Philosophical Progress, by Daniel Stoljar

Is there progress in philosophy? Pessimists argue that philosophers have debated their favorite questions—is there a free will? what is justice? how is knowledge possible?—for almost three thousand years without learning their truths. A radical skeptic would claim that philosophers should stop wasting ink and paper; ”trim your beard and get a real job!”

Stoljar makes the opposite case. In his book, Stoljar defends the optimistic view that philosophy makes progress on reasonably many reasonably-sized problems.

Thus, size matters here. Stoljar argues that questions such as whether there is a free will and how knowledge is possible are topic-setting. They are equivalent to topic-setting questions such as, ”why did the Roman empire fall?” and ”how does the human body work?” They are still open, meaning that the fields of history and biology make little progress on that level of inquiry.

The problem whether there is progress in philosophy should be understood as concerning questions in those topics rather than the topic-setting questions themselves. And, Stoljar argues, there philosophy makes progress.

Stoljar identifies what he calls ”boundary problems” and ”constitutive problems” in various philosophical topics and demonstrates using modus ponens that reasonable optimism is true. His arguments are sound, but in my view not that interesting. Let me explain.

The matter of progress in reasonably-sized problems in philosophy is empirical. One way to ground the optimist position would be to collect a sufficiently large and relevant set of solved philosophical problems and falsify pessimism hypothetic-deductively. This approach would be much more interesting—not least to the skeptic, who is probably an empirically minded kind of person.

One other way would be to instead view philosophical progress in terms of quality. It appears to me that although philosophers still debate the same old questions, their understanding of the nature of those questions is better than Socrates’s. Through philosophical speculation we have learned more about what the questions really mean, how and why they matter, and so on. Philosophy helps us understand ourselves and our thinking and thus makes progress as an interpretative enterprise.

But, of course, that is my personal view of what is interesting about the problem of philosophical progress. It should not be taken as criticism of Stoljar’s book per se, which is very well-argued.

In conclusion, its approach to the topic implies that Philosophical Progress is written for philosophers. Yet, it is accessible for anyone with a general interest in intellectual queries. However, if you (like me) would prefer a historically grounded defense of optimism in this matter there are probably more relevant books to read. Or, at least there should be.

Stoljar, D. (2017). Philosophical Progress: In Defence of a Reasonable Optimism. Oxford University Press.