[Reflections] Does Philosophy Make Progress?

Is the history of philosophy philosophy?

In what way is the history of philosophy important to philosophy? Some philosophers are almost totally uninterested in the discipline’s history. At best it’s a curiosity, at worst a distracting set of prejudices and mistakes. Other philosophers think the careful study of philosophy’s history is philosophy. Their contributions constitute the most recent layer in an accumulating commentarial tradition, in which texts converse with one another across the centuries.

A familiar way of drawing out this contrast is to say that some people think of philosophy as more akin to a science and others think of it as more akin to literature. The philosophy-as-science crowd consider the history of philosophy to be as relevant to philosophy as the history of science is to science. Interesting, certainly, but it isn’t the thing itself. The philosophy-as-literature crowd thinks Plato as pertinent to Western philosophy as Homer or the Greek tragedians are to Western literature: giants who cast long shadows over everything that’s come since.

The two positions I’ve sketched represent the far ends of a spectrum. Most philosophers fall somewhere in between. As the discipline is currently structured in the academy, the history of philosophy is a sub-field of philosophy, implying that studying the history of philosophy is one form of philosophical endeavour. It comprises neither all legitimate philosophy nor none of it.

Two (or three) views concerning progress

Depending on where you fall on this historical/literary vs. ahistorical/scientific spectrum, you’ll likely have different responses to the question of whether philosophy makes progress. The philosophy-as-science model aspires to progress. The history of science isn’t itself a part of science because science has moved on since Galileo, Newton, and the others. They’re the giants on whose shoulders future generations of scientists stand, to borrow Newton’s own phrase. But the purpose of science isn’t to look down at whose shoulders you’re standing on but to reach upward to new heights. You don’t need to read the Principia Mathematica to keep up with contemporary physics. You need to keep current with arXiv.

By contrast, the philosophy-as-literature model suggests that asking about progress in philosophy is asking the wrong question. Modern astronomy may be light-years ahead of Ptolemy but it’s a category mistake to argue that David Mamet has gone farther than Sophocles ever could. Literature—and, some would say, philosophy—responds to its particular historical and cultural situation and asking about progress is otiose.

(There’s a third option as well, which is that philosophy is in perpetual decline. Think of it as the philosophy-as-religion model. No Christian will get closer to the truth of Christianity than Christ and no Buddhist will get closer to the truth of Buddhism than the Buddha. The best we can hope for is to strive to retrieve that moment of originary truth against a natural inclination for falling away. Heidegger seems to think of philosophy on this model.)

Progress in literature

We could challenge this overly neat schema by questioning the science side of the analogy. The idea that science is a progressive enterprise is open to challenge. That challenge should then apply at least as forcefully to a progressive story about philosophy.

I want to question the other side of the analogy, though. I think there is a sense in which we can rightly say that literature makes progress. It’s just not progress that reduces the contemporary relevance of past achievements.

Consider free indirect style. Since Goethe and Austen, there’s been a narrative technique available to later writers that wasn’t available before them. Woolf and Joyce expanded the possibilities of stream-of-consciousness narration in new ways. As a result of these and other innovations, contemporary writers have more literary resources at their disposal than earlier generations did. Is this progress? I’d say of a kind, yes.

This story of literary progress isn’t one of simple accumulation. New resources are being developed but others fall out of fashion. You won’t get published in a poetry journal today by writing a neatly metered Shakespearean sonnet. The journey from innovative to mannered can be rapid.

But even if we can’t write just like past generations, we do build on their achievements. Watching The Flick by Annie Baker a few years ago, I was struck by a pair of thoughts. First, audiences half a century ago would have been baffled and outraged by its mumblecore aesthetic. And second, Baker could only write as she did because of the innovations in naturalistic drama made by Chekhov, Williams, and others. If she could reach new heights of naturalism, it was because she was standing on the shoulders of giants.

Progress in technique and in result

The salient point, to my mind, isn’t that literature doesn’t make progress, but that, in the case of literature, progress isn’t equivalent to improvement.

I can think of two reasons for this. First, literary efforts are essentially structured by constraints. This is most obvious in the case of poetry. If you want to write a villanelle, you’ve got a fearsome set of formal constraints to work within. But the beauty of a successful villanelle lies precisely in the way it transmutes those constraints into poetry.

Constraints of a less formal kind structure narrative prose. A piece of prose fiction establishes a tone early on, as well as a pace, a setting, and a whole range of narrative expectations. You can achieve startling effects when you break from the conventions you’ve established, but you can only break so much without the narrative devolving into incoherence.

The second reason I think progress in literature isn’t equivalent to improvement is that the progress is one of technique rather than result. Scientists enjoy both kinds of progress. With the development of telescopes, microscopes, and large hadron colliders, scientists are technically more capable than their predecessors. This technical prowess—and the accumulated knowledge of past generations—enables greater precision and accuracy in their results.

The technical resources available to a contemporary writer may be more varied than in the past but there isn’t the same harmony between technique and result. Simplicity is often a virtue in literature: pare away the unnecessary fluff and you achieve greater immediacy and impact. Contemporary writers may have more tools at their disposal but that in effect requires greater restraint. You have to choose carefully or the result will be an ungainly mess.

This point is related to my point about constraints. Because literature flourishes under constraints, more isn’t necessarily better. Homer may not have had the store of narrative and poetic techniques available to us today, but the Iliad and Odyssey have a muscular oomph that further refinement would dissipate.

So sure, literature makes technical progress. But because literature relies on constraints for its aesthetic effects, that progress doesn’t necessarily yield progressively better results. Elif Batuman writes in a similar spirit in her delicious takedown of contemporary MFA programs: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”

Progress in philosophy

What about philosophy? To the extent that philosophy aims at truth, presumably more sophisticated tools are a blessing. Philosophers can achieve results with the tools of modal logic that they weren’t able to achieve without them. But to the extent that philosophy aims at wisdom, matters are less clear. Wisdom seems to blossom under constraints and different eras have yielded distinctive insights.

My takeaway from all this is that we’re asking the wrong question if we ask whether philosophy makes progress. Sure, philosophy makes progress. But that leaves unsettled the question of whether that progress also means that philosophy is getting progressively better in any meaningful sense. For my own part, I find in different periods of philosophy different provocations and stimulations, which come to clarity only under that very specific set of cultural and philosophical constraints.

In an infamous polemic, Timothy Williamson writes: “In many areas of philosophy, we know much more in 2007 than was known in 1957; much more was known in 1957 than was known in 1907; much more was known in 1907 than was known in 1857.” He’s a strong partisan of the philosophy-as-science model, so for him, knowing much more straightforwardly means “better.” And in technical terms, he’s right: pretty much any PhD graduate leaves Plato in the dust. On the other hand, the Republic is a book I actually want to read.

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