The Future of Philosophy: Trends in Philosophy
 By Matti Eklund

The following opinion piece is one of a series of five being released this week and next to celebrate World Philosophy Day and to publicise the upcoming workshop entitled Editor’s Cut – A view of philosophical research from journal editors. the workshop will take place at the University of London on Friday 13th of January 2012.

Trends in Philosophy
By Matti Eklund
Associate Professor, Cornell
Editor of The Philosophical Review


What caused the demise of logical positivism? According to certain potted histories of 20th-Century philosophy, it was Willard V.O. Quine’s refutation of central claims about analyticity in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” that did it, or Thomas Kuhn’s refutation of logical positivism’s claims about science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or it was problems about how to understand the verification principle (is it itself verifiable?) that did it in. These explanations are problematic. Quine just didn’t give any compelling argument against analyticity in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. At best he argued that it couldn’t be non-circularly characterized, but the same goes for many perfectly legitimate notions, and notions Quine accepted as perfectly legitimate – as H. P. Grice and Peter Strawson were quick to point out. As for Kuhn, it has now been well-documented that Rudolf Carnap, the most famous logical positivist, was quite positive about Kuhn’s project. Simplifying somewhat: while Kuhn presented an account of actual history of science, the positivists discussed science under a certain idealization. Kuhn does not even talk much about logical positivism in Structure. Problems regarding the verification principle are another matter. Those problems are arguably serious. But they weren’t discovered when logical positivism met its demise. (Which was when, exactly? The 1950s? Early 60s?) Rather, such problems were alwayswith logical positivism, having been pointed out by its earliest critics.

Instead, something like the following happened. Logical positivism presented a certain kind of research program. Its tenets presented certain questions as the ones research should be focused on. But gradually the suggested research program came to be seen as somewhat sterile. It became natural for theorists to look elsewhere. Insofar as Quine and Kuhn had important roles to play it was rather here. Kuhn’s work suggested a research program rather more focused on the actual historical development of science. And while the early parts of Quine’s “Two Dogmas” present a rather unconvincing argument against the notion of analyticity, the latter parts present an alternative, holistic picture of theories – and this positive picture, while not argued for, can have been seen as a fruitful alternative to the then sterile-seeming picture presented by the logical positivists. (A complication is that Carnap had presented a not too dissimilar picture already in the 1930s. But Carnap didn’t highlight the picture in the way Quine did.)

I think this tells us something about how philosophy often develops. Without borrowing wholesale Kuhn’s picture of science, I think some ideas Kuhn introduced are important to keep in mind when considering the trajectory of philosophy. Research programs are adopted, consciously or not, by a certain part of the philosophical community: certain tenets are taken for granted, certain notions are regarded as the proper ones to use as tools, and certain puzzles are regarded as the ones to focus attention on. The research program isn’t abandoned simply on the ground that seemingly compelling arguments against its fundamental assumptions are presented. Rather, it is abandoned when research conducted within its confines is no longer seen as fruitful, and when a new alternative, with some promise of success, is available.

Some recent developments seem to fit this template well. (1) Experimental philosophy (“x-phi”). The emergence of x-phi, with its emphasis on empirical, statistical methods in philosophy, isn’t due to some particular novel arguments on its behalf, or against the ‘armchair philosophy’ it sets itself up against. Rather, certain early results seemed exciting and suggestive of more exciting results to be had. New avenues of research opened up in areas that seemed stagnant. (2) Within contemporary metaphysics it has become popular to focus on fundamentality, essence and grounding, and on thinking about ontological questions not as questions about what there is but about what there is, fundamentally. There are, to be sure, arguments supporting use of these notions: arguments to the effect that modal notions don’t suffice to draw all distinctions we may want to draw. But the point about the insufficiency of the modal notions is relatively obvious, and the recent surge of interest in these more fine-grained notions can’t really be the result of some new insight. Better to look at things as follows: It has been known for some time that modal notions cannot be used to draw all distinctions that can intuitively be drawn; it was just that a time came when it seemed to many more fruitful to look at what can be said about fundamentality, grounding, etc. than to stick with the old framework and try to use only modal notions for serious theorizing.

I think further examples can easily be provided. But every example one might be tempted to give will be somewhat controversial, for friends of the philosophical approach in question will be tempted to say that the development is more argument-driven than I give it credit for, and sometimes such a reply will be correct.

One sometimes hears the complaint that contemporary philosophy is too trend-driven. I am sure I have sometimes snarky remarks to that effect myself. The above considerations can be seen as reinforcing such complaints. One can take what I say in the previous paragraph to suggest that the developments I consider there are mere fads. But while there may be reason to be skeptical of some of the developments that fit the general template I describe, that’s not what I take the main lesson to be.  Instead, I think that it is inevitable that the kind of thing I describe often happens. And while this may not immediately constitute progress, a means to progress is to keep looking for where there is interesting research to be done and progress to be made. Some research programs popular at a given time can perhaps be dismissed as mere fads, but it is easier confidently to make such assessments given proper hindsight.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

7 thoughts on “The Future of Philosophy: Trends in Philosophy
 By Matti Eklund”

  1. Yes, that does sound to me like a whitewash.

    Logical Positivism was held by at least some philosophers (and I would guess most of the ones who cared to put their heads over the parapet) to have been decisively refuted, and the status of the concept of analyticity was regarded by many for a long time as seriously damaged by Quine’s critique. Even friends of logical positivism such as Michael Friedman put up half hearted defences of analyticity rather than saying anything as critical of Quine’s critique as you have just offered. To this day it is very difficult to find philosophers of mathematics who will agree that mathematics is analytic.

    Furthermore, Russell first and Carnap following, took the methods of analytic philosophers to be fundamentally unsound, and Carnap’s philosophy was a response to that critique. That Quine’s ill-founded critique was as influential as it was and that you are now proposing that a reversal can be achieved as a mere realignment of research priorities, confirms their view, and the view that such fundamental disagreements should not be brushed under the carpet.

  2. Many thanks for your intelligent and thought-provoking piece. (I suspect Quine can be plausibly defended from Grice & Strawson, but knowing me, that’s no surprise.) I am inclined to agree that fads run the show to a large extent, and that this is pretty much inevitable in the academy. Still, as you insinuate, it would be wrong to conclude that the fads, as such, are wrong-headed. (This would be a kind of reverse ad populum.)

    Nevertheless, one cannot help notice that in the history of philosophy, the important ideas were rarely the result of some then-fashionable trend. Wittgenstein couldn’t get the Tractatus published for many years, even with Russell’s endorsement. (In fact, Russell was also an academic outcast for many years; witness his “popular” works, published to make ends meet.) Also, Frege never received the recognition in his lifetime he deserved i(for his philosophical achievements). Ditto with Nietzsche. Chomsky, moreover, rejected the ubiquitous behaviorism of the time when writing _Syntactic Structures_. Even David Lewis was severely bucking the trend when advocating Modal Realism (esp. since he was a student of Quine!). Also, no one can fail to recognize how revolutionary _Naming and Necessity_ was. I also think of Millikan’s late blossoming in the public eye. The list goes on.

    I think this should serve as a lesson for journal editors and the like. The history evidences that trend-following usually does not result in the really important ideas. To be sure, there may be counterexamples (perhaps recent work in x-phi, e.g., is one of them). But to judge one’s work primarily by the current trends seems foolhardy, and indeed, destructive to the discipline. I am not accusing anyone of advocating the contrary. But it is worth making explicit the reasons against such a view.

    Again, I thank you Prof. Eklund for the constructive discussion and facilitating thought about such issues.

  3. In response to T. Parent:

    I think the points you make are good.

    About the role of editors: Certainly it is harder to evaluate work that purports to be (in Kuhnian terms) revolutionary. Isn’t it rather understandable why an editor might have been reluctant to publish the Tractatus, even if, in hindsight, it clearly was publishable? It is relatively easier to evaluate what only aspires to be puzzle-solving. I don’t know what to say about this except the relatively general and bland thing that editors and referees should try as best they can to be open-minded.

    In response to Roger Bishop Jones:

    I am not quite sure what exactly you mean when you talk about what I wrote being a whitewash. And I wasn’t proposing any kind of “reversal”. (Moreover, while I think Quine’s anti-analyticity arguments in “Two Dogmas” are bad, his arguments in “Truth by Convention” and in “Carnap and Logical Truth” are considerably better, whatever in the end should be said about them.)

  4. I do see that my critique was not very clear.

    I am substantially in agreement with Carnap, and I regard the general opinion that the central tenets of his philosophical programme were refuted, particularly by the arguments of Quine and Kripke, as evidence of the irrationality of academic analytic philosophy.

    It seems to me that the presentation of changes in philosophy as changes in what research trends are fashionable overlooks the fact that not only do directions of research change (which is perfectly OK) but also that there are substantive, even radical, changes in received philosophical doctrine from one generation to the next, which often do represent reversals.

    I don’t myself believe that Logical Positivism merely became unfashionable, it was held to have been refuted. If positivism comes once again to be considered an acceptable philosophical position, it will only be by a second reversal of opinion on fundamental doctrine rather than a mere shift in interests.

    The reason I called it a “whitewash” was that I consider that the supposed refutation of logical positivism was fallacious, is one more event to the discredit of philosophy, and that the representation as shifting research trends makes it appear less discreditable than I believe it to have been.

    What is discreditable is not that research directions are influenced by fashion, but that received doctrine is also a matter of fashion, and that those who disagree with these trends will find their careers at risk. The majority of fashion followers will treat as philosophically incompetent those who differ (on the key issues) (except for that minority who set the next trend).

    Roger Jones

  5. In response to Prof. Eklund’s response:
    Yes, I regret what I said about editors; thanks for the correction. Though of course, I would still hope that decisions are not guided too much by trends.

  6. Right on! I would conceptualize what you say as part of the sociology of philosophy. A related hypothesis about the sociology of philosophy is the need for there to be 3-6 broad schools of thought at any one time, as argued by Randall Collins in his sweeping 1998 book, The Sociology of Philosophies. If so, there are times when it is relatively ripe or unripe for a broad new approach to flourish.

    I would also conjecture a demographic hypothesis: The flood of philosophers who were hired to teach the baby boomers in the 1960s, and who dominated the field until the 1990s (at the expense of their younger contemporaries), needed to distinguish themselves from the earlier generations, while elevating heroes like Quine and Kuhn. And the generation of philosophers hired to replace them and teach the children of the baby boomers in the early 2000s need a new set of projects. Heroes TBA.

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