Anne Fagot-Largeault


PhD, MD, Professeur
Collège de France, Paris
Chaire de philosophie des sciences biologiques et médicales
Membre de l'Institut (Académie des Sciences)

5. What are the most important open problems in philosophy and what are the prospects for progress?

Just as Hilbert did in 1900, in Paris, on the occasion of the 2nd international mathematical congress, distinguished philosophers have recently attempted to list a series of problems as a program for (formal or other) philosophers at the turn of the 21st century. I feel embarrassed with the exercice. What I propose is only tentative and stamped with perplexity. Three problems will be pointed out (respectively in ontology, epistemology, practical philosophy). I shall not risk any guess about the prospects for progress. I tend to assume that philosophical questions are more apt to mature than to be resolved.

In recent years we have been plagued by a battle between simplistic darwinian conformism on one side, and creationism or its substitutes (intelligent design) on the other side. We urgently need to elaborate an ontology of becoming, independent of prefabricated ideologies. This is an old philosophical problem. It can be traced from Aristotle to Bergson and Whitehead. The lessons we learn nowadays from astrophysics, evolutionary biology, the biology of development, the psychology of learning, are a rich material for a renewal of the reflection on becoming. They have inspired vast syntheses[1], perhaps a bit too systematic or far-flung. The literature, in science and philosophy, abunds in descriptions of evolutionary processes. The problem is to find out whether it is possible to go beyond phenomenological accounts and/or historical narratives. Formal methods designed to engender or mimic processes analogous to morphogenetic development, epigenetic acquisitions, or partially unpredictable phenomena such as the spread of epidemics, can be of help. The field is open. One does not know whether the research program initiated around 1950 by von Neumann and his theory of self-reproducing automata will culminate in a naturalization of the ontology of life, or whether it will leave us rich with mathematical tools for the analysis of complex systems, while the deeper problems of biological ontology and the drift of time remain unresolved.

The epistemological (and anthropological) problem of the status of rationality has been elaborated by Bertrand Saint-Sernin[2]. It used to be that reason was assumed equally distributed among human subjects, and that individual were presumed able to assimilate and comprehend the whole of scientific knowledge, if only they had time to learn. That is no longer the case. No human mind today can possibly encompass even the totality of one scientific domain, scientific research has irreversibly become a collective endeavour, and within large scientific programs (as were the Mahattan project, or the Human Genome project), scientific rationality appears to be distributed among a great many individuals, each of whom contributes to the achievement and knowledge acquisition, none of whom possesses a complete intellectual mastery of all aspects of the task. Consequently, intersubjectivity plays a role in the construction of scientific objectivity; collective rational agents are interactive. How does interactive rationality function (or dysfunction)? The formal methodology available for the analysis of collective rationality may be found in the theory of games, or the theories of rational decision making. Here again, formal methods will hardly suffice. The questions of scientific controversies, of scientific fraud, will have to be met. One may also ask whether (and how) philosophical research could, or should, become a collective rational undertaking.

A possibly minor open problem, however pressing, and linked with the previous one just mentioned, is: should we all formulate our philosophical thoughts and arguments in (currently) the English language, and attempt at thinking philosophy in English, or is philosophical reasoning sensitive enough to the language in which it is expressed, that losing the variety of languages would imply impoverishment and/or conformity. Formal methods are part of the answer, to the extent that they are meant to be independent of particular languages and cultures. Formal methods, however, are devised to clarify, resolve and close some of the questioning (which is progress, in one way). The discussion about what formal method is appropriate in a given case, or what aspects of the problem remain open, is carried in ordinary language. The opening of a problem may be deemed progress, in another way, and it might be language-dependent, at least for a part. When Lalande, in 1905, launched his project of publishing a Vocabulary of philosophy, he made it clear that his (modest) ambition was to establish and stabilize the current meaning of philosophical words in order to facilitate communication, and help the philosophical language develop towards “increasing universality”. Bergson objected that philosophizing does not consist in choosing with exactitude between old concepts, but in creating new ones. The Vocabulary was a success, but it also showed how extremely difficult it is for philosophers to engage in a collective rational undertaking, and bring it to completion - ever provisional completion, open to revision and subject to the erosion of time.

Read the remaining part of Anne-Fagot Largeault's interview in the book Formal Philosophy

ISBN-10    87-991013-1-9    hardcopy
ISBN-10    87-991013-0-0    paperback
Published by Automatic Press ● VIP, 2005

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[1] Eric Chaisson, Cosmic evolution. The Rise of Complexity in Nature, Harvard (2001).

[2] Bertrand Saint-Sernin, La raison, Paris (2003); and ‘Problèmes ouverts’, in: Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, numéro du centenaire, 2001, Paris (2003).