The question of progress is occasionally raised with regard to variety of fields - natural science, social science, art, and so on. But, can we at all have reasonable criteria by which to determine or debate whether or not philosophy makes progress?


10 Answers 10


It would help to divide up philosophy into some component parts. Logic has certainly made a great deal of progress. Frege's logic is a huge step forward from everything that had gone before and provided the impetus for further advances that have turned the subject into something that Aristotle or Mill would scarecely recognise. We now understand concepts such as proof, validity, decidability, completeness, computability, etc., in a way that far exceeds what was possible 150 years ago.

Epistemology has also advanced, fuelled by insights from logic and from cognitive psychology; the concept of formal epistemology is fairly recent.

Philosophy of language has advanced, again partly through developments in logic. The idea of possible world semantics has proved to be fruitful.

Philosophy of mind is still full of tricky and perhaps insoluble problems, but there have certainly been advances, some of them derived from insights in the field of machine intelligence research.

Has there been progress in ethics? That depends rather on one's point of view. I rather like Aristotle's approach to ethics, but I wouldn't say there has been no progress.

Metaphysics is also tricky. We have the benefit of the results of modern science at our disposal now, but there is still plenty to argue about, including some debates such as realism vs. nominalism that would certainly have been recognisable to earlier generations of philosophers.

Political philosophy is something I suspect does not progress much, but maybe I'm just pessimistic because I don't like politicians and I don't trust ideologies.

  • In case of ethics... some people speak about science of ethics, which seems to be something new for 20 century.
    – rus9384
    Mar 29, 2018 at 22:55

Beckett wrote somewhere, or said to someone 'fail again, fail better'; this is the kind of progress that philosophy finds for itself in today - I mean year to year, decade to decade.

Philosophy, according to Badiou shouldn't be seen as apart from the other main areas of human life - science, politics, art and love (and I would throw in religion too).

In this picture, for philosophy to discourse only with itself is to engage in a kind of solipsism - standardly seen as a philosophical dead-end, a counter-example to real engagement.

Hence any gauge of progress in philosophy should not be introspective, but extrospective - in terms of something other.


I think one could define a lower bound for the progress of philosophy by charting the movement of language. When a philosopher writes their words down, their language instantly begins aging. Thus, even the mere retelling of old concepts with new language provides some forward movement, even if that movement must be thought of as nothing more than treading water.

I do think philosophy moves forward outright as the progression of society moves forward. As societies find ever more novel ways to function, philosophers are right there studying those changes, suggesting meaning for them. Some times this is a very rapid movement, other times it is subtle.

I suppose it comes back to Zeno. Philosophy gets half way to understanding the world around us, and within ourselves. Then it goes half way again, then half way again again. Does it ever stop progressing?


I think this is nicely put in the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit from Hegel (a pretty good translation with the original German text aside can be found here). The whole first part is about a certain understanding of becoming of philosophy, giving a picture in paragraph 12.

The picture is that of a growth of an oak: The acorn is in some sense already "oak", as is the sapling. And the tree could not be without being an acorn and a sapling before. And without going through acorn and sapling, we cannot demonstrate the whole ("das Ganze") of philosophy, because the "finished" tree is not what the tree is in his truth (Paragraph 20: "The true is the whole."). It is only insofar as it has become itself:

Yet this newness is no more completely actual than is the newborn child, and it is essential to bear this in mind. Its immediacy, that is, its concept, is the first to come on the scene. However little of a building is finished when its foundation has been laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural development; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path and, equally as much, is the prize won through much struggle and effort. It is the whole which has returned into itself from out of its succession and extension and has come to be the simple concept of itself. The actuality of this simple whole consists in those embodiments which, having become moments of the whole, once again develop themselves anew and give themselves a embodiment, but this time within their new element, within the new meaning which itself has come to be. (Preface, Paragraph 12, Phenomenology of Spirit)

My answer here in some sense refers to that picture. Philosophy should build on the flaws in the preceding philosophy, but also on its strenghs. Going farther than it and against it at the same time, as Plessner expressed it (which would be quite accurate, as this is Plessner's criteria for life and Hegel's spirit is the living world*). But the most important part is acknowledging instead of ignoring it or, in hegelian terms, going through the dialetics instead of just negating it, because by this, we cannot state anything contentful at all.

*Hegel has been strongly influenced by Goethe's philosophy of nature and applied its ideas of the phenomenology of becoming for understanding the whole (read: the whole truth) to all being.

My opinion on that topic

But the problem is really that the more academic (read: institutionalized) the philosophy gets, the more it is degenerating. I think this has reasons and not the least of it is the necessity of publishing and teaching and conferences and so on without often having enough time to go deep into the history of philosophy and contemporary opponents. One of the most influential papers of 20th century has come into being because Gettier rejected to publish for a long time, but only did teaching and research.

So in our universities we have many "foxes" and not enough "hedgehogs" to speak with Dworkins, who refers to the ancient greek poet Archilocus, who wrote:

The fox knows many things but the hedghehog knows one big thing.

That means in our context that most modern philosophers have a certain scope, but cannot see the big picture because their scope is too narrow.

What happens if a philosopher does not have to even try to understand the classics like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel etc.? Well, he risks falling back behind the insights of these men. Not by accident some of the modern greats (I have not the authority of knowledge to state all of them) wrote their dissertation (or other central works) about classics, e.g. Foucault about Kant.


Philosophy itself does not progress... precisely because it is the permanent prerequisite of progress in all other fields.

The natural sciences and various other subdisciplines that pride themselves on "making progress," were all developments of philosophy. Indeed, before the term "science" was introduced as a demarcation in the 19th century, those who followed the Baconian turn in philosophy, such as Boyle or Newton, were self-identified "natural philosophers." Philosophy thus preceded and "seeded," such specialized disciplines as physics-chemistry, linguistics, formal logic, psychology, sociology, computer logic, and cognitive sciences.

What's the difference?

The spinoff subdisciplines employ a formal apparatus for evaluating evidence and eliminating disagreement. The elimination of "disagreements" is also the elimination of "history." The discipline continually closes off its historical origins, so that the physicist or cognitive scientist deals only with specialized problems and need not read ancestral works by Galileo or Leibniz. This radical reduction enables the application of mathematical, quantifiable, "spatialized" measurements, by which "progress" is marked. It also follows the modernist trend towards a ceaseless division of labor. Thus a self-designated "science," like Adam Smith's pin factory, becomes ever more "productive."

Philosophy, meanwhile, struggles to retain and continually reevaluate its own history. It is holistically "self-conscious." It still reads Thales and Plato. This is a necessary retention of "origins" and "the whole," out of which the subdisciplines emerged. The attempt at metaphysics, the search for relations between the "progressing" disciplines. By leaving the "historical files" permanently open, philosophy refuses to reduce, define, and specialize its subject matter.

So, in a sense, the constraints that enable sciences to "make progress," mark their self-separtation from philosophy. Once you are eliminating your history, strictly defining "knowledge," and accumulating a consensus, you are, by definition, no longer part of the speculative philosophy out of which you originated. Meanwhile, the hermeneutical recycling of origins, concepts, and imagination through "philosophy" acts a a kind of ecosystem for the growth and coherence of all these subdisciplines.

And what does philosophy get for its trouble?

Mockery, accusations of metaphysical wool-gathering. In sum, repudiation of the ancestor, repression of origins. It is only when progress in science suddenly breaks down in "crisis" that "philosophical speculation" arises within the subdisciplines, as it clearly has in physics. The quantum-cosmological "Return of the Repressed" that is today frustrating the sense of "progress" in physics.

Otherwise, philosophy's "progressive" seedlings are content to mock it as a doting old king wandering blindly in circles. "Oh, sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

  • What do you mean by the quantum-cosmological "Return of the Repressed"? - Great, to compare philosophy with King Lear! Which kind of gratitude do you expect from today's natural science? Which philosopher shall be awarded the next Nobel prize? :-)
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:12
  • I admit "quantum-cosmological" was a bit silly. What I meant was that quantum theory and cosmology have resurrected the sorts of questions physics had hoped to dispel as "metaphysics." Speculations like Bohr's "complementarity" or the "anthropic principle" or "parallel universes," not to mention "spooky action" or all the constructs far any hope of experimental testing. I refer to Freud because such question were latent in the philosophical ancestry of the hard sciences... and in a sense dead and buried as simply "meaningless," until they simply could not be avoided. Nov 24, 2015 at 22:33

In 1783 Kant complains in his Critique of Pure Reason that metaphysics does not make any progress alike to logic, mathematics or physics.

Reason in metaphysics […] is constantly being brought to a standstill, and we are obliged again and again to retrace our steps, as they do not lead us where we want to go. As to unanimity among its participants, there is so little of it in metaphysics that it has rather become an arena that would seem especially suited for those who wish to exercise themselves in mock fights […] What, then is the reason that this secure scientific course has not yet been found?” (BXIVf.)

At this time metaphysics existed since more than 2.000 years as the core discipline of philosophy. Hence Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason to lay down a secure fundament for metaphysics.

Did Kant’s opus magnum improve the situation?

There is a separate essay of Kant entitled What real progress has metaphysics made in Germany since the time of Leibniz and Wolff? (1793, 1804)

Kant subsumes the metaphysical approach of Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz and Wolff as the dogmatic period. A second approach is the sceptical approach. And the third approach is his own critical metaphysics of transcendental philosophy. The latter determines the scope and boundary of metaphysics. Kant considers this kind of framing a progress because it terminates the unsteadiness of the discipline.

History shows that also Kant’s transcendental philosophy did not elevate metaphysics to the state of a mature scientific discipline. The constructive part of his critique, the claim for knowledge which is synthetically a priori, is highly debated – on the field of pure reason as well as on the field of practical reason.

There is a second reason why philosophy does not make progress. It is a historical reason. In the begin of European philosophy and long after under the heading “Philosophy of nature” scientific thoughts formed part of philosophy. In the course of time, subdisciplines emancipated from philosophy and became autonomous scientific disciplines with their own specific method. Thanks to its tight relation to observation and experiment science made big progress in the modern period. But it left behind those parts of philosophy where this method does not apply.

The philosophers who remain in their discipline are falling behind the cutting edge. They are no longer familiar with the problems and the results of contemporary science by their own experience. Only a few philosophers got an additional formal training in physics, biology or other sciences.

Comparing philosophy with the sciences the following issues are lacking in philosophy:

• A catalogue of generally accepted problems

• A generally accepted method of investigation

• Criteria how to assess right or wrong of philosophical results

I consider these issues necessary requisites to judge whether an academic discipline does make progress.

From the view point of science it often looks as if philosophers emphasize as the unique feature of their discipline: To ask questions but not to give answers.
As long as the awareness lacks that progress is a quality measure of an academic discipline, I do not expect philosophers developing their own criteria to measure progress in philosophy.

  • Since awareness lacks for millenia now there is something we can surmise, philosophy lacks these prerequisites for a reason. But so much the worse for the prerequisites and the notion of progress they engender, since they are largely orthogonal to what is going on in philosophy, especially second and third. It is the place of brainstorming so to speak.
    – Conifold
    Nov 25, 2015 at 4:04
  • Well, progress of metaphysics can be seen as number of metaphysical theories. More theories = more developed metaphysics. Although people have different views on what "progress" is.
    – rus9384
    Mar 30, 2018 at 6:31

Does philosophy progress?

No. When it reaches at an optimum height it becomes another form (that means it becomes another subject). Since this subject is dealing abstract ideas, some people can't understand this change.

See: Is Philosophy the source of all other fields of study?

From the above link you might have understood that the 'progress' is subjective. So we cannot calculate it treating it collectively and say 'Yes'.

As you know Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality etc. That means Philosophy is also a search for truth. We can say 'Yes' to your main question only if the Truth of truths is unknown. But that great Truth also has already been announced. So Philosophy, if it is a search for truth (not as a discipline for academic purpose) it won't progress anymore. If you differentiate it and study you may reach other conclusions. But if you could integrate it and ponder you would agree with the above opinion.


Whenever we talk of progress of X - be X philosophy or science or art and so on, we should ask - progress towards what end?....When considering philosophy it is not clear, to begin with, what exactly the aim of philosophy: Is its aim to reveal Truth? Is its aim to detect and clarify problems?

If we assume some aim to philosophy we can in relation to that aim talk of progress. And, since I believe that the aim of philosophy is to detect and clarify problems, I think it has made progress over history as many problems have been addressed, debated and clarified, and new ones have been posed.

  • Clarification of problems is the first step. But what about solution to philosophical problems?
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 21:57
  • Philosophy to my opinion is not about answering questions or solving problems but rather about searching for solutions; clarifying problems brings us closer to understanding the problems, and new problems emerge once attempting at solving older problems. (I side in this respect with Karl Popper's philosophy).
    – user18079
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:07
  • I apologize, but I do not see the difference between "solving problems" - which you negate - and "searching for solutions - which you recommend.
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:16
  • What I imply is that we never reach solution to problems within the scope of philosophy, even when searching for it. The search itself is the issue rather than actually finding solutions.
    – user18079
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:18
  • Which arguments support your claim that we never reach solution to problems within the scope of philosophy? Do you consider it an inherent property of philosophy? If yes, your characterization reminds me of Sisyphus.
    – Jo Wehler
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:26

The problem philosophers have in the world is that before they succeed they are reviled, and after they succeed they are forgotten. The sardonic example I sometimes use is the birth of lemming philosopher, a feisty, sagacious lemming who stands up and says: "Hey guys, why don't we go this way instead of that way?" If he fails to convince the other lemmings, they berate him as a fool all the way to the cliff's edge; if he succeeds they just change course, and his 'philosophy' becomes normal, forgettable praxis.

Most of us sitting here reading this take for granted things that would have been laughable or incited rage 500 years ago: the idea women and dark-skinned 'natives' are equal to white men in any way, shape, or form; the idea that we have internal 'mental' mechanisms that are neither rational thought nor biological imperatives/dysfunctions; the idea that even the dirtiest little peon has inviolate intrinsic rights; the idea that the natural world follows systematic laws that can be observed and measured... All of those were novel philosophical insights into the world that most of us now take as established fact. They are no longer considered 'philosophy' because philosophy has moved on to new problems as these viewpoints have sunk into praxis.

Philosophy is like waves attacking a seaside bluff. It constantly tears at the limits of the sea's horizon, and as those limits wear away, the sea moves in to fill the space where philosophy used to be. We can't measure philosophy by the sound it makes crashing against the rocks; we measure it by the undertow, the way it pulls the sea forward behind it.


I believe personally that you both can and cannot improve philosophy any further. This is because logic reasoning have been know to us humans for a long time and it is still logic reasoning. I believe that philosophy doesn't change according to the date, the years because after all philosophy is philosophy right? But remember Socrates, and we can misjudge our 5 senses, cant we do that with our minds too? If our 5 senses can fool us, can our minds think something is untrue but it is true at the same time?. I hope that you agree

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