Wykeman Professor of
5. What are the most important open problems in philosophy and what are the prospects for progress?
An initial reaction
is: how many closed problems are there in philosophy? But of course
philosophy is so tolerant of dissent that even if a philosophical
problem is solved, an ingenious philosopher can always challenge an
assumption of the solution and still be counted as doing philosophy.
I don’t expect dramatic changes in the philosophical landscape, but rather incremental clarifications, the elimination of some bad ideas and the introduction of a few good ones. Philosophy seems to be in a period of ‘normal science’ rather than Kuhnian revolutionary change. Of course, it is difficult to foresee such revolutions because as soon as they are foreseen they happen, like the downfall of communism in eastern Europe.
My deepest hope for progress is in methodology. Again, I don’t expect anything dramatic: just a gradual improvement in generally accepted standards for precision of statement, accuracy of argument, distrust of hectoring, and similar intellectual skills or virtues. The philosophical community can bring about that sort of change if it has the collective will to do so, for example through the training of doctoral students. A mathematical analogy might be the enforcement of ε,δ-methods in nineteenth century analysis from Cauchy onwards. Like the fine-tuning of an experimental method, such changes can enable one to test hypotheses too close to a host of alternatives to have been previously tractable, as Frege’s work shows. A small improvement in methodology can make a large long-term difference in results. As for where the results will come in philosophy, I trust that the answer is: everywhere. Let’s try making the improvements; then we’ll see.
Much of my current work concerns philosophical method. Philosophers’ uncritical talk of philosophy as relying, for better or worse, on ‘intuitions’ often manifests the misconception that our evidence in philosophy consists of psychological facts about ourselves rather than facts about the philosophical topic itself. In consequence, scepticism about philosophy gains more credence than it deserves. The sceptical arguments are really just variants of traditional arguments for scepticism about our knowledge of the external world. In both cases, the evidence needs to be reconceived in less psychological terms. After all, it is a rather implausible relic of logical empiricism to conceive our evidence for theories in natural science as consisting of our own psychological states; why should the evidence for philosophical theories be so different? I hope that a better understanding of philosophers’ actual method will also contribute to the refinement of that method, but of course the connection is by no means automatic. At any rate, we can be sure that the method will never amount to a decision procedure for solving philosophical problems.