Conversational Disciplines

Kieran Healy:

Recently Tyler Cowen asked whether there has been progress in Philosophy. Agnes Callard wrote a thoughtful reply, saying amongst other things:

We don’t demand progress in the fields of fashion or literature, because these things please us. Philosophy, by contrast, is bitter, and we want to know what good it will do us, and when, finally, it will be over. It is not pleasant to be told that maybe you don’t know who you are, or how to treat your friends, or how to be happy. It’s not pleasant to have it pointed out to you that maybe nothing you have ever done matters, or that, for all you know, there is nothing out there at all.

So one way to hear the questioner is as asking:

“When will philosophy finally go away? When will they stop raising questions about whether my own will is free, or saying that I can’t tell whether I’m leading my life or it’s leading me? When will they stop telling me that I need to read this or that book in order to be fully human? When will they leave me alone?”

The answer is: never.

In the background of this exchange is an ongoing discussion in philosophy about whether the field is making progress, as exemplified in recent papers by Dave Chalmers (”Why isn’t there more progress in Philosophy?”) and Herman Cappelen (”Disagreement in Philosophy: an optimistic perspective”). Disciplines—including my own—periodically have debates about whether they are making as much progress as they once did, or as they should be making. There’s a strong connection between what those debates look like and the degree of “disciplinarity” in a given area.

More here.