11 August 2011

On the impossibility of philosophical progress

The link is to an enjoyable, accessible and iconoclastic article by Eric Dietrich, entitled "There is no Progress in Philosophy". (The first four sections are the most entertaining; the remainder is more technical, but still not particularly hard going.) From the Abstract:
Except for a patina of twenty-first century modernity, in the form of logic and language, philosophy is exactly the same now as it ever was; it has made no progress whatsoever. We philosophers wrestle with the exact same problems the Pre-Socratics wrestled with. Even more outrageous than this claim, though, is the blatant denial of its obvious truth by many practicing philosophers. [...] The final section offers an explanation for philosophy’s inability to solve any philosophical problem, ever. The paper closes with some reflections on philosophy’s future.
This is in contrast, of course, to the achievements of science.

If you accept the argument (which I think I do with some reservations), it is interesting to speculate whether the same can be said of the rest of the humanities, albeit in a weaker form. It is fair to argue that no progress has been made in the study of literature, for example, partly on the contingent basis that determining what constitutes "progress" in such a field is a philosophical question. Of course the stock of literature is ever-increasing, so we may have quantitative growth if not qualitative. I take it that the sterile deviation of "theory" (now apparently in retreat) is evidence that attempts at "progress" can only achieve the feat of disappearing up the proponents' own nether regions. A similar argument applies to the study of history (but again not to the creation of history)... As Alan Ryan observes in today's Times Higher Education (a propos of a nanced discussion of the relationship between teaching and research):
The corpus of available Greek literature that has escaped the ravages of time is finite and scholars have just about all of it under their belts. Interpretations of that finite corpus are another matter; they are, if not infinite, certainly indefinitely many. Nor is there any particular technique likely to yield insights that will be definitive, irresistible, part of a cumulative project of explaining everything there is to explain about Greek literature. Physicists may fantasise about finally reaching the "theory of everything", but it is unimaginable that anyone will produce the definitive way to read Aeschylus.
This is of course not good news for the practitioners of the humanities, which are under threat in the academy yet again. But are these disciplines about "making progress"? Or are they the stuff of Oakeshott's "conversation across the ages" (quoted here by Mike Love)?
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries.
But like all conversations (including the arguments of philosophers which are Dietrich's starting point):
"In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. [...] It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another."
And that is a delight. But does it make sense to try and "professionalise" it? And what are the implications for higher education of accepting such an argument--namely, that the humanities are not "subjects" in the same way as other subjects which do make progress?

(The original liberal arts, in the trivium and quadrivium, for example, are more focused than the usage adopted today in the US traditional liberal arts college; one might argue that only philosophy got a look in, under the heading of "logic" or "dialectic". So the historical argument for their centrality to the curriculum, weak as it already is, doesn't wash. And the study of English Literature is positively new--the University of Cambridge only appointed its first endowed chair in this dubious area of study in 1911, although interestingly there was a chair at the University of Glasgow from 1862.)

There is of course a recurrent debate in educational circles about knowledge and skills--which I am not going to reference because of its ubiquity. It's not merely a matter of liberal arts versus practical and vocational arts, lively though that discussion is. It is about how one goes about cultivating the higher reaches of critical understanding. Is it a matter of cultivating the skills of critical thinking first, with the knowledge base as an underpinning resource? Or is it a matter of transmitting the knowledge base, so that students are equipped to make judgements on the basis of real knowledge--and trusting that the skills will emerge?

False dichotomy of course. Both-and rather than either/or. But Bloom implies that the way to the skills is through the knowledge. And if the point of the knowledge is ultimately that the skills of creative thinking are engendered ("Creating" is the highest stage in the Krathwohl and Anderson revision of the Cognitive Domain) then it may not matter that the knowledge base itself is not going anywhere at a scholarly or cultural level. It is going somewhere for a particular learner.

And--just possibly--there may be something to learn from its substance regarded substantively rather than instrumentally, for its own sake rather than in the service of some other objective.

Jim Hamlyn touches on some associated questions here.(Although as I have revised this post, we may have diverged.)

Oakeshott, M. (1962) "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind," Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen, 197-247.

The original pointer to the Dietrich essay was from the Browser. Many thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Fan-bloody-tastic! Just what I needed – the Oakshott quote especially. I must have encountered it in Rorty’s book many years ago and long forgotten it.

    Thanks a million, that has been unbelievably useful.


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.