Do there exist any philosophical theories that have been either confirmed or refuted by the majority of experts? That is, confirmed or refuted such that a consensus has been established about the validity of the theory - similar to the consensus of the experts in scientifc disciplines like physics or biology.

Based on my impression, that's not the case.

One reason, I suppose, is the lack of concrete specifications of problems to be solved by a philosophical approach. But of course, there are many more reasons which I don't want to enumerate in the context of the present question.

Note. I know that philosophical answers cannot in general be validated or refuted by experience like results from natural sciences.

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    The scientific method itself: Confirmed or refuted in your opinion? – Jo Wehler Oct 7 '15 at 9:08
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    Strictly speaking neither of course, but I would think there's quite massive support for the method. – Keelan Oct 7 '15 at 9:10
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    The scientific method has not been developed by philosophers but by working scientist like Brahe, Galilei, Newton and many others from later centuries. - Afterwards the scientifc method has been the subject of philosophical investigation, rational reconstruction and comments by philosophy of science. But - ascribed to Feynman - Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. – Jo Wehler Oct 7 '15 at 9:17
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    @JoWehler, Feynman's facetious comment may apply to "working scientists" but not to "science" itself. Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Pascal, Leibniz, Mach, and many others were "philosophers" as well as foundation figures in physics. Einstein acquired a frame of reference from Spinoza, computer science arose from Frege, Russell, and others; and it is hard to image any modern science without the broad framework of Aristotle. More accurate to say that there are great physicists like Feynman who don't read philosophy, so don't know how deeply they are indebted to it. – Nelson Alexander Oct 7 '15 at 13:44
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    Comments are not a forum! Please consider taking discussions to chat. – Joseph Weissman Oct 7 '15 at 17:26

Yes, there are many "philosophical theories" that have been refuted by the majority of experts.

An obvious example is Thales identification of "water" as the irreducible substance. Many pre-Socratic "theories" of this sort spring to mind. But the "refutation" only comes about by the subdivision of philosophy itself into other fields of "expertise," notably physics, mathematics, history, doctrinal theology, or psychology, in which the refutation occurs.

Once the propositions become "refutable" by expert consensus, they are almost by definition no longer "philosophy." Thus, in regard to your question, people often scoff that philosophy "makes no progress" or "arrives at no conclusions." But this is because it constantly seeds other fields that are able to "progress scientifically" towards consensus by no longer being philosophy.

A more recent example may be Cartesian dualism, which we can at least say is "extremely unfashionable" in philosophy and appears to have "calved off" almost entirely into psychology, cognitive sciences, and so forth. Various other theories, such as vitalism, Aristotelian cosmology, certain identity theories, the positivist reduction of math to logic, proofs of god, strict correspondence theories of truth, etc., appear to have been jettisoned by broad consensus for the foreseeable future.

But philosophy remains historical, dialectical, and open. Any topic can be ingeniously reopened. It also remains a huge, growing body of textual expertise still divided into the two (Continental and Anglo-American) genealogies set in motion by Husserl and Frege, and thus culturally impervious to any "consensus of experts." Since the aim of each new theoretical project is, ideally, to become "irrefutable," consensus would mean the death of dialectic and any sort of expert "refutation" by appeal to experiment or logic would mean reclassification as a "science" or mathematics.

It is also worth noting how those dominant, massively influential philosophical projects that attempt to "wrap it all up," e.g. Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hegel, Wittgenstein's Tractatus no sooner engender a body of "experts" than they fall prey to skeptical analysis, redefinition, and Oedipal, generational assault.

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    Did you see a recent PhilPapers poll of academic philosophers? According to that external world really exists (82%), it is mostly how science describes it (75%), God does not exist (73%), we have a priori knowledge (71%), analytic/synthetic distinction can be drawn (65%) and free will is a compatibilist illusion (59%). Nonetheless, I do not think these issues are ready to become science. It's not that there isn't a majority agreement, it's that it is not treated as deferentially as in science. philpapers.org/surveys/… – Conifold Oct 8 '15 at 3:38
  • @Nelson, What does "generational assault" and "Oedipal" mean here? – Pacerier Oct 8 '15 at 7:04
  • To Conifold, interesting. The 25% dissenting will probably dominate the next generation. Was this all stateside? To Pacifier, I just mean the anxiety of influence and the tendency of each generation to repudiate the "accepted wisdom" and "Settled truths" of the previous, a historical dialectic that begins with Aristotle's rebuttals to Platonic idealism, or earlier. It's in the very DNA of philosophy. Perhaps Oedipal was misplaced, his "reasoning" challenged the oracles. – Nelson Alexander Oct 8 '15 at 13:08
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    The poll was made by Bourget and Chalmers:"we chose as a target group all regular faculty members in 99 leading departments of philosophy. These include the 89 Ph.D.-granting departments in English- speaking countries rated 1.9 or above in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. They also include seven departments in non-English-speaking countries (all from continental Europe) and three non-Ph-D.-granting departments". They admit selection bias towards analytic philosophers philpapers.org/archive/BOUWDP – Conifold Oct 8 '15 at 21:23
  • I accept this answer because it states the most examples of theories refuted by the majority of experts, e.g., Ionian philosophy of nature, Cartesian dualism, Aristotelian cosmology, vitalism, proofs of god. - I wonder that you consider "the aim of each new theoretical project [...] to become "irrefutable". I consider as one of the main philosophical insights from the history of natural science: We can only improve our hypothesis, certain knowledge is not possible. Do you express your personal view or do you think that it is also shared by the majority of contemporary philosophers? – Jo Wehler Oct 12 '15 at 9:43

A problem in your question has to do with the concept of refutation and confirmation. If you think of refutation as empirical refutation, then trivially, only empirical sciences refute hypothesis. Concluding that philosophical inquiry is therefore not valuable is question begging: it amounts to adopt a specific philosophical position that would say that only empirical refutation is valuable. However one can have a broader notion of success than empirical success.

A position regarding the role of philosophy is that it aims at making intractable questions meaningful so that they can be addressed by scientific inquiry. According to this position you should not judge philosophy by its ability to answer philosophical questions, but by its ability to transform these questions into scientific questions, through a process of conceptual clarification.

By this standard philosophy has several achievements, since most (if not all) scientific disciplines have their root in philosophical inquiry. For example, contemporary psychology originated in the doctrine of behaviorism, which was initially a philosophical position. The theory of evolution was inspired by philosophical debates on fixism and evolution of animals (which was observed in breeding for example). Special relativity was motivated by purely scientific problems in classical physics and electromagnetism, but also inspired by debates on the metaphysical nature of space by Leibniz, Newton and Descartes. Classical mechanics's focus on movement as the central locus of explanations has its roots in Aristotelian physics. The reduction of thermodynamics to statistical physics was informed by a long tradition of debates on atomism and also epistemological debates on empiricism, etc. If philosophers had not clarify these issues and draw the landscape of possible positions on them until they can be easily formalised and related to experience, the development of these theories would not have been possible.

Usually an abstract philosophical position is sufficiently malleable to resist objections but that doesn't mean that the original position remains the same. To the contrary, the objections generally make the position more precise and coherent. Debates strengthen philosophical positions until they are mature for empirical confrontation. For example, dualism is not refuted today but the position is much more subtle than at the time of Descartes (contemporary dualists defend property dualism rather than substance dualism). The position is not refuted because we don't have a consensual theory of consciousness today but hopefully current debates will inform cognitive sciences.

So it seems that only science confirm or refute hypothesis, but one should not forget that most hypothesis were philosophical before being expressed in a specific theoretical framework. The philosophical question was in a sense settled through science, yet the role of philosophy in the process is not negligeable.

  • The definition you give of philosophy is really good, but it fails to describe one of its important aspects related to metaphysics and politics (that is, as human beings, why and how should we live?). Even if the purpose of these questions is not to make sense of the world (and thus are in no way theories in its natural sense), but to justify existence, there's somehow a "theory part" that can indeed be rejected by experiments (I don't want to use the word falsify), that is: does the politics achieve what it was made for or does it fail hard at it? Marxism is in this respect a big failure. – sure Oct 8 '15 at 7:54
  • Of course this definition does not pretend to be exhaustive, or the only one. – Quentin Ruyant Oct 8 '15 at 9:22
  • As the lone downvoter (at this point), I feel I owe an explanation. First, it is a very finely written note with some interesting ideas that could (should?) be expanded upon. Absent such expansion, references to resources where the reader could pursue the topics in more depth. Without that, you told them where the journey begins, so to speak, but didn't really give much by way of instruction.... – Dennis Oct 14 '15 at 4:42
  • Also, it's not clear to me that it answers the question asked by OP (as I read the question). I believe OP is asking if there are theories of which you could say that there's a consensus that they've been confirmed/refuted. I think it has some great ideas in it and could be a great answer if you added some references to further literature to read and perhaps said something along the lines of what Dave said re: verificationism. – Dennis Oct 14 '15 at 4:45

"Logical positivism is dead, or as dead as any philosophical movement ever becomes", J. Passmore The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 1967 (also related by S. Shankar in Philosophy of of Science, Logic and Mathematics in the Twentieth Century). Among the problems that lead to its demise are

  • the issues with verificationism, which go back to the problems of induction related by Hume, and were attacked with renewed vigor by Popper in the 20th century; and
  • the issues with the analytic/synthetic split, as defined within positivism, demonstrated by Quine, (and similar issues with the split between theory and observation, c.f. work by Hanson).

These and related works are widely considered to be deathblows to logical positivism in the philosophical community. It's my impression that most philosophers view these results as invalidating the positivists' programme to "formalize science" in much that same way that Goedel's results invalidated Hilbert's programme to "formalize mathematics".

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    This is the only answer that actually answers the question asked (rather than a tangential question about what constitutes "confirmation" or "refutation"). Furthermore, it's the only answer that mentions verificationism, which is by far the most common "stock example" of a refuted philosophical theory (though it should, perhaps, be clarified that it is the verificationist theory of meaning which is typically lambasted; it is self-defeating since the principle that only "verifiable" claims have meaning would seem to be meaningless according to the criterion it establishes). – Dennis Oct 7 '15 at 23:45
  • The claim about Quine's arguments in "Two Dogmas..." is a bit more contentious. There are plenty of philosophers (David Chalmers, I believe, is one) who think the analytic/synthetic distinction is alive and well. What you say about it showing there are "issues" with a particular understanding of the distinction (the positivists' understanding) seems to be right. Another (better) example might be Quine's "Truth by Convention" which, I think, is taken to pretty definitively refute the Carnapian understanding of conventional truth. Also, +1 for actually giving sources in a Phil.SE answer. – Dennis Oct 7 '15 at 23:49
  • Quine is still a (liberal) subjectivist that doesn't at all describe what (scientific) theories really are. What he argues is certainly less shitty as what popper argues for, but it fails to make sense of the purpose of science: to make sense of (some parts of) existence itself, not just to predict phenomenon. – sure Oct 8 '15 at 7:57

Philosophic approaches from different cultures can be confirmed and refuted by different philosophers. The eastern concepts of Chi and the Dao are oft "refuted" by western philosophies, but "confirmed" by eastern ones. The refutation usually consists of translating Chi or Dao into a western concept, and then refuting this western translation.

  • Could you please add a reference to Western philosophers refuting the Chinese concepts of Chi and Dao? - Aside, your statement does not exactly reply to my question. Because I asked for theories which are either confirmed or rejected by a majority. That philosophical concepts are disputed, that's evident. – Jo Wehler Oct 8 '15 at 7:40

Many important philosophies no longer live and are discussed as historical curiosities, or for their contribution to philosophy. Does anyone really believe Hegel in its entirety?

And some ideas have stayed the course. Who would disagree that the relation between signifier and signified is in some sense arbitrary - like Saussure said (and the structuralists elaborated on)?

But then neither of these authors can be rejected or accepted in toto.

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    It's the opposite, most philosophies are alive through their impact on the development of the philosophical thought. About Hegel, objective/dialectic idealism is a very coherent and precise theory still considered between the most advanced schools of philosophical thought. Even Thales theory about water as an originating principle, the importance is not at the element he choose but at the originating principle and the singularity of a material substance. – John Am Oct 8 '15 at 10:13
  • @MATHEMATICIAN Please note that I asked about the evaluation of philosophical theories, not about the evaluation of the work of philosophers on the whole. Do you consider a certain theory of Hegel confirmed or refuted by the majority of philosophers? – Jo Wehler Oct 8 '15 at 10:15
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – virmaior Oct 8 '15 at 10:46
  • At some point, it's time to just up or down vote relative to what one thinks of an answer... (i.e., comments are not for extended discussion or debate). – virmaior Oct 8 '15 at 10:48


I think we can at least agree that "confirmed" or "refuted" means that we can assign an absolute truth value to a proposition. Therefore science cannot be refuted or confirmed because science accepts a priori that its conclusions may be invalid ! What science really does is heuristically executing a set of observations (experiments), setting up axioms on how the observations should be evaluated and proposing theories to fit a set of observations. Then it tries to assign probability values to conflicting theories and choose the one(s) which fits the observations best. Because there is always room for error, science can never be confirmed or refuted in a logical sense, it does not matter how successfull it is.

What is left ? You can

  • show that a proposed philosophical theory contains a contradiction, so it must be false in the proposed form. It is refuted. Often there are hidden logical fallacies like begging the question.

  • show that the proposed conclusion does not follow from the arguments. It could be plain wrong or inconclusive.

  • show that a proposed philosophical theory does not contain statements which allow to come to a logical conclusion. It is not able to make a proposition, it is effectively senseless.

One of the really interesting victims of refutation was the syllogistic logic of Aristoteles which is replaced by the modern predicate logic. It can be shown that predicate logic is much more powerful and stringent, you can formulate paradoxes and undecidable problems in syllogistic logic which are not possible in predicate logic. It should be also said that logic is not mathematics. Mathematic logic build the foundation for conclusions, but the objects on which the arguments are based must be provided by philosophy (if philosophers can reach an agreement which is quite an achievement).

Another quite famous victim are the "God proofs" of Aquin. It can be shown that their assertions are contradictory or inconclusive. Henri Bergson's "philosophy" is quite colorful, but it has nothing to do with logical conclusion.

So yes, there are many, many philosophies which are not taken seriously anymore.

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