrong. For example, no-one accepts Mill’s “proof” of utilitarianism as stated, or Anselm’s ontological argument. And that is surely a kind of progress2, but I don’t want to rely on that here. When physics solved classical mechanics, it did not just point out that Aristotle had been wrong, rather it identified an extremely small area of possibility-space as the correct one. That is the level of success we want to be gunning for here. For the same reason, I also won’t count coming up with new problems, such as Goodman’s New Riddle of Induction, as progress for my purposes.

Successes: my list so far

Here are the individual success stories, in no particular order:

  1. Predicate logic: arguably launched analytic philosophy, clarified ambiguities that had held back logic for centuries
  2. Computability: a rare example of an undisputed, non-trivial conceptual analysis
  3. Modal logic and its possible world semantics: fully clarified the distinction between sense and reference, dissolved long-standing debates arising from modal fallacies.
  4. The formalisation of probability: how should we reason about unsure things? Before the 1650s, everyone from Plato onwards got this wrong.
  5. Bayesianism: the analysis of epistemic rationality and the solution to (most of) philosophy of science.
  6. Compatibilism about free will (forthcoming)

It’s very important to see these five stories as illustrations of what success looks like in philosophy. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. Nor are all five stories supposed to follow the same pattern of discovery; on the contrary, they are examples of different kinds of progress.

Related posts

These posts don’t describe success stories, but are related:

  1. Over the course of writing this series, I have frequently found to my consternation that topics I thought were prime candidates for success stories were in fact still being debated copiously. Perhaps one day I’ll publish a list of these, too. In case it wasn’t clear, by the way, this series should not be taken to mean that I am a huge fan of philosophy as an academic discipline. But I do think that, in some circles, the pendulum has swung too far towards dismissal of philosophy’s achievements. 

  2. In fact, there’s likely been far more of this kind of progress than you would guess from reading contemporary commentaries of philosophers of centuries past, as Dustin Locke argues here

December 3, 2017
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