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Alex Murphy: 'What's the Point?'

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Years ago, a friend’s father asked me:

“Why haven’t philosophers made any progress in thousands of years?”

Floundering, I reported that I wasn’t sure. I burbled a confused answer whilst awkwardly fidgeting. I get the same uncomfortable feeling when I consider this oddly illuminating question today.

The issue of whether philosophers have made any progress immediately raises the puzzle of what philosophers do. Philosophy’s purpose is unclear which makes finding philosophical progress challenging.

What provoked the question, I believe, was the concerning fact that philosophers don’t agree on much. There is no universally agreed body of philosophical facts. There is little convergence on the ‘right answers’ in philosophy. Philosophers have, seemingly, little to show the world for their protracted efforts.

This is so despite individual philosophers’ claims to have discovered the answers. In approximately 600BC, Thales discovered that everything is made of water. In 1990, Peter Van Inwagen discovered that chairs don’t exist. The issue is worsened by the claim, uttered with alarming regularity, that philosophy has only just got (properly) going…followed by the promise that the final answers are coming. The history of philosophy is a history of endings.

To explore what philosophers do, and whether they’ve made progress, I turn to three protagonists from the last half-century. I briefly present, and reflect upon, their insights. Each has a different conception of philosophy; we can learn from all three. They don’t represent the full spectrum of meta-philosophical views, nor all philosophical traditions – far from it – but they’ve been enlightening to me.

Philosophy as Science – Timothy Williamson

There is a tendency, within Anglophone philosophy, to consider the discipline as a science. Our first protagonist, Timothy Williamson, Wykeham Chair of Logic at Oxford, exemplifies this, declaring that philosophy is a science, if not a natural science.

Williamson highlights that just as astronomers learn about stars, metaphysicians learn about being. The purpose of philosophy is to discover things about the world and, methodologically, it should draw from science. Of course, philosophers don’t run experiments, but then again neither do mathematicians. Mathematics, the abstract science, is Williamson’s inspirational model for philosophy. Philosophy should endeavour to emulate its focus on clarity, rigour and formal proof. Like mathematics, philosophy should be an armchair science.

Williamson notes that the necessary groundwork to scientific discovery consists in ruling out theories and confirming what would follow were certain theories true. Such convergence on negative and conditional theses is present in philosophy. For example, the negative thesis that knowledge isn’t justified true belief is now widely accepted. This work doesn’t represent straight up answers to the ‘big questions’, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Additionally, like scientists, philosophers have sharpened the tools of their trade. For example, we now have a vast array of precise formal languages with which to study the mechanisms of argumentation – far more than Aristotle had at his disposal. This is progress, and we can build upon it by getting the basics right. We should carefully define our terms, clarify our positions and meticulously analyse our arguments. This will lead to progress.

From Williamson’s philosophy as science viewpoint, we can take the positive note that clarity and precision are no more the enemies of the imagination in philosophy than they are in mathematics.

A tidy desk is a tidy mind. An ordered and precise set of concepts make for good philosophy too. That said, I couldn’t help wanting more.

Philosophy, Pragmatism and Social Hope – Richard Rorty

Our second protagonist, the American 20th century philosopher Richard Rorty, firmly believed that this desire for more reveals a substantial confusion at philosophy’s heart. He tells us that attempting to answer the big philosophical questions, scientifically or otherwise, is misguided. Such behaviour misunderstands the goal of philosophy, and wastes time:

“philosophy is not a name for a discipline which confronts permanent issues, and unfortunately keeps misstating them…Rather it is a cultural genre, a ‘voice in the conversation of mankind’.”[1]

Showing wise caution to philosophy’s history of false peaks and empty victories, Rorty encourages philosophers to be in constant social, political and cultural dialogue with the community. He suggests that we change the subject, and language, of philosophy; that we turn away from the true and towards the useful.

Philosophy must help guide us as the tide of human life gently ebbs one way then the next. Philosophical progress is progress towards a better life, not towards discovering ‘how things really are.’ Philosophy is thereby a tool for social hope. As such measuring philosophy’s progress by convergence of opinion over time is misguided.

Yet despite his apt weariness around the history of philosophy, Rorty too seems afflicted by the idea that he has finally summitted the peak of philosophical endeavour:

“Our ancestors climbed up a ladder which we…can throw…away not because we have reached a final resting place, but because we have different problems to solve than those which perplexed our ancestors.”[2]

Rorty is cautious about “a final resting place” but in the background, behind this momentous paradigmatic shift, is a sense of achievement. Rorty believes himself to have disabused us of the illusion that the ‘big questions’ require answering. In redefining philosophy’s purpose, though he wouldn’t call it such, has Rorty achieved philosophical progress?

Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline – Bernard Williams

There is something insightful about Rorty’s integration of philosophy back into social, human, discourse and his instinct to reify neither philosophy’s questions, nor its answers. He shares this with our final protagonist Bernard Williams, the 2oth Century Oxford philosopher, who views philosophy as a humanistic, rather than scientific, discipline. Williams warns us that philosophy has been led astray by scientism: the temptation to use scientific method within philosophy or to treat the discipline as its own science.

Williams thought that the goal of philosophy is to make sense of our intellectual lives. ‘Intellectual lives’ is a deliberately general term designed to cover how we think of the world and ourselves in it. Our intellectual lives aren’t something to be superseded by philosophy’s technical, scientifically inspired, methods. Rather, they’re the bread and butter of philosophical inquiry. We cannot transcend them, nor should we try – we must use philosophy to understand them.

This holistic understanding of philosophy comes with a warning against over-specialism. Though the division of labour in academia has been productive, especially in science, we must be alert to contemporary philosophy’s potential to slip into self-propagating cottage industries that lose focus on the understanding our intellectual lives, as a whole.

Perhaps I can clarify the idea with the following, recycled, analogy: imagine an ancient city with a centre packed with winding streets and bustling squares. This gives way to well-regulated suburbs, with ordered grid networks and uniform houses. The city represents our intellectual inquiries. We can view the centre as the humanities which are “as messy as the human lives that buzz about in it.”[3] The suburbs are the sciences – a more controlled landscape.

Williams’ claim that philosophy is a humanistic discipline shouldn’t be heard as the claim that it is a humanities discipline. Philosophy shouldn’t be confined to the city’s humming centre; it is about understanding all of our intellectual activities. Philosophers are the urban planners of the human city. They should consider how different parts of this city co-exist without parking themselves in one district or another.

This also explains both why we should celebrate and be wary of specialism. Some urban planners specialise in underground transit systems, others in integrating green spaces amongst residential areas. This is all to the good, so long as it comes together to form an overarching picture of the city. The same is true of philosophy. To have specialists in formal logic is excellent for the progression of our philosophical tools, theories and ideas. To make it the only path to philosophical progress would be myopic.

…but what about progress?

I’m keen on this notion of philosophy – but what about progress? Should the lack of convergence amongst philosophers worry us? Well, yes and no. We should be pluralistic about progress in philosophy. Converging on answers to the ‘big questions’ is one form of progress which philosophy has been, arguably, slow to demonstrate.

Yet there are other models of progress. Not all of the ‘big questions’ in philosophy demand concrete true answers. Some are more like calls for exploration, while others are calls to improve our messy world. While I don’t want to give up on the idea of all philosophy as searching for ultimate truth, I would warn against assuming that this is always the name of the game.

To understand our intellectual lives, we must understand how different parts of them connect – something philosophy can help us with. Philosophy should cohere our intellectual endeavours by interlinking the empirical and the scientific with the expressive and the personal. This can take many forms.

So, philosophy can be seen as a quest for human understanding. The exploration, comprehension and cohesion of our intellectual lives yields this understanding. This is a continual process, never completed. Philosophical insight is therefore difficult to transmit over the ages. Each generation attempts to demonstrate how to avoid philosophical confusion, but the temptations of intellectual confusion and blindness are ever-present.

This might explain why tracking progress by measuring convergence amongst philosophers cannot provide a final conclusion on the question of philosophical progress. Philosophy is a continual process of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. This process includes reflecting on philosophy itself. Our conception of philosophy is philosophy – something all our protagonists agree on.

Yet this doesn’t exclude pluralism about philosophical progress. In presenting this picture of philosophy I hope to have avoided prescribing any particular framework for doing philosophy. Williamson is right that we should take inspiration from the precision and clarity of mathematicians. Rorty is also right to suggest that we should use philosophy as “a voice in the conversation in mankind.”[4]

My polemical nudge, along with others, is towards plurality and away from gatekeeping. Metaphysics is philosophy, as is the philosophy of music, the history of philosophy and the philosophy of philosophy. There are many different philosophers, doing many different types of philosophy, in many different ways. This is fitting since philosophy is the broad understanding of our intellectual lives!

We must step back and view the city as one whole breathing organism. We must work to help the different regions prosper together, perhaps then we shall see the need to address one tricky traffic junction. Yet we are better able to address specific intellectual problems when equipped with the overview that philosophy’s humanistic character gives us.

Philosophy helps us understand ourselves and our place in the world. This is philosophy at its best. It represents progress.

[1] Rorty, R. (1980) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Oxford: Blackwell)

[2] Rorty (ibid, xxii)

[3] Egan, D. (2019), ‘Is there anything especially expert about being a philosopher?, Aeon, https://aeon.co/ideas/is-there-anything-especially-expert-about-being-a-philosopher

[4] Rorty (1980, 264), a phrase taken from Michael Oakeshott.


Other works referenced

Rorty, R. (1982) Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Williams, B. (2000), ‘Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline’ Philosophy 75(294), 477-496

Williamson, T. (2005) ‘Must Do Better’, in P. Greenough and M. Lynch, eds. Truth and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Williamson, T. (2007) Philosophy of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell)


Alex is a PhD student at the UCL Philosophy department. His research interests centre on metaphysics and philosophy of language, especially on the coherence and possibility that we live in a simulation. Alex additionally has a keen interest in the question of whether value is objective and in all sorts of questions about what philosophy is and should be.


Photo credit: Jonathan Egid.

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