Here are some quotes from Scott Aaronson's interview:

progress in math and science — think of natural selection, Godel’s and Turing’s theorems, relativity and quantum mechanics — has repeatedly altered the terms of philosophical discussion, as philosophical discussion itself has rarely altered them

“philosophy” used to mean the entire range of fundamental inquiry, from epistemology and metaphysics to physics and biology (which were then called “natural philosophy”), rather than just close textual analysis, or writing papers with names like “A Kripkean Reading of Wittgenstein’s Reading of Frege’s Reading of Kant.”

For one thing, people working in philosophy-the-field tend to know strikingly little about the philosophical progress made in other fields, e.g. computer science or cognitive neuroscience. For another, books on the history of philosophy seem to be about the musings of old dead guys who were wrong about almost everything because they didn’t have 20th century science or math, rather than about actual philosophical progress"

By far the most important disease, I’d say, is the obsession with interpreting and reinterpreting the old masters, rather than moving beyond them. Back in college, after we’d spent an hour debating why this passage of Frege seemed to contradict that one, I’d sometimes want to blurt out: “so maybe he was having a bad day! I mean, he was also a raving misogynist and antisemite; he believed all kinds of things. Look, we’ve read Frege, we’ve learned from Frege, now can’t we just give the old dude a rest and debate the ground truth about the problems he was trying to solve?”

when I read books about the philosophy of physics or computing, it sometimes feels like I’m stuck in a time warp, as the contributors rehash certain specific debates from the 1930s over and over (say, about the Church-Turing Thesis or the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox). I want to shout, “enough already! why not help clarify some modern scientific debates—-say, about quantum computing, or string theory, or the black-hole firewall problem, ones where we don’t already know how everything turns out?” To be fair, today there are philosophers of science who are doing exactly that, and who have interesting and insightful things to say. That’s a kind of philosophy that I’d love to see more of, at the expense of the hermeneutic kind.

Now, the questions: judging by your experience, how accurate is his impression of the modern state of philosophy-the-field? More specifically:

Are professional philosophers immersed in what Scott calls "hermeneutics", or is that just a feature of undergraduate courses in philosophy?

Why does philosophy of science concentrate on relatively outdated scientific discoveries? Is this a side effect of "hermeneutics"?

What, if anything, has been contributed to other fields by "philosophy-the-field"?

  • 1
    Let's try to keep extended discussion out of comments. If you've got an answer to the question, it goes in an answer...
    – Joseph Weissman
    Feb 7, 2014 at 10:56
  • one great case study: verging-on-philosophical analysis of quantum mechanics, eg precise notion of realism vs (non)locality, copenhagen interpretation, etc... might attempt to work this into an answer later ... also very strong shades of cp snows "two cultures" going on here
    – vzn
    Feb 24, 2014 at 4:51

6 Answers 6


Yes, philosophers have made some recent contributions to other fields. And just countering gross generalization with gross generalization, I believe it is generally far from true, as Aaronson suggests above, that philosophers working right now on applications to other fields are ignorant of those other fields.

A few preliminaries:

  • I'll answer about the subfield philosophy of science. Others can answer better about Mind, Language, Law and other areas of philosophy.
  • Philosophy can, and should, and does make progress by answering its own questions (like What is knowledge, and what specifically is scientific knowledge?) without contributing to other fields.
  • Philosophy of science sometimes contributes significantly to science without having any effect on scientific practice, or on the activity of scientists. It can do that by helping people understand how to evaluate scientific claims, how to situate scientific claims in relation to other beliefs, how to evaluate and apply science when formulating public policy, and how to think about science's implications for other human problems.
  • There are lamentable examples of philosophers hubristically weighing in on science they are not familiar enough with (e.g. Fodor recently on evolution). Those don't undercut philosophy any more than Hawking weighing in ignorantly on philosophy undercuts astrophysics.

That said, much of the best work in current philosophy of biology—which is currently the largest part of philosophy of science—arises from intimate familiarity with current biology.

Note that this is a hard thing to achieve! We might even expect the results to be uneven. It is daunting, as a graduate student, to try to develop expertise at current philosophy, the history of philosophy, general philosophy of science and its history, philosophy of some particular scientific field, some of the history of that field, some of the History of Science literature on that field, and the current state of knowledge in that scientific field. Not easy.

Here are some examples from the last twenty years of philosophers of biology contributing to biological knowledge:

  • Paul Griffiths's work on what emotions are;
  • Roberta Millstein's and Peter Godfrey-Smith's work on what biological populations are;
  • Elisabeth Lloyd's work on adaptationism in evolutionary explanations;
  • Kim Sterelny's and James Maclaurin's and Sahotra Sarkar's work on the “biodiversity” concept in conservation biology;
  • Elliott Sober's work, and that of many of his former students, on probability and game theory in evolution;
  • James Justus's work on ecological stability and mathematical definitions of stability.

These are far from the only examples, and probably not the best possible set of examples. Even if you find things you disagree with in these bodies of work—after all, philosophy of science thrives on philosophical and scientific disagreement!—I think it would be really tough going to argue that these authors are ignorant of the science they're discussing. I moreover believe in each case they've made contributions to our understanding.

  • Thanks! Could you point me to the best source accessible for a non-biologist about the last 2 items, "Elliot Sober's work, and that of many of his former students, on probability and game theory in evolution" and "James Justus's work on ecological stability and mathematical definitions of stability"? As a mathematician I probably have the best chance of understanding the contributions related to Mathematics.
    – Michael
    Feb 7, 2014 at 18:23
  • 1
    An in-press version of Justus's paper is here. You might look at some of Sober's papers here. Feb 7, 2014 at 18:47
  • I really want to thank you for the Griffiths remark. His book is quite engaging and as it turns out, was cited in a paper written by a former "Philosophy of Neuroscience" professor of mine. I actually just emailed him to thank him again for the impact his class had on me.
    – labreuer
    Oct 22, 2014 at 1:05
  • Wow, great @labreuer—It's a good book. Oct 22, 2014 at 4:01

Here is an example of philosophy helping a breakthrough in mathematics (in differential topology). The breakthrough happened last year, the philosophy that helped it come into existence happened 200 years ago, via a formalization suggested in the last two decades.

A long-standing open problem in differential topology and in mathematical physics was the definition of differential cohomology theories that are "twisted". This plays a role notably in quantum anomaly cancellation in quantum field theories, such as in the Freed-Witten-Kapustin anomaly in the worldvolume theory of the type II superstring, where it is twisted differential K-theory that is relevant. As this example shows, the question is of profound relevance for the foundations of our most advanced theories of fundamental physics. It was long known how to do the twist and the differential refinement separately, but their combination used to be elusive. The right framework was as much missing as it was known to be necessary.

It should be clear at least from the sound of the technical terms here that this is a question that involves messing with the very foundations of modern geometry. Topology, differential structure, homotopy theory, generalized cohomology, fundamental physics (string physics, hence perturbative quantum gravity if you wish) all intimately interact in differential cohomology theory. That should make it plausible that if you get stuck here with your formal mathematics, it might help after a while to step back, put on a philosopher's hat, and try to see if for a moment you might be helped by adopting more of a "natural philosophy" perspective to regauge your formal tools.

Now it turns out that just this is what William Lawvere had been doing throughout his life. Lawvere is famous in pure mathematics as being the founder of categorical logic, of structural foundations of mathematics, and of intuitionistic logic embodied in topos theory. But what fewer people know is that in all these developments he was to a large extent motivated by finding foundations for a geometry of physics (see here, for him it was specifically classical continuum physics, but we'll see how the insights he gained there inform also modern quantum field theory).

Lawvere discovered that in order to lay foundations for geometry of physics in the foundations of mathematics, it was surprisingly useful to read Hegel's metaphysics, the "Science of Logic" from 1813, if only one translated the notorious "unities of opposites" that structure this text into the formal concept of pairs of adjoint modalities (Lawvere called them: "adjoint cyclinders"). Indeed, in his famous and at the same time (I think it is fair to say) widely underappreciated "Some thoughts on the future of category theory" he follows Hegel, formally defines "categories of being" (mathematically, in category theory!) in which "nothing" and "being" combine to "becoming" in a genuine formalized precise mathematical sense, and suggests that these categories of being are where the foundations of the geometry of physics is to be looked for. Later he speaks instead of categories of "cohesion" to amplify the differential geometrical aspect more. Lawvere uses Hegelian terminology in much of his mathematics, and it seems clear -- preposterous as that may seem in the eyes of the anayltic philosopher -- that reading Hegel helped Lawvere develop the intuitionistic mathematics and the application of cohesive toposes. Indeed, once you follow Lawvere and accept that whenever Hegel speaks of his infamous dualities he is secretly (intuitively) describing an adjoint modality in intuitionistic type theory, then it feels a bit as if one can suddenly see the Matrix behind the mysterious string of greenish symbols, and Hegel's seemingly gnostic metaphysics suddenly reads much more like axioms for a practical axiomatic metaphics.

Nobody picked this up for years, because I think nobody recognized it. Then homotopy toposes (infinity-toposes) appeared on the scene (there is another story to be told here about the philosophy of constructivism causing a fantastic breakthrough in the foundations of mathematics via homotopy type theory, but this should wait for another post) and founding fundamental physics (in particular gauge theory) in (higher) topos theory became ever more compelling.

In any case, at some point it became clear that equipping an infinity-topos with the structure of a Hegelian "category of being" in the formal translation via Lawvere, hence making it a "cohesive infinity-topos", is the step necessary to obtain a working formal foundation for differential cohomology.

Indeed, last year Ulrich Bunke, Thomas Nikolaus and Michael Völkl realized (see here ) that the famous "differential cohomology diagram", which is a diagonally interlocking pair of two excact sequences of cohomology groups that has been postulated to be the very characteristic of differential cohomology, universally follows for every stable object in any "homotopy topos of Hegelian being and becoming", hence in every cohesive infinity-topos. And based on that more profound understanding of the foundations of differential cohomology, Uli Bunke and Thomas Nikolaus could now solve the problem of twisted differential cohomology. (This followup article should be out soon.)

To sum this up, I think one lesson is the following. Sure, once you have a formal system that formalizes what previously was "just" natural philosophy -- such as when Newton finally had his laws of motion nailed down -- then reasoning with that formal system will be far superior to what any philosphical mind un-armed with such tools may possibly achieve. But these formal systems -- our modern theories of mathematics and physics -- don't just come to us, they need to be found, and finding them is in general a hard and nontrivial step. Often once we have them they appear beautifully elegant and of an eternal character that makes us feel as if they had always been around in our minds. But they have not. And this is the point where philosophical thinking may have deep impact on the development of science, at that edge of science where the very formal mathematical methods that feel so superior to bare philosophical reasoning -- end.

In fundamental physics it is (or at least was in the 1990s) common to declare with a certain awe and also pride that quantum gravity, non-perturbative string theory and such like will force us to do things like "radically rethink the foundations of reality" or similar. Unfortunately, that rethinking has mostly been what I think is fair to call a bit naive. One cannot just talk about it. It needs both, a technical understanding of the core formal mathematics up to that very edge up to which we do understand the formal laws of nature, and a trained profound philosophical mind who can stand at that cliff, stare into the misty clouds beyond and suggest directions along which further solid ground of formalism might be found. Once it is found, true, then the philosopher should probably better step back and watch those mathematicians and physicist built a tar road over it and then run heavy truck load back and forth through what had been uncharted territory. But before that is possible, the new stable ground has to be found first.

I conclude with a personal note. Back as a kid I was thrilled by philosophy, but then got appalled by the philosophy that I was fed in school, turned to science instead and held views much like those exppressed by Aaronson above. Then the philosopher who profoundly changed my view of philosophy was David Corfield, philosopher of science and mathematics from University of Kent. His philosophical commentary and prodding as he watched me develop maths as in my recent "Homotopy-type semantics for quantization" have considerably helped and propelled some of these developments. I am thankful for that.

  • I'm have long term project of putting math for all kinds of physics together in my head, most of which gets written down on a pretty formal level. I found you work a year ago or so, also have been reading into Lawyers stuff, and certianly - in the choice of the foundations I think I should adopt "the modern stuff". However, while I've learned much logic, category theory, some type theory etc. in the last two years, I can't quite effort to ground my reasoning on basics which are being worked out just now (this all has nothing to do with my job, it's free time work). (cont.)
    – Nikolaj-K
    Mar 25, 2014 at 15:57
  • (cont.) so given that I write down things formally, if I want to start from mathematical foundations which in the end let me Incorporated the higher gauge theory stuff, what is a possible proper subsystem so that I can at some point simply extend it for those needs? I.e. I can't spend forever trying to understand identity types and so on, when all the books in the library have a different point of view. But I can, of course, learn things like Paul Taylors Practical foundations (as see@ nLab, which looks like I can develope/work out the constructive part and then mabe switch to HoTT with easy)
    – Nikolaj-K
    Mar 25, 2014 at 16:01
  • PS: I f I read along in your notes, should I put typos somewhere? E.g. "Wess-Zumino-Wittem", here. Then "it should be possible learn about the former" right below. Things like that. I think the nLab is also not quite sure on how strong they want their statements. Sometimes things are defined for small categories, but then theorems involving those constructions like to treat their components just as locally small.
    – Nikolaj-K
    Apr 7, 2014 at 8:30
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    +1: for an informative answer. Is there any indication to what extent philosophy influenced MaClane & Eilenberg in thinking up Category theory - or is it simply that they 'purloined' the word Category from Kant? Personally, I got interested in Category theory when I realised that it had rethought the idea of what was meant by a product - that sounds basic - but it was because it was rethinking a basic concept that made it interesting to me. May 1, 2014 at 2:31
  • 1
    @Mozibur Ullah, try this here: Colin McLarty, "The Last Mathematician from Hilbert’s Göttingen: Saunders Mac Lane as Philosopher of Mathematics", Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 2007 cwru.edu/artsci/phil/BJPSMacLane.pdf May 1, 2014 at 7:23

I don't have access to the book anymore, but in Aaronson's Quantum Computing Since Democritus he discusses a number of contemporary philosopher Nick Bostrom's puzzles: God's Coin Toss, the Presumptuous Philosophers and his formalisation of the Doomsday Argument. There's even a whole chapter about the Anthropic Principle.

So, it appears that at least one philosopher has helped Aaronson himself forward.


Just to throw my $0.02 in here. I think Aaronson is really poorly informed about the majority of with the field of professional philosophy as it is practiced today.

Here's some examples:

  • Aaronson claims philosophy today is just close textual analysis, rather than asking big questions.

To see that this is wrong, look in the pages of the best journals in philosophy today, like The Philosophical Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Noûs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Review, etc. Those are the places the hot new stuff is appearing. Getting an article published in one of these journals means that you've convinced several very, very good philosophers who are involved in the editorial process that your stuff is the absolute cutting edge of the discipline today. Those journals don't tend to publish much in the way of historical or exegetical material. (I counted only one such historical paper in Phil. Review in the last year or so out of ~ten) There are specialist journals in the history of philosophy that do publish such material, of course, but that's no evidence that the main direction the field is going is towards close textual analysis.

  • Aaronson thinks philosophers don't know about what's going on in other disciplines. ``people working in philosophy-the-field tend to know strikingly little about the philosophical progress made in other fields, e.g. computer science or cognitive neuroscience.'' Well, one is tempted to make a tu quoque response here and note that computer scientists tend to have no idea what's actually going on in philosophy either. But further, the claim is simply not generally true. Nobody can be a specialist about everything, but it isn't really that common for a philosopher of mind to be utterly ignorant of cog sci, or for philosopher of language to be ignorant of work in linguistics. I work in metaphysics, which is the specialty you'd suspect would be least empirically informed, but I am still citing literature from theoretical biology about complex systems and information from empirical psychology about how modal cognition works (why do babies think tigers are more like housecats than orange and black balloons?)

    I'd guess that the OP's suggestion is correct: Aaronson seems to have a (good) undergraduate understanding of philosophy. We often do teach classic texts in the undergraduate curriculum because philosophy is cumulative in an important way. You're not going to get far in contemporary metaphysics without Frege and Kripke, so you have to be put through learning that material before you're ready to talk about Kit Fine and Ted Sider and the cutting edge stuff that's going on today. That's same pedagogical strategy is also true in the natural sciences as well. You spend a lot of time learning Newtonian mechanics before you get to the modern physics for instance. But there's empirical results that show Newton's mechanics are (approximately) right: You don't have to start with Aristotle and work your way up through Galileo, etc to understand Newton. You can just start from a point that is known to be good. We don't (usually) have that luxury in philosophy. Most philosophers today (in the English-speaking world, at least) would start their training from Frege and the advent of the modern logic that is so absolutely central to contemporary philosophy. So there's a difference here in the way you have to teach philosophy versus how you have to teach the natural science, even if it's just a difference in degree rather than kind. I think that fact sometimes frustrates bright young undergraduates, but if you've got to learn to walk before you can run. Still, this doesn't mean that contemporary professional philosophers spend time researching issues that were settled in the 30s or 40s. It just means that to appreciate some of the really hot stuff people are working on now, you have to know about what happened back in the day.

  • You mean "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research" Feb 10, 2014 at 16:43
  • yep. sorry for the typo.
    – user5172
    Feb 11, 2014 at 10:15
  • 1
    Well, I started my shy attempts at interacting with philosophy at this site rather than at those journals that you mention, and here, I believe, it is strictly forbidden to do anything beyond textual analysis. Oct 9, 2017 at 4:24

Why should they?

Do we expect musicians to have contributed to the state of the art of quantity surveying in the last 20 years? Or lawyers to have advanced medicine?

Why should we judge philosophical progress in terms of its contributions to science and engineering?

  • 2
    I think there's a fair point here even if it's being offered glibly. We rarely critique scientists by asking how their work has contributed to the fine arts or playwrights based on whether or not their work has advanced our knowledge in physics in chemistry.
    – virmaior
    Feb 13, 2014 at 23:29

Its untrue that philosophical debates about abstruse matters do not affect other fields.

To take one example, the debate about the reality of universals, which dates from antiquity, informed Bouwers intuitionism/constructivism which is one species of nominalism. This led something of an undercover existence apart from the mainstream as Cantorian Set Theory was adopted by the mainstream mathematical community under the aegis of Hilbert. Its only recently that its made its presence more visible with Topos Theory.

Nagarjuna & Hegel were taking quite seriously the idea that there can be true contradictions. Again very recently one has idea that paraconsistent logics can be taken seriosly by removing 'explosion' from classical logic.

As for quanta, the originary story in the history of science, was the discovery of the solution by Plank of black-body radiation by allowing energy to be quantised, that is to come in discrete sizes. The change of language in particular hides what actually has been done, which is to think of energy atomically, in the sense of Democritus.

Of course the work of Democritus was also significant in Newton theory of light, where he introduced the idea of corpuscular light which fixed an inconsistenct in Democritus theory of light - as he didn't consider them atomically.

The Universal Theory of Gravitation that Newton discovered had a huge philosophic hole which is how was force transmitted. It was this reason, amongst others that one can see that the idea of aether that was postulated by Aristotle was pressed into service as the medium that carried this force. As mechanics was the supreme science then, it was given certain mechanical properties. It was only when Einstein discovered that it was the very fabric of space-time that transmitted the force of gravity that one can see that this idea of the aether was seen to be wrong. Except of course that this is not quite right - Aristotle was quite right in postulating the existence of the aether as an element distinct in nature from the other four classsical elements, but he hadn't understood its true nature, and the later physicists post-Newton following Aristotle were also correct in doing so. It was Einstein that identified space-time itself as the aether that physicists had postulated all along. Space-time itself was a substance, a kind of element.

why not help clarify some modern scientific debates—-say, about quantum computing, or string theory, or the black-hole firewall problem, ones where we don’t already know how everything turns out?

Isn't that what quantum computing practitioners or string theorists doing already? Or should be doing - or do they need more help? Aronson himself makes the point that funding in philosophy is in a parlous state on both sides of the Atlantic, and one could assume this was due simply to its obscure subject-matter, a possible penchant for political subversiveness, and a decidedly hermeneutic tradition - or one could point out that one lives in a technological age where funding is slanted quite heavily towards science because of its perceived technological benefits.

Every discipline has its own character, its own subject-matter, and its own tradition. It seems to me that one general distiction between philosophy and the sciences, and this probably goes for most of the humanities, is that the original text matters much more in the humanties. One does not go back and read the Principia Mathematica, whereas one is expected to read King Lear in the rginal Shakespearian Language, or Beowulf in Old English, or Platos dialogues. One might say Science progresses by papers. And humanities by books.

Interestingly enough, Aaronson, himself, in the interview (not in the extract) shows that he has missed the full import of Humes attack on induction, which was one of the problems that Kant set out to solve. One might say that its only by reading Kant that one understands Humes question. Or one could just dismiss this as hermeneutics.

He also mentions one of his most popular paper, Who can name the largest number, which, pace Cantorian Set Theory, remains only in the world of finite (but very large) numbers. When one understands Cantor work on the Transinfinite one can progress into a world of much much larger numbers. And in fact this has become something of a cottage industry in Modern Set Theory where new axioms are appended which allows one to ascend even higher up the the transfinite heirarchy. Certain enthusiasts say that Set Theorists have tamed the ininite and made it comprehensible; but this is again to miss the full import of the infinite, even only in its mathematical guise - Aristotle judged correctly when he said Man could only ever conceptualise infinity, the apeiron, the potential infinity and never grasp it.

  • Sorry to downvote you, but OP explicitly asked about "the last 20 years".
    – DBK
    Feb 9, 2014 at 19:08
  • @DBK: well the '20 years' is in the headline question, but he does also ask in the main body of the question more general questions: "why does philosophy concentrate on relatively out-dated discoveries" & "Is this a side effect of hermeneutics" and "has anything been contributed to other fields by philosophy". Feb 9, 2014 at 20:42
  • I see your point. These general kind of questions have been asked before, e.g. "Are there any examples of philosophical discussions that have significantly influenced or changed scientific theory?" (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/1506/…). In order not to have duplicate questions, I think we should tailor this one to the 'last 20 years'. AFAIK, no general question have addressed this timeframe yet.
    – DBK
    Feb 9, 2014 at 21:05

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