Does philosophy progress?
Ever since its origin in antiquity, “philosophy” has meant “enquiry.” Its central concern is enquiry into the two most fundamental questions facing humankind: what is the nature of the world, and which of the things that exist and happen in it really matter?
Each question comprises sub-questions. The first asks what exists, what it consists of, and how we can know either accurately. The second asks what is valuable, ethically and aesthetically, and how we decide. All the law and prophets—to coin a phrase—is summed up here.
From this, one can see that philosophy does indeed progress. In classical antiquity itself, it was a giant step forward to begin thinking systematically about the organisation of society and forms of political authority, and to examine the assumptions of ideas about moral conduct. In the process, the ancient philosophers articulated the first canons of logic and theories of knowledge, and advanced the first tentative scientific theories about the structure and properties of matter, the nature of the universe and human psychology, as well as the first rational critiques of superstition.
The philosophical quest was all but suspended in Europe for more than a thousand years of religious hegemony over thought. It revived in the Renaissance, one of whose corollaries, the Reformation, broke the hold of ecclesiastical authority over what could count as permissible enquiry.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, philosophy gave birth to the natural sciences by finding fruitful ways of asking questions about the nature of the world. In the 18th century it gave birth to psychology, in the 19th to sociology and empirical linguistics, and in the 20th to artificial intelligence and cognitive science.
At the same time, every generation has to re-examine the questions of how to organise itself politically and comport itself morally. The duty to reflect—to challenge assumptions, to remain vigilant against the forces that seek to erode the gains humankind makes in the direction of liberty and rights—is perennial. The questions remain insistent for the obvious reasons that new conditions arise, new forms of old difficulties appear, and the analogue of the entropic force that ceaselessly works to make things fall apart in nature infects human arrangements even more deeply.
One of the most progressive things about philosophy, therefore, in addition to the progress it has generated in these ways, is its effort to defend its progress in the face of the tireless endeavour of power and superstition to drag mankind back to a pre-philosophical infantilism, in which people are commanded to believe and behave as instructed.
Sent in by Harriet Roberts, Chiswick.
Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at firstname.lastname@example.org