Mathis Bitton in Philosophy Now currently, suggests ways in which philosophy develops against the background of historical and scientific progress. Does philosophy develop in this way?

  • 1
    I do not understand the wording in your first sentence. Please clarify.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 1, 2023 at 20:44
  • Picasso was once asked about the development of his art. He said, "I do not develop, I am." Explains a lot.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:18
  • 1
    Does falsification, contradiction, and other negation count as progress? From a logical perspective, many utterances have been proven bogus, including once-accepted philosophical claims.
    – Corbin
    Dec 2, 2023 at 14:25
  • That might depend on whether it matters what journal you publish in. Principles of experimentation, abstract mathematics, and cosmology seem to me unquestionably exercises in philosophy even in the modern sense excluding "natural philosophy", but when those people want peer-review and an audience that will be able to interact with them, they publish in science and mathematics journals.
    – g s
    Dec 2, 2023 at 16:15
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Does philosophy progress? Dec 3, 2023 at 17:09

6 Answers 6


Of course philosophy develops. Otherwise philosophy would stagnate, but that’s not the case. Hence I consider the deeper question to be your second question: Does philosophy make any progress?

  1. Any answer to this question presupposes an agreement about how to measure and how to evaluate this development. Otherwise we would only continue the outdated discussion about “philosophia perennis”.

    A possible measure is to sample a class of representative problems from philosophy and to determine the degree of their solution. That’s an approach following the paradigm of problem and solution.

    Candidates for such sample of problems are – in random order - the mind-body problem, the problem of free-will versus determinism, the existence of universals, the ontology of the micro-world, the limits of human knowledge, to characterize the philosophical methodology, etc.

  2. Later philosophers always have the advantage that they can read what their predecessors have thought. Later generations see the prejudices and implicit assumptions of former scholars. Hence they have the chance to avoid the errors of the precedessors. But it is always impossible to recognize the blind spots of oneself.

    Therefore I expect the development of philosophy to go on forever.

  • 1
    Ok, so it is developing, but is it progressing? Maybe the first thing philosophers should do is decide why they are all doing this?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:20
  • @ScottRowe First things first: Do you agree with the approach from no.1 of my answer and the candidates from my list?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:01
  • As far as I know, the candidate problems in your list do not have consensus answers.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:46
  • @ScottRowe It seems that you accept the candidates. The next step is to develop a list of key indicators how to assess a proposed solution. Any proposals?
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 4, 2023 at 14:51

The concept of progress (SEP) is often treated as a meta-narrative. From WP:

A metanarrative (also meta-narrative and grand narrative; French: métarécit or grand récit) is a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience, or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealized) master idea.

As such, it depends entirely on what you mean by "progress". I have an illuminating book on the topic that explores the historical development of the idea of progress, but mine is quite old and there are many. One contemporary example seems to be The Idea of Progress (2017) (GB) by Robert Nisbet. In fact, it's a common title on Google Books. What do you mean by "progress"? From the SEP article:

Philosophical proponents of progress assert that the human condition has improved over the course of history and will continue to improve. Doctrines of progress first appeared in 18th-century Europe and epitomize the optimism of that time and place. Belief in progress flourished in the 19th century. While skeptics of progress did exist alongside its supporters from the beginning, it was not until the 20th century that theorists backed away en masse from the notion. Many 20th-century thinkers rejected the notion of progress after horrendous events such as the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weaponry... In general, writings on progress tend to bear a close relationship to the environment in which they were produced. Because of the strong connection between doctrines of progress and historical events, this article is organized by time and place.

That is to say, there is great variance in a response to the question, and some thinkers deny "progress" exists at all. Until that question is resolved, the question of how philosophy fits in the meta-narrative can't meaningfully be answered. (It also opens up the metaphilosophical box of strife requiring an adequate answer to "What is philosophy?")

  • If we've gone from knowing what progress is to not knowing, is that progress? If not, maybe were going the wrong way? We should require everyone who wants to participate in Philosophy to say what their objective is, and what progress towards it would be. Otherwise, we're just debating with a bunch of agitators. Me first: my objective is to shoot down outdated and ill-considered ideas so that we can focus on things that will definitely improve people's lives, like nailing down ethics and community dynamics.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:25
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    Your question inherits a problem with the impredicativity of defining progress through a definition of progress. My strategy is that Progress in the big sense simply be defined in terms of progress in the constructivist sense. If a collection of people each have knowledge, and that knowledge is built on propositions, and some of those propositions are foundational in some sense, then as each person constructs new axioms, new arguments, and new conclusions, then each has progressed in the accumulation of knowledge (or physical structures too)...
    – J D
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:20
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    @ScottRowe And that to me is an important definition of Progress. As there are more people, more buildings, more ideas, and more history, we progress. But obviously that's only along the dimension of quantity, and there would have to be a qualitative aspect to Progress too. Are we all happier? Are we all freer? Is the world more just? Is the ecosystem healthier? Etc.
    – J D
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:23
  • It's lovely stuff, which I heartily agree with. Like Robert Pirsig saying that the history and results of technology could "only soberly be described as upward progress." To those who disagree, I would say: define progress in a way that it can be achieved, or let's stop bringing the subject up. But then, I'm an engineer. (don't get me started on big-endian vs little-endian, a pointless idea if I ever heard one!)
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:56

Progress gets a meaning when there is a goal, a destination, otherwise it's just an abstract concept. Philosophy has, in general, lost its destination, it is applied mainly as an analytical tool to furnish our intellectual vanity.

I was asked to provide a convincing argument. I will justify the use of "analytical tool", "vanity" and I will paste a story.

analytical tool

Philosophy today: cries of alarm and prospects of progress

(very interesting)


the quality of being worthless or futile; incapable of producing any useful result; pointless.

Most professional philosophers of today say that, with regard to the great questions, "the answer is that there is no answer."


(article from Philosophy Now)

Once upon a time, there was an Athenian soldier called Socrates inspired to do philosophy. Socrates taught the young aristocrat Plato. Plato taught the doctor’s son Aristotle. And Aristotle taught Alexander, son of Philip, King of Macedonia. Alexander went forth and conquered most of the known, and some of the unknown, world, in the name of the Greek language, culture and philosophy. In conquering a swathe of the world, Alexander became known as "the Great". So we can see the sort of influence doing philosophy can have.

  • I like provocative statements if they are supported by convincing arguments - and are not just opinion-based. It would be interesting to hear some of your arguments. :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2023 at 14:08
  • @Jo Wehler, I'll leave this one as Kant's : "Genius is the talent that gives the rule to art", unexplained. But, don't take it personal, one way or the other we are all into this. Dec 2, 2023 at 15:05
  • No problem. - But converting your statement into a polarizing question could prompt some interesting answers. One has only to avoid that the question will be banned due to prompting “opinion-based” answers :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:24
  • @Jo Wehler, I eventually made the try to explain myself. Dec 2, 2023 at 18:04
  • +1 for the reference to Parrini
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 2, 2023 at 19:37

It depends entirely on how broad is your interpretation of the word progress. You can consider progress in a number of dimensions. Take, for example, accessibility. Without doubt philosophy is a vastly more accessible subject than is was fifty years ago, when, as a teenager, I had access to perhaps half a dozen out-dated books in my local library.

Even if you interpret progress narrowly as referring only to the progression of mainstream ideas, there are still different dimensions to consider. Measured purely in terms of output, there is a progressive increase in the total sum of published papers. You might say that the availability of new material is not necessarily a sign of progress if the material itself is of poor quality or doesn't lead to breakthroughs. However, there are plenty of other fields of effort in which you have to persevere before you find valuable results. Consider the tons of valueless material processed in mining for diamonds, for example. A huge effort was expended in developing string theory in physics, which has never lived up to the hopes that were had for it, but it is progress nonetheless because you have to explore new terrain in order to find your way around- think of all the time spent discounting dead-ends when looking for the source of the Nile.


Both the question, and the linked article misunderstand, I would argue, the nature and purpose of philosophy, as well as the extent to which scientific progress is definitional of science.

Scientific progress is a measure of the organized, systematic, rule-governed and objectively certifiable increase in the size and scope of a unified body of factual knowledge. There's no direct analog in the world of philosophy. Philosophers do create new sciences, all the time, some successful, and some less so, so there's a temptation to call that philosophical progress. But solving a philosophical problem removes it from the realm of philosophy. It doesn't change the discipline of philosophy itself.

Ultimately, the success of philosophy at any given moment in time is how well and how productively it helps us engage with the world as we experience it at that point in time. Philosophy is cyclical, because history is cyclical. If you perceive history as a linear progression, then you perceive the same in philosophy. Conversely, if you view history as a decline, you are likely to see philosophy in the same light.

  • History is neither. It is an active process, in which philosophy participates. Philosophy is the foundation of knowledge, and endures. Science is a process of enquiry, not a destination.
    – Meanach
    Dec 5, 2023 at 7:56
  • @Meanach - it's not clear to me what in your comment disagrees with anything I said in my answer--or rather, what you perceived in my answer as incompatible with what you said in your comment. Dec 5, 2023 at 11:05
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    It does not. It is a clarification.
    – Meanach
    Dec 5, 2023 at 14:35

No. As a subject it will not develop. But in the case of many people the way of thinking will change and in their case it will develop into another subject called spirituality. Because, like other subjects philosophy is also for seeking the truth. But “What is to be known (the Ultimate Truth) has already known” and if it develops, it will take people only to some dreamworld which is useless to laymen. And then it can only be called change; not development.

Is Philosophy the source of all other fields of study?

If we can extend the words of Ramana Maharshi, we can conclude that the development of philosophy has already ended. Otherwise the new subject and its benefits would not have been known.

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