Optimism about philosophical progress, a historical case study

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


In this thesis I defend optimism about philosophical progress, which is a form of anti-exceptionalism about philosophy. Pessimists maintain that philosophy lacks the distinctive features that make science progressive. Optimism maintains that philosophy is like science, in this respect. My argumentative strategy is the following. I review the literature on philosophical progress to identify the feature that, according to pessimists, philosophy lacks. Then, I develop a historical case study to show that philosophy has these features. The goal is showing that philosophy makes progress by pessimistic standards.

My strategy is novel because other optimists, including Stoljar and Dellsén, Firing, and Norton, focus on arguing that a certain set of conditions are sufficient for progress, contrary to what pessimists hold. I focus instead on arguing that, contrary to what pessimists hold, philosophy makes progress by their standards. The most common pessimistic argument is the following: first, pessimists argue that consensus is a necessary condition for progress, second, they argue that philosophy is pervaded by disagreement. It follows that philosophy is exceptional. Beebee, Chalmers, Dietrich, Goldberg, and Kornblith employ various versions of this reasoning. Optimistic responses to this argument typically grant the second premise and challenge the first. Instead, I follow Williamson in granting the first premise and challenging the second.

My case study focuses on the work of Gottlob Frege, who is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of analytic philosophy. I argue that there is consensus in contemporary philosophy about some of the views that Frege set forth. In fact, Frege’s case meets not only the pessimistic requirements for progress, Frege also produced all the epistemic goods that are associated to progress by participants in the more general debate about scientific progress. To show this, I review the literature about scientific progress, following Rowbottom’s analysis. Then I analyse various aspects of Frege’s work to show that it meets all the known conditions of progress. Thus, no matter what view about progress is correct, Frege made progress.

Having argued that Frege made progress, I generalize my argument by considering three other authors that arguably made progress in the past. Moreover, I consider contemporary debates in contemporary philosophy to argue that philosophy continues to make progress to this day. Finally, I review some of the barriers to progress that seem indeed to be holding back philosophy, and other disciplines. Philosophy made progress in the past and continues to make progress to this day. But not all is good. Having ruled out pessimism about philosophical progress, we are in a better position to see how philosophy, and other disciplines, could be improved.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorDaniel Graham MARSHALL (Supervisor) & Darrell Patrick ROWBOTTOM (Co-supervisor)

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