Progress in Philosophy? Well, I Never!

I finally got around to looking at the recent Philosophers’ Carnival and I was struck by Richard Chappell’s post at Philosophy, etc where he lists what he takes as ‘examples of solved philosophy’. He offers these up as counter-examples to claims made, by people like me, that there are no solved problems in philosophy. He says that by ‘solved’ he means that they are ‘as established as ordinary scientific results’. This in itself causes problems, for one might wonder how well established scientific results are… 

Now, I tend to think that every one of the so-called ‘solved’ issues really begs some question somewhere and so all we can mean by ‘solved’ is ‘generally agreed to be true by philosophers/philosopher X’ but it was number eight that got my hackles up.  This is the claim that it is metaphysically necessary that cats are animals, though ‘cats are animals’ is not analytically true (i.e. that Kripke is right). The ‘evidence’ for this is that, should we find out that what we call ‘cats’ were not animals but demons instead we wouldn’t want to say that we had found out that cats don’t exist. We must surely think that we have found out something new about cats; viz. that they are not animals. But since we have (already) found out that they are animals, we must conclude that they are necessarily animals. But why must we agree with the intuition that ‘we have found out something new about cats’. No reason for this is ever given. It has always seemed to me that we would have found out that there were no cats. So, until intuitions are reliable guides to semantic/metaphysical truths gets ‘solved’ number eight isn’t either; and this is no where near happening any time soon.

So, are there examples of solved philosophy? Well, only in the sense that Richard actually points out. That is, only in the sense in which ordinary scientific clams are thought of as ‘solved’ and that amounts only to this: Given certain assumptions about what counts as evidence at all and what it means for some kind of evidence to be better evidencethan some other kind, there is more evidence for claim a than claim b. But this will always involve substantial begging the question. This is why, I take it, that David Chalmers has recommended that with respect to the dualist/materialist debate the best thing to do is just for each camp to retire to their corners and try to develop their respective theories (I actually forget where he says that at, though…so I may be misremembering the jist of the passage). These issues are only solved from a theoretical standpoint, and no particular standpoint is forced on us.

15 thoughts on “Progress in Philosophy? Well, I Never!

  1. Hey Richard,

    First, sorry about getting somewhat outside of the topic of this post, but something is confusing me… That is, I’m not sure where we disagree on the issue of meaning of common nouns.

    You say “But why must we agree with the intuition that ‘we have found out something new about cats’. No reason for this is ever given. It has always seemed to me that we would have found out that there were no cats.”
    And I agree with you on this.

    So would you say that what we disagree on is how to best understand this intuition (that we agree on), while still keeping the crux of causal-historical view (which I think is another thing that we agree on)?

  2. Isn’t the distinction between intension and extension a well-established result? That is, a term with the same extension can have a different meaning? That seems quite important, and hard to debate.

  3. No problem Tanasije!

    The point I was making was that the issue shouldn’t be settled by our intuitions.

    But I guess I would locate our disagreement over whether the way we treat nouns in language and the way we treat our singular thoughts is the same or not. I think the causal theory of reference is a theory about how our thoughts come to have meaning, not how English words come to have meaning…

    Hey Eric,

    Well, I don’t know what you mean by well-established. There is a healthy movement of ‘direct reference’ people out there. These people deny that co-refferential terms have different meanings (I’m thinking about people like Fodor and Soames).

  4. What is striking about Chappell’s list is that (almost) all of his examples of solved problems are actually just failed philosophical theses.

  5. When certain philosophical problems get”solved” does it not then become something of a science, and thus seems as if the role of a philosophical theory or inquiry, perhaps is to jump-start certain sciences or create new ones.

  6. So you are saying that some people would say ‘mean kinetic energy blah blah’ has the same meaning as ‘temperature’, or ‘vertebrates’ and ‘creatures with kidneys’? Reductios could continue. A couple of people holding the fringy denial of the claim don’t provide a real counterexample. At any rate, the intension/extension distinction in philosophy of language seems to be one of the few actual “results” philosophy has given us. Of course, we could quibble about how to interpret coextensional terms with different cognitive signatures, but that is a different argument.

    If this counts as controversial then philosophy has more problems than I thought!

    I would be curious to read what other philosophers think.

  7. Hey Josh, isn’t a lot of scientific knowledge of that sort too?

    Hi ChrissySnow,

    Yeah that is the ‘traditional story’ (due to Russell). My problem with that is that I see science as just a kind of philosophy (natural philosophy) and, besides which, there are no ‘solved’ problems in science either…

    Hey Eric, nice pseudoname 🙂

    Yes there are such people, and I wouldn’t say they are ‘fringy’ (but even if they were why would that matter? Every theory starts off as ‘fringy’ even such established ones as the heliocentric model of the solar system.

    One way to avoid the reductio is to do the extension with respect to possible worlds. So, ‘vertabrates’ and ‘creatures with a kidney’ are co-extensive here but they are not necessarily co-extensive and so they do have different extensions.

    Another strategy (a la Quine) is to reject the very idea of intension altogether.

  8. No, I don’t think science is like that. While it is true that some of the established truths of science are of this sort (e.g. ether and phlogiston would be part of failed hypotheses similiar to Chappell’s philosophical examples), many others, such as the discovery of the table of elements, the theory of evolution, or our understanding of human anatomy would count as positive theses about the world that are established scientific knowledge.

  9. Where to start? Anywhere. What will you accept as a “solved philosophical problem”? How about irrefutable proof that consciousness creates reality? How about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? How about Feyerabend’s incommensurability to name but a few solutions to philosophical problems. Scientific truth is contingent; philosophical truth is not. There are no solved scientific problems in the absolute sense.

  10. “But why must we agree with the intuition that ‘we have found out something new about cats’. No reason for this is ever given”

    The simple reason is that ordinary people would very, very likely go on calling these demons (or whatever creatures cats are discovered to be) “cats”, and nobody would be able to prove them to be wrong. On what grounds could you prove it? That would entail that ordinary men don’t understand what they say, which is totally absurd. So the widespread and agreed use of any word in ordinary language is the only thing that counts in matters like this.

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