Thursday, February 14, 2013

Was the Latter Half of the 20th Century a Golden Age for Philosophy?

No, you will say. And I tend to agree, probably not. But let me make the case against dismissing the idea out of hand.

One framing thought is this. The normal condition of humanities research in academia is probably to be poorly funded. People on the left would rather fund poverty relief. People on the right would rather not fund at all. Pragmatists in the center want to fund disciplines with what is perceived as "practical application". The normal condition of humanities research in academia is probably also to survive as a conspiracy of mediocrity in which social connections and political alliances determine position much more than research quality does. Anglophone academic philosophy has, perhaps, defied gravity for a long while already.

Another framing thought is this. Greatness is comparative. In an era with lots of philosophers not vastly different in quality or influence, in the eyes of their contemporaries, it might be hard to pick out a few as giants of world-historical stature. But with time, with the winnowing of greats, that is, with the forgetting of almost-great philosophers, those whose works are still discussed might come to seem more nearly peerless.

I'm considering a fifty-year period, 1950-1999. Ancient Greece hosted a golden age in philosophy, but if limit ourselves to a comparable fifty-year period we probably can't include all three of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle at the height of their powers, instead having to settle for two plus their lesser contemporaries. The early modern period in Western Europe was probably also a golden age, but again a fifty-year restriction limits those who can be included. By aiming very carefully we can include Descartes' Meditations (1641) through Locke's Essay and Treatises (1689-1690), plus Spinoza and Hobbes in the middle and a dash of Leibniz; or we can run from Locke through early Hume, with most of Leibniz and Berkeley between (plus lesser contemporaries). German philosophy waxed golden from 1780-1829, with Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, plus. The question, then, is whether Anglophone philosophy from 1950-1999 might be roughly comparable.

To a first approximation, two things make a philosopher great: quality of argument and creative vigor. (Personally, I also rather care about prose style, but let's set that issue aside.) With apologies to Kant enthusiasts, it seems to me that despite his creativity and vision, Kant's arguments are often rather poor or gestural, requiring substantial reconstruction by sympathetic (sometimes overly charitable?) later commentators. And Descartes' major positive project in the Meditations, his proof of the existence of God and the external world, is widely recognized to be a rather shoddy argument. Similar remarks apply to Plato, Hegel, Spinoza, etc. The great philosophers of the past had, of course, their moments of argumentative brilliance, but for rigor of argument, I think it's hard to say that any fifty-year period clearly exceeds the highlight moments of the best philosophers from 1950-1999.

The more common complaint against Anglophone "analytic" philosophy of the period is its lack of broad-visioned creativity. On that issue, I think it's very hard to justify a judgment without the distance of history. But still... in my own area, philosophy of mind, the period was the great period of philosophical materialism. Although there had been materialists before, it was only in this period that materialism really came to full fruition. And arguably, there is no more important issue in all of philosophy than the cluster of issues around materialism, dualism, and idealism. From a world-historical perspective, the development of materialism was arguably a philosophical achievement of the very highest magnitude. The period also saw a flourishing of philosophy of language in Kripke and reactions to him. In epistemology, the concept of knowledge came under really careful scrutiny for the first time. In general metaphysics, there was David Lewis. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations also falls within the period. In philosophy of science, Kuhn. In ethics and political philosophy, Rawls and Williams. Without pretending a complete or unbiased list, I might also mention Strawson, Putnam, Foot, Singer, Quine, Anscombe, Davidson, Searle, Fodor, Dretske, Dennett, Millikan, and early Chalmers. In toto, is it clear that there's less philosophical value here than in the period from Descartes through Locke or from Kant through Hegel?

Or am I just stuck with a worm's-eye view in which my elders loom too large, and all of this will someday rightly be seen as no more significant than, say, Italian philosophy in the time of Vico or Chinese philosophy in the time of Wang Yangming?

47 comments:

dietl said...

I think a period being a Golden Age for Philosophy also depends on how society views philosophy or philosophers in general. In Ancient Greek being philosopher was very different from being one today (or 1950-1999). Not only did it have very different job specifications but also you had a mucher better social status. I might be wrong, but I think no one would call Aristoteles a navel-gazing armchair wanker and if so, then for different reasons than today.

Tony Dardis said...

I kind of do think that was a golden age. But I'd rather not. Because I don't want to think of now as a falling away from that age. And you can't do better than golden.

Brandon said...

I notice that you slip from talking about "quality of argument" to talking about "rigor of argument". I think this is a very problematic slip; there are certainly other factors involved in quality of argument (originality, fecundity, practical relevance, etc.). It's a dubious measure that would have us preferring, on grounds of quality, rigorous trivial arguments over substantive arguments in need of some corrections, as well as rigorous arguments to stupid conclusions over enthymemes to brilliant ones.

I am also extremely skeptical of the idea that the cluster of issues around materialism, dualism, and idealism are anywhere near as important in any era as you want to make them. But there are certainly things to be said in favor of the period on the LEMMing side of things.

Incidentally, though, it seems to me that even if we do take rigor as a key feature, I think a far more plausible candidate for a golden age would be the first half of the twentieth century: it catches the Principia Mathematica, Russell's best work, most of the top work of Carnap, the Vienna Circle, the Lvov-Warsaw Circle, and that's just on the analytic side.

Daniel W said...

You forget that the value of philosophy can be very negative. Therefore you should never dismiss a very small positive value.

Personally I don't see much value in todays philosophy. People use it for a living and egoistic emotional control.

I like Popper though.

Anonymous said...

"...two things make a philosopher great: quality of argument and creative vigor."

This surely can't be sufficient, because both are also present in the best sophists. Perhaps 'quality of argument' is meant to include being sincere and broadly correct, which would rule out sophistry, but that would also rule out too many important philosophers. And not just on grounds of correctness - any worthwhile work in dialogue form involves good arguments being presented insincerely; Hume seems to provide arguments for conclusions he professes not to believe; Wittgenstein seems to argue for, or at least assert, conclusions he professes not to understand; I doubt Lewis actually accepted all the details of modal realism either, however much he wanted to. But there really is a difference between philosophy and sophistry, and one we want to capture.

I propose the following: philosophers aim for improved understanding of various matters, and aim to communicate it to others, so greatness of a philosopher is to be measured by the degree to which they achieve and communicate understanding, and the relative importance of the subject matter.


It's also interesting that, under your first framing thought, we should expect other humanities to have experienced similar riches to those of philosophy. I'm not an expert, but I can't see the period having been a golden age for e.g. literature or theology. Perhaps history? It seems to me that the sort of golden age you are looking for in philosophy tends to coincide with golden ages in the other humanities (Locke gets Milton, Mill gets Dickens; which of them also gets to belong to a golden age?) and also the sciences, and not just because success in any area tends to vary with the amount of money available. The fact that 1950-1999 appears not to have been a golden age for many other disciplines should lead us to wonder whether it really was for philosophy. At the same time, since 1900-1949 was arguably a golden age for literature, mathematics and physics among German-speakers, we might be led to take a second look at German-originated philosophy from that period.

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, the 50 years 1922-1971: Tractatus to Theory of Justice. Or 1931-1980: Goedel to Kripke.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Tony: Yep!

@ Dietl: Aristophanes comes to mind. At least we don't force philosophers to commit suicide anymore.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Brandon: True that rigor is only one aspect of quality. But the possibility that late 20th-century analytic philosophy had rigor but not fecundity or originality is pretty close to the critique that I expressed by saying it didn't have creative vigor, so I'm not sure the shift in terminology is so important to my argument. You also mention practical relevance, but I think it's a bit of reach to say that concerns "quality of argument" in the intended sense. I'd rather think of it as another dimension on which philosophy can be evaluated.

I do agree that 1900-1949 is another plausible candidate for a golden age. (There's a question about how to treat the "analytic"-"Continental" divide, since golden ages presumably need some sociological unity.) I don't think it at all clear that 1950-1999 is a *better* candidate than 1900-1949. The early 20th century has more figures that seem, from our current perspective, to be toweringly large. I didn't mean my three examples of golden ages to be exclusive. On the other hand, we don't want to award gold too cheaply!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 05:48: I'm inclined to think of "sophistry" as bad argument gussied up to fool people. If that's the conception, then my two criteria still can work. I agree that sincerity and correctness of argument aren't good criteria. "Understanding" is an interesting candidate, but a bit hard to nail down in cases where the views are badly incorrect.

On the other humanities, I don't profess expertise. But among those that haven't flourished in the period, despite funding, one possible explanation is what I called above the "conspiracy of mediocrity".

Unknown said...

In your estimation is there any pre-20th Century philosopher who merits greatness based on rigor/quality of argument? Does the greatness of Kant, Descartes, Plato, etc. lie primarily (or solely?) in their creative vigor? Is it possible that argumentative rigor/quality progresses over time? What we now recognize as not-rigorous-enough argument may have been an advance in argumentative rigor for the time?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown: Thanks for the comment! I didn't mean to draw such a sharp distinction between the argumentative quality in 1950-1999 and argumentative quality earlier. All I wanted to commit to was that 1950-1999 was *not worse* overall than those other periods.

In the course of making that general point, I expressed my views about the quality of some of Kant's and Plato's and others' arguments, but I'm pretty hesitant to jump more fully into the a dispute about whether Philosopher X's arguments are good and Philosopher Y's arguments are bad! I'm committed to the generalization, but not to the individual supporting examples.

Michel Clasquin-Johnson said...

@ Tony Dardis Just blame it on inflation. Why should we stick to the old mythological bronze-silver-gold system? There are lots of metals with higher market values than gold. We'll just start the ball rolling with a Platinum Age, then we can move on to Rhodium ... There's a whole periodic table to plunder and they are discovering new mumblemumbledium's almost daily. When we get to the Antimatter Age it will be time to start worrying.

thitherward said...

If I had to pick a golden age, I'd go with the Scottish Enlightenment. The postwar period certainly has its eminent figures (although eminence is not quality -- come on, Rawls and Singer?) but it can't claim to have founded at least two disciplines and produced the two possibly most important Anglophone philosophers ever. (It might be a bit of a stretch to include Mill, but his father was right in the middle of it, so he could be considered at least an 'aftershock'. And if we allow aftershocks... well, Mill was Russell's godfather!)

This golden age would have to be a bit longer than fifty years, but the Roman one was a few centuries long so that shouldn't be a problem. It has to be long (1730-1880, maybe?) to capture both Hume and Mill, and that also captures Thomas Carlyle, one of the best writers in the English language and arguably (along with Laurence Sterne) the unacknowledged grandfather of postmodernism. It also, as mentioned above, includes Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson--the fathers of economics and sociology. And, of course, Robert Burns.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thitherward: Some of my favorite philosophers in there! But if we're going for 150 years, we can also juice up the recent Anglophone+German analytic tradition, getting most of John Stuart Mill, plus Russell-Moore-Wittgenstein, and William James, Carnap, Frege, the ordinary language philosophers, etc., in addition to the people I named in the original post. For towering greats, it's hard to beat Hume, at least as seen from this temporal perspective. But the rest of the starting line-up and the bench is pretty awesome too.

Aron said...

Regardless of whether any individual philosophers active between 1950-1999 are comparable to the historical greats, I think the philosophical value of this period is almost certainly greater than that of any previous 50 year period, simply because of the sheer number of philosophers there are today. (I haven't looked at any figures, but it wouldn't surprise me if there was as much philosophy written in this period as in all previous periods combined.)

While I agree that there is a winnowing of the greats effect, I can't help but think that by picking, say, five philosophers active between 1950-1999, you would miss out on much more great philosophy than if you did the same for any other 50 year period.

Gottlob said...

@Brandon (& Eric):
Rather than going for 1900-1949, I'd suggest 1890-1939. This has the advantage of including Frege's masterpieces "Function und Begriff", "Begriff und Gegenstand" and "Über Sinn und Bedeutung". Russell, Moore, Ramsey, early Wittgenstein, Tarski, early Quine, Schlick, Neurath, Carnap up to and including "Foundations of Logic and Mathematics", Reichenbach up to and including "Experience and Prediction", but also Lukacs, Dewey, Husserl, Cassirer -- I think this period has contributed a lot more valuable stuff to what we think of as philosophy today than 1950-1999. (But then, would the concept of a golden age preclude the possibility that it might have been preceded by another golden age almost immediately before it?)
Taking some of the comments here together, one might get the idea that we have been enjoying a very long golden age for quite a while now. Good for us!

Bob Hockett said...

Dummet?

Anonymous said...

Was the last 50 years in philosophy "no more significant than, say, Italian philosophy in the time of Vico or Chinese philosophy in the time of Wang Yangming?"

My question is what was accomplished? What effects were the direct consequence of philosophical work during this time? Marx spurned a revolution whose spasms are still being felt. Locke's concept of human rights still hold great sway in the minds of policy makers. Plato's vision of Utopia still entices many and Aristotle's ethics still speaks to the hearts of contemporaries. I can't say the same for nearly anything written in the last 50 years. I think it was a dark age.

Chris said...

One should not neglect one of the greatest golden ages, roughly between 1250 and 1300: Aquinas, Scotus, and (early) Ockham.

Bobcat said...

I also think that, for the philosophy of religion, 1950-1999 includes some really good stuff: Plantinga, the Adamses, van Inwagen, Hick, D. Z. Phillips, Alston, Stump, Mavrodes, etc.

Anonymous said...

Is there some word higher than "golden" that we can use for the period in question? It is clear that all of the philosophers mentioned equal or surpass the likes of Plato and Aristotle in their depth of vision and contributions to human knowledge. There is no doubt in my mind that even in 4500 A.D. all of these philosophers will form a core part of the philosophy curriculum, with their works pored over by countless generations of students in numerous disciplines for milennia to come.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Aron and Anon 09:36: I'm assuming Anon is being sarcastic. But against that sarcasm, I will deploy Aron's observation. Even if no philosopher of the period had the breadth of contributions that Plato and Aristotle did, not all golden ages need look the same. There's at least a *case* to be made that collectively the period had somewhat comparable value -- and all I'm arguing for is that there's a case, i.e., that it's not a patently ridiculous thought.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Gottlob: Yes, maybe so.

Hockett: Sure, more names can be added. I wasn't committing to a specific top-15 list.

Chris: I didn't mean to be exclusive. But I think ancient Greece and the early modern period are probably less controversial.

Bobcat: Maybe so; I can't pretend to an informed opinion about that.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 07:28: If one evaluates philosophy by its practical effects in the public sphere, I agree that 1950-1999 looks much weaker than many earlier ages.

Anonymous said...

If I understand the (clearly ironical) comment from 09:36:00 correctly, it suggests that it's unlikely for 1950-99 to amount to a Golden Age because (i) it's unlikely that the works of that time will be "pored over by countless generations of students in numerous disciplines", and (ii) in this respect they compare unfavorably with the works of Plato and Aristotle. This raises the question, though: Why is (ii) the case? Is it because Plato and Aristotle were just so unsurpassably good? Or is it because they merely surpassed their contemporaries (admittedly by far, but then there aren't that many to compare them with) and were among the first philosophers whose works have survived?

John Turri said...

Hi Eric,

In absolute terms, way more people were able to dedicate way more of their time to doing philosophy in the second half of the 20th century than in any half-century prior to that. Accordingly, I suspect that if we rank periods by the amount of knowledge and insight created, the second-half of the 20th century was the best ever. If we adopt a different measure -- in terms of the heights of individual genius or brilliance achieved -- things might seem different, but perhaps that's mainly due to the slipperiness of the measure.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that strikes me as entirely correct is the unprecedented institutional support (in US at least, perhaps elsewhere too) for philosophy in those years. But I think that that simply coincides with a broader trend of supporting humanities or academy in general in those years and it has very little to do with philosophy itself. It did mean, I think, that a lot more people could do philosophy as a profession than ever before (at least so I would think).

The rigor of arguments, and such. I am not sure whether that's exactly a good measure. The way I tend to think about it is rather whether or not a philosopher opens a new way of thinking about something - a way that then proves fruitful for at least some time to come. This is one of the reasons why Plato is so great. It's true that a lot of his arguments are weird, terrible or unclear or have odd presuppositions. But his writings are full of new and original ideas about how to think about things - in fact, many times he comes up with the idea that something is a subject to think about - in terms of principles and explanations - in the first place - the idea of soul, language, or art (etc.). Similarly, Aristotle realizes that we could have normative rules for thinking, and so on. This is very different from simply working out various versions of an already established idea, usually by slowly filling up the logical space of possible options or more refined -isms. It's one thing to think of various possible versions of materialism, quite another to come up with the idea of materialism in the first place. I am no expert, but I would suspect that the same holds of people like Kant or Descartes. So, looking back at 1950-99, is there a philosopher that really open a new way of thinking for us? Maybe Kripke? I am not sure.

William said...

The Twentieth Centry had 3 great eras: Cambridge UK early in the Century; Vienna 1918-1936; and the USA 1960-1980. We are now in the afterglow of a great era. I would narrow the recent phase to 1960-1980 although Qune was active before then. Most of the options (e.g. in Philosophy of mind) were played out by the end of that phase, a bit like the pop music of the 60s that is endlessly revived. Pick up the Philosophical Review or Journal of Philosophy from the that era and you see fresh philosophy being minted. Now it is more 'scholastic' in a negative sense. It is true that the modal paradigm of Lewis/Putnam/Kripke was problematic, which is why Fine is important. But, by and large, we should mourn!

Jonathan Livengood said...

What does the picture look like if you adjust for population size or background level of education?

And what if we throw the net more widely than the canonical philosophers -- for example, to include scientists or literary figures?

Anonymous said...

We need to distinguish between depth and Breath: late 20 century anglo-american has many wonderful thinkers, but does it have a thinker or two who changed the philosophical paradigm, not just in one or two areas, but in most if not all areas of philosophy? It seems to me that a golden age has to have one or two thinkers of this caliber, in addition to many other lesser but still powerful thinkers. When Descartes, for instance, unfolded his program he introduced conceptualizations that even his philosophical enemies were forced to use, for hundreds of years. Is this going to be the case with Kripke or Lewis? Will the conceptualizations of possible world semantics be obligatory even for its opponents, or will one be able to continue to articulate other respectable semantic programs without much bother? I suspect the latter.

Anonymous said...

So could anyone recommend an historically sensitive article explaining just why Kripke, Quine, Davidson, and others in this tradition are Great Philosophers? I'm genuinely curious here. I've read and re-read NN, WRPL, WO, etc, but though the works are clever, sometimes "rigorous", and usually enjoyable (not to mention solid contributions to philosophy), the philosophers centering this literature lack the depth of vision or mind-bended sensitivity that enabled the great philosophers to take the leaps they did, showing less twisted minds what to catch up to in a more explicitly rational manner (Kant's leap being a prime example, as Eric pointed out). By this criterion, Great recent philosophers would certainly include Wittgenstein and Sellars, and probably at least Carnap, David Lewis, and Ruth Millikan.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Anon 10:41 and John Turri: Yes, those are reasonable points, in my view.

Anon 02:13: In philosophy of mind, I think that both functionalism and the treatment of mental content as having a grounding in evolutionary history and social context were major new contributions -- not entirely unanticipated, perhaps, but reaching maturity only in 1950-1999. Contrast these recent attempts to marry together mind and evolution with the epiphenomenalism of Huxley and the social Darwinism of Spencer, for a sense of how much treatment of the issues has matured. (Not that there's nothing to Huxley or Spencer -- but they didn't even seem to see the range of philosophical options that are on the table today.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

William: Yeah, maybe so. I can work myself into different moods on this issue.

Jonathan Livengood: I'm not sure we *should* adjust for population size or background level of education. Suppose the nuclear holocaust happens tomorrow and we are plunged into a dark age with some access to the philosophical work of the past but not the institutional structures to support the creation of lots of professional-quality philosophy. And let's suppose that my optimistic view of late 20th-century philosophy has merit. I don't think we then discount the value of the tradition by saying it doesn't count because there were lots of professors. Rather we celebrate the ability of society to have sustained so much good work for so long. In much the same way, we don't see the number of philosophers in Athens as a strike against its Goldenness but if anything the reverse.

Re scientists and literary figures: I see some similar difficulties with historical perspective, winnowing, and the fact of many making it harder for one to stand out. It's probably safe to say that the period produced no scientist as individually revolutionary are Darwin or Einstein.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 04:30: If one needs a thinker who revolutionizes both LEMMings (language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind) AND some normative areas (ethics, political, aesthetics), then probably the late 20th century doesn't supply any. But that's a very high bar, and even Descartes' influence was mostly LEMMings! Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and Kant are some who had powerful influence across the LEMMings/normative divide. So if you need a thinker like that, then probably the late 20th century was not Golden unless we decide retrospectively to think of Wittgenstein as a great ethicist or to elevate someone like McDowell to the top ranks, or something like that.

But if transforming LEMMings alone is enough for glowing greatness, the period does produce some not *wholly* implausible candidates, like later Wittgenstein, Lewis, and Kripke. I think it still remains to be seen what the historical judgment of these figures will be. Lewis seems to be glowing only ever more brilliant in the decade since his death, to judge by his increasingly reverential treatment in recent metaphysics.

Anonymous said...

From Anon 02:13: functionalism, though arguably anticipated several times before (or so Nussbaum and Putnam argue about Aristotle, and one can find traces of it elsewhere, e.g. Hobbes) is a nice idea. But I am not sure to what extent it is a philosophical idea, rather than an application of an idea or concept from the then emerging field of computer science to an old philosophical problem created by Descartes' new understanding of matter (to offer that would be something).

Btw. it is a mistake to think that Descartes' influence was mainly in LEMMings. That view is a result of writing textbook histories in 19/20th century that greatly simplified what was actually going on.

In any case, I think that we are not in a position to answer questions about such recent history. Take the influence of Lewis or Kripke on contemporary phil. It is comparable to, though probably not as big as, the influence of C. Thomasius and C. Wolff in the 18th century (there were Wolffians and Thomassians). I do not think anybody would want to suggest that that was a golden age of philosophy. In fact, nobody but historians cares at all.

Anonymous said...

Do you even know how to read Plato?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 01:10: Wolff is a nice example. Or Spencer. Or Bergson. For sure, there's no guarantee Lewis (say) isn't a case like that. Maybe that's even where the smart money goes. I feel myself swung both ways.

Anon 01:51: I would argue that Plato should be read without too much charity or reverence. I have principled reasons for favoring such an approach to the great philosophers of the past, which I have explored in some of my other blog posts. This doesn't mean that one can't appreciate Plato's awesome coolness.

Anonymous said...

Here we might look at the medieval era in which Aristotelianism dominated. Very few would consider this to be a golden age of philosophy. Why? Well, first of all, we consider Aristotle's system to be flawed, and thus the work done by the medievals filling out his system to be a waste of time. But even if Aristotle's system was correct, would this not imply that the time in which Aristotle built his system was the Golden Age, and the time which followed a Silver Age?

What I am suggesting is that we seem to measure "Golden Ages" in terms of system-builders rather than in terms of philosophers with good arguments. What makes system-builders like Plato, Aristotle, Kant and the Moderns stand out is the fact that they tried to answer philosophical questions from the ground up. This is not something that the current Weberian climate of philosophical academia encourages. Rather, we are encouraged to be a field of specialists, analogous to the sciences.

The question is whether in future generations the twentieth century will be seen to be more analogous to the Modern period consisting of people like Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley, Spinoza, etc., or more analogous to the Hellenistic period in which many philosophers worked under particular philosophical systems, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism. I suspect our future colleagues will judge it in the latter fashion. It seems fairly reasonable to imagine the twentieth century being called the "Linguistic Period", and that Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, etc. being taught as figures within the same general intellectual tradition.

Now, if the problems with reference and other things get worked out such that for the rest of history, philosophy continues to rely heavily upon the method of linguistic analysis developed during this period, there is a decent chance that it might be considered a Golden Age. That remains to be seen.

Right now there seems to be growing unrest with the foundations of our dominant philosophical systems. First of all, there were the problems with Kripke's theory of direct reference that have remained unsettled. Secondly, more and more people are writing on "meta-philosophical" topics such as the role of intuitions in philosophical methodology (e.g. Williamson and Cappelen). A third example would be the whole X-Phi movement. And I would also add the growing concern with 'metametaphysics' as further evidence of unrest. All this suggests to me that the field is perhaps awaiting some sort of paradigm-shift, or the next great system builder.

Of course, this is not to suggest that philosophy makes no progress. Well... maybe it does.

Anonymous said...

I guess I've taken it for granted that this is the most active and productive era of philosophy by a long shot. I really do feel like the present-day active philosophers could easily re-do the work of any one of the historical greats, if he and his subsequent influence had been erased from history. And yes, I'm including Hume, Kant and Plato in the list. But that's an unfair comparison, because we have such a huge numerical advantage compared to the previous eras.

The canonical greats are great partly because they showed up while low-hanging fruit was still on the philosophical tree. I think that taking significant additional steps gets exponentially more difficult. I sometimes think about how even mediocre grad students, transported by time machine to old Koenigsberg, would make Kant feel like quite a dullard. The same goes for any of the other historical greats. We have made great progress as a discipline, and if we don't seem great in our own eyes, it's because we are judging ourselves by much higher standards than those we used to judge the early moderns.

Anonymous said...

"I sometimes think about how even mediocre grad students, transported by time machine to old Koenigsberg, would make Kant feel like quite a dullard. The same goes for any of the other historical greats."

This presupposes that, for whatever reason, people are now much smarter than they used to be. This is, as many anthropologists or psychologist would say, quite implausible. And it seems to me to run contrary to all evidence. (sadly, a brief look at the textbooks from early 20th century is a good lesson - they contain what we now teach at universities but were aimed at high schools)

In any case - the fact that I manage to understand special theory of relativity as a teenager does not mean that I could re-work Einstein's theories... it just means that I was able, like many others, absorb the theory because it has been worked out by so many others to the point that it became accessible to teenagers and its weaknesses easily discernible.

The modern universities and medieval monasteries were crawling with hundreds of people who could do that. If you doubt that, I suggest reading any of the commentaries of on Lombard's sentences or disputations by any minor theologian. Some of them are astounding and no less sophisticated than your average article in jphil or mind.

severalfourmany said...

I feel like Quine, Searle and Rorty have all made substantial contributions and progress has been made in the philosophy of science but if you are looking for really ground breaking contributions to philosophy in the later half of the twentieth century one must look to the Continental tradition. I admit the Analytic tradition has seemed to lack inspiration and creativity in the last half century.

Anonymous said...

anon 4:07 "The canonical greats are great partly because they showed up while low-hanging fruit was still on the philosophical tree. I think that taking significant additional steps gets exponentially more difficult. I sometimes think about how even mediocre grad students, transported by time machine to old Koenigsberg, would make Kant feel like quite a dullard."

Hahaha. Seriously? Someone needs a reality check. First of all, most good philosophers nowadays, let alone mediocre grad students, don't engage with Kant very well. And not just because his arguments were constructed to persuade contemporaries occupying a notably different perspective from us. Kant's thought is hard, and his insights (if you call them that) continue to be discomforting. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone who's really wrestled Kant would make such a silly claim.

Second of all, there's plenty of low hanging fruit nowadays. Most fruit that philosophers seek hang low. It doesn't maintain our ego as well, but the low fruit's still there even after modal logic and The Journal of Philosophy and the rise of Philosophy of X. It just takes a special way of looking to find them. And it's usually easier just to worry about technical niceties. We do know more now than before, so we have to know more science to make philosophical progress, but philosophy proper is surely no harder now than when religion and myth were our best way to make sense of things.

Anonymous said...

Christ no. It will be remembered as the period in philosophy where the major figures knew the fewest languages, had the least feeling for literature and art, and displayed the grossest ignorance of history (even that of their own discipline). It will hopefully be notable as the only period in which the traditions of Indian, Chinese and Arabic philosophy were widely available and yet virtually ignored by professional philosophers.

Feyerabend talked about how academic specialization functions: "Assume you are incompetent to do X. Then you define a profession such that X does not make sense in it and now you can be praised for your professional acumen when avoiding X ... It is not only true that intelligence has decreased, the decrease can actually be shown to be an advance when measured by the new and specialized standards."

This is a pretty unfair way to look at many major philosophers of the latter 20th century, but I think the period as a whole will be remembered on precisely those terms: remembered for a sociological split intended to increase the sphere of acceptable professional ignorance, for both analytic and continental philosophers, as well as for the sub-disciplines within each of those ridiculous divisions.

Undoubtedly a few Abelards, Scotuses, Ockhams, etc, will rise to the top of the scholastic heap.

Anonymous said...

@ 9:40
Well, undoubtedly even in the present dark age there are some who know many languages, have proper appreciation for art and literature, and can boast of a profound knowledge of history, including that of non-Western philosophy. Some of these, like Badiou or Zizek (or whoever), will at least count as 'minor figures'. So, even if well-roundedness is a necessary condition for a Golden Age, I'm not sure that the "Christ no" is justified.

Anonymous said...

I'm 9:40. Badiou and Zizek will be utterly forgotten within the decade. The issue is not that absolutely nobody in philosophy has a broad knowledge of the humanities, but that most people in the profession do not. There are no general standards of competence, so hacks like Zizek can come in and fake deep knowledge and nobody can call him on it. There isn't a large body of people with the skills to evaluate work of the kind Zizek pretends to do.

David Sanson said...

One reason to think about the height of the scholastic period as a comparison to our current age and achievements, rather than the ancient Greek or early modern periods, is that it is in many ways sociologically most like our own: lots of philosophers working in universities with a flowering research project in logic and language leading to a greater focus on argumentative rigor than is usual throughout the history of the discipline. And there are some of us that think that Abelard, Scotus, and Ockham (as well as some of their less well-remembered contemporaries) are among the very best philosophers of all time, precisely because of the way they combine creativity and rigor.

Anonymous said...

@David
Yes, I chose those three precisely because of their quality--they represent the kind of genius the last sixty years have produced, and they come out of a very similar sociological situation to academia in its current state.

I don't think an Aristotle or Kant or Spinoza or Nietzsche could come out of that situation--I don't mean to make the obvious point that such philosophers cannot be created by training. I mean the current climate is suited to ignore, misunderstand or perhaps actively suppress that kind of work, if such a philosopher should come along.