Philosophy's Inertia

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

Philosophy's Inertia


THE SOURCE: "There Is No Progress in Philosophy" by Eric Dietrich, in Essays in Philosophy, July 2011.

WESTERN PHILOSOPHY SEEMS to have had a pretty clear evolution: from Plato to Descartes to Kant to Wittgenstein. Eric Dietrich, a philosophy professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, begs to differ. "Philosophy is, except for some modernizing, exactly the same now as it has ever been. It has not progressed one iota," he argues. And he's no renegade--a number of his peers agree.

Compare the trajectory of philosophy with that of the hard sciences. If Aristotle were to sit in on an elementary college physics class, he would be mystified by some of the basic concepts-equations, gravity--tossed around by the students. Yet he would feel very much at home in an introductory philosophy class, where his works continue to command a spot on the syllabus. People are still grappling to understand some of the phenomena Aristotle wrestled with 2,400 years ago.

Of course, a few philosophical advances have gained traction since the agoras heyday, such as modal logic, which formalizes considerations of necessity and probability. But there is no "deep and widespread agreement" on--much less answers to--the essential questions the discipline faces, such as the nature of free will. Ask a dozen philosophers why slavery is wrong, and you'll get 12 different explanations. …

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