as I read the history of western philosophy up to early nineteenth century, I have a feeling that the philosophy is somehow "making progress" over this long period. Not that philosophers have reached some agreement over basic issues, but at least over time philosophers have managed to make it clearer what is been disputed, and generally philosophers built up their theories in full recognition of what has already been said by previous philosophers.

However, when I read the history of western philosophy in twentieth century, I cannot help but get a sense of retrogression. I don't mean philosophy retrogressed in every aspect, but I really think some philosophers in twentieth century should have better understanding over the issues they brought up if they are aware what has been discussed in history.

For example, there is still fierce dispute between realism and phenomenalism, but haven't Kant answered already how is it possible that we can cognize the world? Surely not everyone would agree on Kant's notions like things-in-themselves or apriori synthetic judgement, but at least Kant has pointed out that that our knowledges come from experience and that our minds play an active role in our cognitive activity are two facts that can coexist. So why it never occurred to the disputers that what really differentiated realism and phenomenalism is verbal usage of "existence" or "real" and nothing more? People naturally apply different criteria to the word "exist" in different situation, so we simply admit that trees and tables do exist in everyday conversation, but that doesn't imply that when we read a mathematical book beginning with "suppose there exists a $2$-dimensional manifold" we would automatically say the author is a Platonist, or when we read a article on cognitive science explaining how our brains "objectify" the world we would claim it conflicts with our ontological beliefs. Why would some philosophers keep ignoring such simple facts even in twentieth century?

Another example the famous dispute on "whether knowledges are justified true beliefs", I never understand the obsession of philosophers to discuss this particular question, somehow they don't bother to ask "what is the definition of existence" or "what is the definition of truth", but they insist on giving a definition to the word "knowledge" (well, as far as I know, Heidegger tried hard to find an answer to "what is existence", but his way of trying to answer this question surely is not to give a accurate definition of "existence"), though I seriously doubt two philosophers who disagree on "what is knowledge" would likely reach an agreement on "what is justifying". But anyway, I'd think Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" should force these philosophers to doubt if this is a meaningful question, maybe we don't use the word "knowledge" consistently, maybe we could only find some family-resemblence among the meanings of "knowledge" used in different circumstances, maybe it's too hasty to assume all these different uses "converge" to one point or there is an essence underlying all these meanings, and most importantly, maybe philosophers don't use the world "knowledge" in an everyday sense. However, seems this "justified true beliefs" debate remain lively throughout the century, and there are even some philosophers made some discoveries using "experimental method" that are awkward to "traditional philosophers". But what makes me feel awkward is not what this "revolutionary" "experimental method" has disclosed, but what this whole "justified true beliefs" debate has disclosed: namely the complete ignorance of the worked by their predecessors. I don't mean they should all agree with Wittgenstein's position, but at least I'd expect in their debate they should taken Wittgenstein's question into consideration.

I admit that philosophy is not my major and I have barely scratched the surface of those philosophical debate I just mentioned. But my feeling of disappointment is so intense that I can't stand to go on reading more details. Reding history of philosophy was fun to me, but after I reached twentieth century, the more I read the stronger I feel I'm just wasting my time. So I post this question, hoping someone could me settle my confusion: are there really many naïve philosophers in recent times as they appear to me, or am I missing some important points?

  • Kant felt about pre-19th century philosophy the same way you feel about post-19th:"We find, too, that those who are engaged in metaphysical pursuits are far from being able to agree among themselves, but that, on the contrary, this science appears to furnish an arena specially adapted for the display of skill or the exercise of strength in mock-contests — a field in which no combatant ever yet succeeded in gaining an inch of ground, in which, at least, no victory was ever yet crowned with permanent possession". Philosophy is about exploring options, not "making progress".
    – Conifold
    Jan 3 at 20:16
  • @Conifold Well, seems my choice of terminology "making progress" is somewhat misleading, so I 'll try to make some clarification... First of all, I think what Kant is complaining about previous philosophers is not that they always dispute with each other, but the way the carried out this disputation. And by "making progress" I don't means philosophy up to early nineteenth century is aimed at settling down disputation. I mean exactly that they are exploring options instead of drifting randomly along these options.
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 2:02
  • 1
    One person's drift is another person's exploration, and obstacles and blind alleys are always qualified and provisional in philosophy. What you are likely detecting is specialization. It is easy to tinker with Kant's or Wittgenstein's assumptions in particular to make their arguments fail. The tinkering required is well-covered in specialized literature, and most authors today not focused on it do not bother with reprising it either, as past authors who dealt with lesser volumes might have done. This is exactly the "more advanced and sophisticated level", only more dispersed.
    – Conifold
    Jan 4 at 4:23
  • 1
    Not impossible, but the requisite effort is indeed much greater, as it is for physics or mathematics. One approach is to track the genesis of positions in modern debates from prior work in detail, another is to read encyclopedic reviews of an area. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy collects many of those. For example, their Analysis of Knowledge article touches on some of the issues you mention, like different uses of "knowledge" or matching everyday sense.
    – Conifold
    Jan 4 at 4:56
  • 1
    I think the answer to why is Gettier’s 1963 paper “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” And there has been some rewriting of history to "project" JTB into the past before Gettier that obscures its origins. This is discussed in the accepted answer to Has no epistemologist noticed the problem with "truth" before Gettier? that links to cogent references.
    – Conifold
    Jan 4 at 5:57

1 Answer 1


The first (and perhaps un-obvious) point I'll make is that the advances in communication technology have impacted philosophy as much as anything else in society. In brief, modern communication technologies have done some good increasing the production and availability of good, interesting, sophisticated philosophy, but it has exponentially increased the production and availability of trite, derivative, incomprehensible, and outright bad philosophy. Even a hundred years ago most efforts at bad philosophy died on the typewriter, or on an editor's desk, because writing and publishing was too time-and-cost intensive to risk on dubious material. Now everyone and their demented uncle can pass themselves off as a 'sophisticate', and editors have different (and much more lenient) risk/reward assessments. If we want to delve into the modern world of philosophy, I'm afraid we all need somewhat bigger shovels than before to clear away the crap.

Time will cure that, of course. In a hundred years the current crop of philosophical monographs will have been pruned and weeded to a manageable and attractive set of seminal works. But that probably won't do us much good...

Second point: philosophy evolves over uncomfortably long time periods. For example, Liberal philosophy started to take root in the late 16th century, came to prominence in the late 18th century, started discovering its core dilemmas and problems in the late 19th century, and is only now reaching the point where it seems like some new evolute (product of evolution) is needed. In part that's because it may take a single philosopher the better part of his lifespan to produce a few good works on the topic; in part it's because other people have to read, and study, and 'grok' the philosophy before it disseminates. Wittgenstein is a good example: he published Philosophical Investigations in 1953 — close to 70 years ago — but I've personally met professional academic philosophers who think of it as 'that crazy crap'. Philosophy isn't like physics, where you can hang a bowling ball over someone's head and dare them to dispute the law of gravity. Philosophy has to convince people, which means people have to invest time and effort in it. It's a long haul.

Third point: philosophy is (unlike almost anything else in the world) inherently disaffected, subversive, and dissentient. No one does philosophy unless they think the world is desperately out of order; even philosophers who try to justify the status quo generally set out to perfect and idealize it, which is just trying to change it in a different way. Most anyone with power, authority, status, or wealth dislikes philosophy on an instinctive level, because they see in philosophy a threat to what they have. Such people can idealize long dead philosophers (because long dead philosophers rarely speak directly to the modern era, and so threaten nothing outright), but they generally can't stand anyone who's likely to stand up and suggest that the world they've all lived in so profitably is less than perfect.

You seem to have absorbed some of the linguistic turn in modern philosophy, which is both natural and good, but my sense is you haven't really 'grokked' it yet. I mean I see you saying things like:

[W]hy it never occurred to the disputers that what really differentiated realism and phenomenalism is verbal usage of "existence" or "real" and nothing more?

[Philosophers] don't bother to ask "what is the definition of existence" or "what is the definition of truth", but they insist on giving a definition to the word "knowledge"

Which both oversimplify the issue. The modern linguistic turn has a few different angsts (depending on field and subfield):

  • To understand the nature of language as a mediator between physical reality and cognitive constructs
  • To show how the adoption and use of language creates tangible (material) constructs and structures within human society
  • To assess the various forms and modes of language use to see their impact on the expression of human will and freedom

It isn't merely that 'realism' and 'phenomenalism' use words like 'existence' and 'real' in idiosyncratic ways, but that they have a complete mode or context of language (what Wittgenstein would call a 'language game') that places these words in specific roles within their worldview and logic. It's like asking about the respective roles of a 'king' in Chess, Checkers, and the British Monarchy. Yes, the term 'king' is used differently in each, but that's superficial. What are the differences, the relationships, the associations? What can we learn about our attitudes towards power by looking at these three distinct games?

It helps to think about trajectories. A strong thread of modern philosophy hinges on Nietzsche's work, where Nietzsche kicked back against the self-assured idealism of most previous philosophy — the idea that there was an overt 'truth' that philosophy was reaching for — and tried to aim for something more human or organic. Another major thread develops from Marx's evolution of Liberal philosophy, where he drew out the deep social implications of the previously individualistic conceptions of Liberal society. Yet another thread tries to rectify the old and confusing distinction between ontology and epistemology as a matter of linguistically structured cultural orientations. Start with the big names and work your way towards the smaller ones; the big names will give you orientations; the smaller names will give you details.

And remember to breathe; that's key. If you get frustrated, give yourself a snow day.

  • Hello, thanks for your elaborate answer and your patience. The first two points you have pointed out are really helpful to me, now I get a new idea: modern academic institutionalization has done much greater harm to philosophy than any other disciplines. Nowadays scientists and mathematicians must concentrate on a tiny section of the whole subject field, but they have no problem to stay informed of what's going on or what's the latest advancement of other branches. But that's not the case for philosophers…
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 4:19
  • Even so, I have to say, though I can imagine that some philosophers of analytic tradition may have zero knowledge of Hegel or Husserl's work, it really surprises me that some even don't care to understand Wittgenstein…
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 4:19
  • As for your third point and your impression of my understanding of linguistic turn, I have more to say… First about your claims "Such people can idealize long dead philosophers … can't stand anyone who's likely to stand up and suggest that the world they've all lived in so profitably is less than perfect."
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 4:20
  • My opinion is, there are indeed many who idealize long dead philosophers as a way of showing off, and I can imagine many form previous centuries can't stand their contemporary philosophers for such thought deeply exposed and criticized the absurdity of status quo, but for many people in our own time, I don't think they show dislike towards contemporary philosophy, but disinterest. And I think they have right reason to do so, for philosophy nowadays is so alienated from the real world…
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 4:20
  • Next about your sense that I haven't really "grokked" the linguistic turn. You might be right, I don't go deep into this linguistic turn, and I don't really want to… I'll explain my feeling about this in detail: My greatest impression about 20th-century philosophers is that, even though they tried very hard get rid of metaphysics, they failed. Surely they have no sympathy with old metaphysical systems, but as long as they philosophize, they must presuppose something, and they share the explicit passion and implicit tendency with old metaphysicians to absolutize their presupposition,
    – Censi LI
    Jan 4 at 4:21

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